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Don't Create New Avenues to Punish Provocative Professors

The Eternally Radical Idea

This article appeared in U.S. News and World Report.

RECENTLY, The New York Times reported on efforts at several campuses to encourage professors to use “trigger warnings” to preface class material that might be emotionally difficult for some students. Opponents of trigger warnings argue that they are one step away from censorship, infantilize students, spoil and diminish great literaturefail vulnerable students, and undermine one of the very purposes of higher education: preparing students for the challenges of the broader world. Advocates of trigger warnings argue in reply that they are empatheticcompassionate and useful and that it’s not a big deal just to add two little words before covering emotionally challenging material.

The critics are right, and the advocates for trigger warnings in academia don’t seem to understand how such policies would really work in modern higher education.

Trigger warning policies like the one initially passed at Oberlin College put professors in an impossible situation. As even advocates of trigger warnings admit, potentially any material can be triggering. Lists of triggering topics may cover everything from sexual assault and violence to such amorphous concepts as “issues of privilege,” “colonialism” and “ableism,” as Oberlin’s policy did. Trigger warnings cast classrooms as minefields even when dealing with relatively tame topics, to say nothing of classes on international human rights, criminal law and moral philosophy, which necessarily cover grisly and hideous facts.

Professors at Oberlin and elsewhere are worried about such policies in part because they know that the proposed restrictions will not remain merely “aspirational” language. Writing for Inside Higher Ed, professors already report receiving “phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included ‘triggering’ material in their courses, with or without warnings.” If it has not happened already, sometime in the not-so-distant future professors will be punished for not providing a trigger warning before discussing material that a student finds objectionable. Once colleges create the expectation that the professor, not the student, is responsible for each and every student’s emotional well-being, this result is almost inevitable.

Furthermore, advocates of trigger warnings seem to assume that such policies would not be abused. But that assumption ignores an unfortunate truth of human nature: Provide us with a cudgel we may wield against people we dislike and at least some portion of us will use it. It’s all but inevitable that students and even other faculty members will use trigger rationales to silence unpopular voices on campus.

And professors know it is already shockingly easy to get in trouble for what you say on today’s college campus. A classic example from 2007 involved a professor at Brandeis University being found guilty of racial harassment for explaining the historical origins of a racial epithet, despite the fact it was directly germane to the class topic and that he criticized its use.

Or take the recent example of art instructor Francis Schmidt of Bergen Community College in New Jersey, who was suspended without pay and ordered to undergo psychological counseling for sharing a picture on Google+ of his daughter wearing a"Game of Thrones" T-shirt featuring the quote, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood.” Depressingly, the quote was interpreted by administrators as a serious threat. A security official even claimed that the “fire” reference on the T-shirt could be a proxy for the gunfire of an AK-47. A strikingly similar case, this time involving a quote from the sci-fi cult television classic "Firefly", took place at the University of Wisconsin-Stout’s campus a few years back.

Broaching sex-related topics in the classroom can be especially risky these days, with professors at Appalachian State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Denver all facing harassment charges and removal from teaching for the sexual content of their class materials and discussions, despite the fact that the content was demonstrably relevant to each course.

In such an environment, the expectation that professors must provide trigger warnings will simply create new avenues for students or administrators seeking to punish provocative professors.

It’s a very bad idea to teach students that they can expect professors to anticipate their feelings about a topic in advance, especially as campuses already overreact to speech that many in the outside world would consider tame. Simply put: You can’t challenge young minds while walking on eggshells.

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