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Harvard, Brandeis Lecturer: Trigger Warnings Were My ‘Last Straw’

In a new post on her website, Rani Neutill, a former lecturer at Harvard University and Brandeis University who simultaneously worked as a sexual assault prevention educator, says the push to offer trigger warnings to students has spiraled out of control, leading her to leave teaching altogether.

In “How Trigger Warnings Broke My Back” (NOTE: The original blog post was removed from Neutill’s blog, so FIRE created a PDF copy), Neutill details the way she delicately attempted to navigate her dual roles as both an educator coaxing students out of their comfort zones in her class on sex in American cinema, and as someone who respected the experience of sexual assault survivors. (Neutill is a certified rape crisis counselor and was interim director of the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention Services at Brandeis.)

“I believed in trigger warnings and gave them,” Neutill writes. “I gave them for almost every film I showed.”

But the more trigger warnings Neutill gave, the fewer topics students were willing to discuss in class. Students came to her office hours crying, ran from the classroom in tears, and wrote negative course reviews saying they felt “unsafe” because the material was “traumatizing” them—even after another student requested (and Neutill agreed) to email the class detailed trigger warnings for the upcoming material the night before each and every session. As Neutill wrote, “Each night I sent a meticulous email with which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. Exhausting.”

Ultimately, Neutill found herself unable to teach the very kinds of challenging material her course was designed to confront.

While certainly a depressing story, it’s unfortunately a predictable outcome of the ever greater demand for trigger (really, content) warnings in academia. In his book, Freedom from Speech, FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff predicted “with near 100 percent confidence” that “students and even other faculty members [would] use trigger rationales to silence voices on campus that they merely dislike,” leading to the very kinds of academic roadblocks Neutill describes. Greg wrote:

The “offendedness sweepstakes” (to borrow a phrase from [Jonathan] Rauch) pushes the bar ever lower for what is deemed unacceptably offensive, while the realm of unacceptable speech grows ever larger. This is a global race to the bottom, and it is being run most fiercely in higher education. In the process, candor, discussion, humor, honest dialogue, and freedom of speech are imperiled.

With Neutill’s honest reflections on how giving students trigger warnings meant jeopardizing their opportunity to learn, it looks like Greg’s confidence level on this prediction can be moved all the way up to 100 percent. Sometimes it’s not so fun being right.

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