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Warning Sign: Trigger Warnings and Externalities

Labour market data tells me that at my age, 36, I should’ve had a portfolio of different employers by now. In my case, I’ve been with the same one since 2000.

While it still feels novel to be in staff meetings and be relatively confident that the “new” idea being mooted has actually been posed half a dozen times before, it also gives me a chance to dabble in some informal change-over-time data analysis.

For the purposes of this article, I’m drawing on thirteen-ish years of teaching at the University of Melbourne.

I did an interview with The Age this week about trigger warnings. Feel free to substitute “content warning” if it feels less confrontational or, God forbid, less politically correct. In brief, these are statements provided to students to advise that the material taught or the audiovisual materials shown might be upsetting or distressing.

These warnings are getting extensive attention of late whereby academics, in practice and in commentary, are trying to balance a messy tangle of student activism, genuine compassion and maybe a little institutional risk-aversion. All the while, accusations are hurled about teaching staff infantilising students and contributing to a lack of millennial resilience.

In my case, I’ve been issuing these warnings since I started teaching. In all my courses the very first lecture includes a slide titled “Reasons you might want to unenrol”, including a summary of everything I’ll cover. Hardly surprisingly, the topics that I itemise – themes like sexual violence, sex work and sadomasochism – are the very reasons that students are drawn in. Tell someone that content may offend and, of course, it’s bums on seats. And yet, the issues that so seduce students are also the ones that I need to warn them about and which end up causing the most controversy.

There’s quite a bit of writing about trigger warnings being a misnomer. That the idea of a trigger is more applicable to PTSD, something that, for example, most rape victims, don’t actually experience. In my case, I’m not thinking about PTSD when I brief students on content: I do it because I want them to feel like they’re making an informed choice about whether to stay. I want to alert them that I try really hard to make my lecture theatre a safe space. I also use that first lecture to mention that my classes aren’t bloody therapy. Perhaps a controversial inclusion, but 13 years of teaching and it would be amiss to ignore that some students enrol so as to work through their own… stuff… while in the classroom. Talk to psychology lecturers and they’ll reveal similar observations of students trying to heal thyself. Hardly a wise enrolment motive, alas, my “not therapy” warning is rarely heeded.

Semester 1 has recently concluded. I mentioned change-over-time data and this year, more than any other, I’ve noticed a discernible difference in the way students approach my material. And my hunch is that the cultural chatter on trigger warnings plays a part in this. Me telling students that my material may upset or distress them not only plants the seed of possible wound but validates these sentiments. Gives meaning to them. What it doesn’t say however, is that upset or distress when you’ve voluntarily elected to enrol in a subject - in an adult learning environment - aren’t dealbreakers. My material isn’t going to change just because you find it confronting. You’re here to be confronted.

Equally, while I don’t think teaching staff who issue these warnings could successfully be accused of not caring, nonetheless, in identifying that the material might be difficult, we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to dabbling in care that may not meet students demands. Issuing these warnings puts the lecturer outside of the material which I think conveys the impression of a distanced, arms-length detachment which doesn’t do justice to my teaching. It also fuels the problem – as illustrated by an email I received overnight alleging that universities pre-empting trans issues demonising them – of the lecturer never being able to be sensitive enough to our audience.

A diet of social media and an upbringing in an outrage culture, means many students are now far more likely to come to class with their views fully formed before I even open my mouth. A very new experience for me. This year for example, I had a slew of students arrive having already decided that radical feminism – not my political bent, no, but essential to cover – is oppressive devilry. Which means that when they’re in tutorials, they politically opposed to engagement. That they didn’t do the assigned reading in some kind of bizarre (and lazy) protest.

Certain students this semester seemingly felt no compunction at all to challenge my language. Mid-sentence. “Prostitution” for example, will promptly get corrected to “sex work” before we’ve even had the lecture discussing the politics of language. In a week on Black Feminism, an in-context use of “Nigger” should, apparently, have had me saying “N-Word” because that’s less upsetting. There is, seemingly never enough warnings I can give to buffer upset.

I was asked in my interview with The Age about whether I thought triggers warnings were burdensome. I actually don’t. I think it forces us to reflect on our material and to constantly improve and refine our teaching methods. I do however, think these warnings have some unintended consequences far beyond turning students into those precious snowflakes that the conservatives are always lamenting. A one-off semester perhaps, and certainly not universal among the cohort. Not a reason to scrap trigger warnings but certainly an opportunity to reflect on them nevertheless.

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