Tuesday, 2 June 2015

AAUP Pours Antipathy onto Use of Trigger Warnings

Disappointing, in a sick-feeling-in-the-pit-of-the-stomach kind of way. This response reflects an all-or-nothing attitude and ignores the more moderate path of labelling trigger warnings and allowing those students who have survived trauma to take an alternate approach to the same course content.

Quoting from the article itself (I don't want to link to the article and grant the page even more views):
The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.  It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and—as the Oberlin list demonstrates—it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention.  Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.   Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.  They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.  The effect is to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who fear to raise questions that might make others “uncomfortable.”

The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD, which is a medical condition that requires serious medical treatment. Trigger warnings are an inadequate and diversionary response.
As someone who has survived trauma and lives with PTSD, I can assure the academic community that I would be eager to learn the course materials. While I am a college dropout and do not even have a bachelor's degree, I do have a brilliant mind. I keep up to date on various topics in academia - as well as in social justice movements: racial justice, modern slavery, gender studies, Islam. I can very easily visualise myself inside a college classroom.

If I were to be in a classroom and a reference to certain traumatic experiences were casually or randomly dropped into the course materials without prior notice, I would be triggered by that reference. For me and others like me, this goes beyond the usual "This is horrific! Can you *believe* that someone would *do* that?"

For those of us who live with PTSD, being triggered means that we re-live our traumatic experiences. We see, hear, smell, even feel the things that happened to us. We experience abject fear which needn't be based on any current situation. Some might become dissociative, others increasingly agoraphobic. Our symptoms can be psychosomatic: shaking, dizziness, even nausea. And these symptoms won't necessarily subside by the end of that day's class.

I myself would most certainly not be able to participate in an academic - or any other - setting for at least a couple of weeks. I will be experiencing those flashbacks for at least a day. They usually last for several days. I might well be shaking for several hours or possibly throughout the rest of the day. My dizziness would last for a few days afterwards. My nausea/gut pain is debilitating, leaving me keeled over in my bathroom throughout a day. The crowd-phobic aspect of my agoraphobia could well stick with me for several days to a few weeks. I will literally not be functional at an academic level for days or even weeks. One triggered onset which caused flares in my PTSD and another mental health condition with which I live left me incapacitated for two months.

We are not talking about mere "discomfort" here. We are talking about debilitating mental health symptoms which could, at worst, take one to the hospital. In an era in which we have become more enlightened regarding the accommodation of people with other disabilities, it is now time to update our thinking and behaviour with regard to PTSD - a real mental health condition. Where we make seating accommodating for those with limited mobility or provide equipment and human resources to assist the hard-of-hearing or those with visual impairments, we need to provide accommodations to our students who have survived trauma and/or live with PTSD. To refuse to do so would be akin to keeping flowering plants in the classroom when a person who has COPD is in the room, or insisting that a student with diabetes participate in a project which involved ingesting something with a high carbohydrate content. In other words, the attitude of the AAUP is outdated and frankly insulting.

Surely the negative impact on a person's academic success, detailled above, isn't worth an outdated approach to mental illness and an hyperbolic approach to the topic of trigger warnings. It truly is worth it to listen to the voices of those who are survivors of trauma and those who live with PTSD and to be responsive to us. My own advice is to use Trigger Warnings and/or Content Notes. THESE NEEDN'T LEAD TO ACADEMIC CENSORSHIP. All that I myself ask is that they be included, and that the professor be willing to work with a student over a reasonable amount of time to find alternative ways to learn the desired objectives. In many cases, just knowing that a potentially triggering subject will arise in class that day or in some reading materials assigned to the class is enough for me. I can brace myself for it and be much less prone to being triggered.

In that case, not an iota of censorship would take place. Even in the former scenario, the same materials could be used but approached in a way that is not triggering to the survivor student. Potentially, everyone would be happy: the professor would not have to self-censor; and the student would be able to learn the desired content without becoming ill as a result.

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