Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called "trigger warnings," we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual "safe spaces" where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.One point of contention has been whether this statement, fairly read, means that the U of C now bans its professors from issuing trigger warnings. I'm inclined to doubt this is the case, but if it is so it most certainly is an intrusion on the academic freedom of Chicago professors to manage their own classrooms. Hopefully, we can all agree that the issue of trigger warnings is one best left to the sound academic discretion of individual professors -- it should not be mandated or forbidden by academic administrators.
But leave that aside, and turn to the advisability of "trigger warnings" as a pedagogical tool. Ilya Somin offers his "Warning against Trigger Warnings" that he delivers at the start of his Constitutional Law course.
I don’t believe in trigger warnings. But if I did, I would have to include one for virtually every day of this course. We are going to cover subjects like slavery, segregation, sexism, suicide, the death penalty, and abortion. There is no way to teach this course without discussing these issues. And there is no good way to cover them without also considering a wide range of views about these subjects and their relationship to the Constitution.This is, to reiterate, framed as a statement against trigger warnings. But it seems to me that it functions ... basically as a trigger warning. It tells students, accurately, about some of the content they'll be reading, and notes that much of it deals with issues of deep injustice and controversy. It explains why that material is there, and why it needs to be addressed forthrightly. We see things like this a lot. Jerry Coyne argued in The New Republic that while perhaps it is appropriate of professors to prospectively inform students of triggering content, there most certainly should not be a trigger warning -- heaven forbid! What they do in disclaiming trigger warnings is for the most part not far different from what many, though not all, trigger warning advocates are asking for.
What, exactly, is going on here? In part, many people seem to ascribe to "trigger warnings" a function they are manifestly not designed for -- to avoid teaching sensitive topics. But that's silly -- if you don't want to teach a sensitive topic, you don't put it on your syllabus. The very fact of including a trigger warning indicates that this material is present on the syllabus and being taught.
What else? Well, clearly what many people have in mind when they think of "trigger warnings" are not the mild cases outlined above, but more extreme versions where every ticky-tack element of the syllabus is meticulously sorted through and warned over to appease the most sensitive theoretical student. Perhaps cases like that do exist -- I'm sure one can find some obscure sociology professor at Southwest Oregon State Technical College who's hard at work making a 12 page list of potential triggers on his syllabus -- but certainly they don't represent the main. And in any event, that's a difference of degree, not kind.
So we can certainly say that certain extreme manifestations of trigger warnings are ridiculous, pedagogically and otherwise. But this argument cuts both ways -- it seems to me that there are cases where something like a "trigger warning" would be universally agreed to be not just prudent but the only pedagogically responsible course of action.
I was talking with a colleague at another law school who teaches First Amendment law. As part of the course they discuss various anti-pornography ordinances, and as part of that unit she shows a clip in class of graphic rape pornography of the sort targeted by the ordinance. And the class before that class, she tells her students that this clip will be shown and asks them to prepare to discuss and react to it. In short -- though she doesn't use the term -- she provides a trigger warning.
We can of course debate whether it is wise to show such a clip in class at all. But given that she does so, I imagine all of us think it is wise that her pedagogical tact is not "surprise! Rape porn!" Of course you give students advance notice that it's coming. Anything else would be recklessly irresponsible. Does anyone disagree on that score?
The other argument against "trigger warnings" that might apply even in a case like this is the appeal to the "real world". In the real world, this argument goes, people are exposed to disturbing or hostile events without warning. It will happen, and it is important that young adults learn to cope with it. The proponents of this view sometimes recognize that people really do have deep-seated aversion and anxiety to certain topics, but, they suggest, the way to resolve it is through some version of "exposure therapy." We expose people to their fears under safe and controlled conditions so they learn to cope.
This argument really just does not grasp the professional and pedagogical role of a university professor. To begin, I am not my students' therapist. I am not professionally trained in getting students to overcome their anxieties. If I were forced into that role, however, my instinct would be that exposure therapy would exist alongside "trigger warnings" and even some of the more controversial forms of university "mollycoddling" that conservatives like to condemn. As my friend Kate Manne observed, we do not cure arachnophobes by randomly tossing spiders at them. If we do exposure therapy, it is in controlled environments, with advance warning and significant support to help the subject recover when they're (understandably) rattled.
But there's a deeper misunderstanding here. Just as my job as an academic is not to be a therapist, likewise it is not to be a generic life coach offering exposure to the various hard knocks my students will inevitably encounter as they walk through life. Yes, it's true that my students will "in the real world" encounter disturbing or distressing material without warning. It's also true that my students will "in the real world" most likely have a supervisor who is a jerk. Does that mean I should be a jerk to my students? They'll have to get used to it to survive in the real world! No, of course not. My job is not to offer a buffet table of life's prospective misfortunes for my students. My job is to teach the material I offer in the most effective manner possible. The advisability of a trigger warning, as far as I'm concerned, depends wholly on how it meets that criteria: will it aid or impede my students in the learning process? That will be a matter of individual judgment on individual cases, and it strikes me as fairly ridiculous to try to sweep more broadly than that.