Blanket Bans on Trigger Warnings Curtail Freedom of Expression, Too

Maybe administrators should just let professors get on with their jobs?

The academic schism that won’t die  — painted by the media as prudish millennials vs. the real world — has been reignited this week by a letter sent to incoming freshmen at University of Chicago, from the administration, saying basically: Genug (that’s Yiddish for enough) with the Trigger Warnings:

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.

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority — building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.

All this sounds wise in theory. Freedom of thought is good! Open discourse is great. Academic freedom is more than just nice: it’s crucial. And one can understand that a university would want to reiterate its commitment to those principles if the principles were really under attack. One of the reasons reports of strident student demands for trigger warnings  — and especially, any appeals to the administration to step in and make faculty comply —  make many of us uncomfortable is that such demands would seem to curtail academic freedoms.

But the irony here is what a blanket statement against trigger warnings does that very thing: curtails freedom. What happens now to the professors and teachers  who do want to somehow prepare their students for traumatic or triggering material (and what of the residential advisors, counselors and other staff who want to help students feel safe?)

As we’ve seen in our reporting on the subject, sometimes teachers prefer not to use warnings at all in the classroom, but most professors have put considerable thought into how to approach this material, either calling their disclaimers a content note, including counseling resources in the syllabus, explicitly saying “trigger warning,” or just mentioning graphic content at the onset of class. What subject matter earns these warnings? It ranges from historical atrocities like the Holocaust and slavery, to sexual assault and military violence that could trigger veterans and survivors with PTSD. These professors say a brief warning helps them bring more challenging texts into the classroom. As one such instructor, Kate Manne said in her piece for the New York Times:

To me, there seems to be very little reason not to give these warnings. As a professor, it merely requires my including one extra line in a routine email to the class, such as: “A quick heads-up. The reading for this week contains a graphic depiction of sexual assault.” These warnings are not unlike the advisory notices given before films and TV shows; those who want to ignore them can do so without a second thought. The cost to students who don’t need trigger warnings is, I think, equally minimal. It may even help sensitize them to the fact that some of their classmates will find the material hard going.

Manne’s approach is one way of going about things; another professor might claim to hate trigger warnings but give a similar heads up or assign extra reading that helps contextualize the material.

Therefore at this point, trigger warnings are best considered a pedagogical issue that should be treated as part of a broader toolbox to promote the dual goals of comfort and engagement in the classroom — which is to say, just enough comfort that there can be meaningful engagement. This is no different from other tools: some professors use films to pique their students’ interest and some stick to written material; some use the Socratic method and others simply lecture, and still others, like one of my English professors, encourage us to have snowball fights at Walden Pond during a Thoreau unit.

On the first day of class, some professors have students introduce themselves and their colleagues breeze right into the material with barely a hello. And so on, and so forth. Students have the right to decide what makes them comfortable and skip the classes and professors they don’t like; administrators have the right to set certain academic standards. But neither students using the threat of administrative interference, nor administrators themselves, should force faculty to comply. Or, as Tressie McMillan Cottom tweeted: “I don’t want admins telling me to trigger warn or not to trigger warn.”