Last month, The New Republic published an article by Jenny Jarvie on the growing trend of “trigger warnings,” disclaimers to audiences that the material they are about to view or read might “trigger” the remembrance of past traumas like sexual assault or other violence. The warnings have proliferated on websites—particularly Tumblr posts, blogs, and message boards—in recent years, but now they’re being adopted in other contexts, like syllabi for college courses.
In her article, Jarvie noted that Oberlin College “published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to ‘be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,’ to remove triggering material when it doesn’t ‘directly’ contribute to learning goals and ‘strongly consider’ developing a policy to make ‘triggering material’ optional.” Jarvie also noted that per Oberlin’s policy, Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart should be labeled because it may “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”
As the Los Angeles Times editorial board observed, Oberlin’s policy reads “almost like a parody of political correctness”—and alarmingly, the existence of this policy was news to many Oberlin faculty members.
The New Republic’s Carlo Davis recently spoke with Professor Marc Blecher about how the policy might frustrate the purpose of classroom discussions at Oberlin. Blecher explained why Oberlin’s policy, apparently intended to “ensure a welcoming and supportive environment,” is less innocuous than it looks:
Though technically part of an accompanying resource guide, Blecher said the trigger warning language was presented as “subsidiary to a sexual offense policy, so if a student or a faculty member brought a sexual offense claim against another member of the Oberlin college community, this stuff could easily start to get dragged in.”
This is a very real concern, particularly in light of the vast and increasing range of cases that are now considered—at least by some—to fall within the scope of Title IX. (For a recent example, review FIRE’s case at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where a student newspaper was investigated for months following a Title IX complaint about a satirical piece in an April Fool’s Day issue and an article investigating a gossipy student Facebook page.) And while Oberlin’s policy purports that it is “in no way meant to limit academic freedom or free speech,” it may contribute to students feeling entitled not to be offended or seriously challenged in their viewpoints:
In the faculty’s eyes, trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom but the intrinsic nature of the liberal arts educational model. “We need to … challenge students, to conduct open inquiry in classrooms, to make students feel uncomfortable,” explained Blecher. “Making students feel uncomfortable is at the core of liberal arts education.”
And that’s exactly why Oberlin’s suggestion that professors “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals” is troubling.
Davis reports that Oberlin faculty quickly began to voice their concerns about the trigger warning policy as soon as they became aware of it:
When he did realize, Blecher began talking to other colleagues, who also hadn’t heard of the trigger warning policy, and they quickly set up informal meetings with various deans and administration officials. These discussions culminated at a previously planned listening session where Blecher says around 30 to 35 faculty members showed up to voice their displeasure at the new rules.
Where the policy was once posted on Oberlin’s website, there is now a note that this section of the resource guide is “under revision,” thanking those who gave feedback and stating that “academic freedom and support for survivors are not oppositional values.” Indeed they are not, and FIRE encourages Oberlin and other colleges considering “trigger warning” policies to be careful not to confuse safety with freedom from offense.