Trigger . . . a Celebration

Do universities these days coddle their students? Do progressive dreams of inclusive campuses result in hothouse indignation? That’s the charge from pundits as students complain of hostile classrooms. Far from a problem, though, this trigger-warning brouhaha should be cause to celebrate, for two reasons.

Warning: Woman turns into a tree...

Warning: Woman turns into a tree…

In recent days, commentators have leaped upon a story from Columbia University. A group of students published a complaint about insensitive classrooms and professors. One student had been forced to endure a discussion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, replete with stories of rape and assault. The problem was not just Ovid. The students wrote,

like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom. These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

Even worse, when students complained about these texts, or suggested other authors such as Toni Morrison, they were pooh-poohed or dismissed.

Predictably, writers from a variety of religious and ideological backgrounds have pointed out some of the over-the-top elements of such student protests. Atheist author Jerry Coyne denounced the students’ “Literature Fascism.” Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan cussed the over-sensitivity of the “trigger-happy generation.”

Noonan pulled no punches. She blasted this “significant and growing form of idiocy” as something that must be addressed. “I notice lately,” Noonan goes on,

that some members of your generation are being called, derisively, Snowflakes. Are you really a frail, special and delicate little thing that might melt when the heat is on?

Do you wish to be known as the first generation that comes with its own fainting couch? Did first- and second-wave feminists march to the barricades so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?

Everyone in America gets triggered every day. Many of us experience the news as a daily microaggression. Who can we sue, silence or censor to feel better?

Ouch. Before we talk about why these crusty columnists give us cause for celebration, let us make a few complaints. First, contra Noonan, this is not a generational thing. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are keenly aware, Columbia and other elite schools are nearly beside the point when it comes to understanding the broad picture of higher education in this country. They attract a tremendously disproportionate share of commentator attention, but almost no one attends such schools.

And even in the calculated environment of Columbia, the student protesters represent only a tiny sliver of the student body. As Noonan smartly pointed out, the reaction from other Columbia students was not sympathetic. One student wrote, “These girls’ parents need a refund.”

Second, anyone of a certain age can attest to the fact that these same discussions have been happening—with different buzzwords—for the last fifty years. I remember my days as a student radical, back in the 1980s. Sure enough, at one of our indignant protest meetings with a dean, one student complained that the dean’s cigarette smoke was causing her some anguish. His response? Deal with it, Snowflake.   Nowadays, of course, I can’t imagine any college official smoking during a meeting, but the general tenor of student complaint was the same.

In spite of all that, this dustup over trigger warnings should give us cause for celebration. Why? First of all, it has brought together indignant “kids-these-days” jeremiads from all sides of our campus culture wars. Atheists and conservative Catholics, liberals and conservatives, Jerry Coynes and Peggy Noonans . . . a variety of pundits can agree that this sort of student activism is both silly and counterproductive. Any time we can have people from different culture-war perspectives agree on something, we can build on that.

Second, as historian Andrew Hartman has pointed out recently, simply having students who seem to care about Ovid and Toni Morrison is a refreshing sort of culture-war problem. Too often, those kinds of disputes over the proper types of college reading have been replaced by more frightening existential questions of whether or not colleges will fund literature departments.

So rejoice, all those who yearn for robust college campus life! When students are interested in the morals of their reading lists, we might suspect that they are actually doing the reading. When students come together to protest against campus policies, we might hope that they will remain active citizens as they age and fatten. And finally, whenever an issue can bring together curmudgeonly elders from a variety of culture-war positions, there is hope that we all can continue to have robust, controversial conversations.

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  1. Hmm, I guess I stand in-between on this one. I do find “snowflake” culture incredibly abrasive and harmful to actual marginalized communities because it reduces to absurdity the solutions to the real problems they face. “I should never have to face a unique challenge that the most lucky, fortunate, and privileged person in the world does not face” is so absurd its offensive. On the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to pre-warn students if topics of sexual assault or graphic violence are going to appear in a class or assignment. I think most trauma-survivors are quite capable of engaging with topics that are “triggering” to them, but I have heard several state that it would be nice to know what they’re getting into beforehand rather than having it sprung on them. PTSD is an actual medical condition, and as with most medical conditions or disabilities, we don’t completely alter the entire world to ensure that the sufferer never faces a single challenge… we simply attempt within reason to make helpful resources accessible. It costs nothing and is the compassionate thing to do, in my opinion, to give a simple advanced warning of these topics in a class, so that people can make informed decisions regarding their mental health.

    • I’m with you. As a teacher and now a teacher of teachers, I think the new hullabaloo about “trigger warnings” includes some old-fashioned teachers’ common sense. Teaching US History, I always and often gave students warnings about the gruesome and shocking material we were likely to encounter. Not as any sort of special treatment or snowflake-protection service, but just as good teaching. Teaching about lynching, for example, has to include both shocking images and shocking ideas. People encountering them unprepared will be less able to handle them or learn from them. Natch.

      • Yeah, I’m in full agreement there. Understanding that difficult material can have a negative impact on students doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught. It just means it should be taught smartly, and students should be prepared for what they are encountering to ensure the best learning happens. Falling either on the side of “this is too mean/bad/scary to teach” or “this is how it is; suck it up or get out” fails to integrate the students’ feelings and experiences into the course material and hampers learning.

  2. I’m with both of you on this. Sometimes it is necessary to see the darker side in order to evaluate the not-so-darker side. How can one grow up with great ideas on how to alleviate injustice and poverty without knowing just what those things are, and how they function? Sometimes the best educational experiences are painful. When I was in college, one speaker addressed us with the realities of the plight of sugar producers in poor countries. It was a “Christian” college, and I was shocked at how many students saw the speaker as just another liberal who was trying to change the lifestyles of those who love capitalism…and sugar, of course. The speaker had suggested that students go without sugar, typical boycott behavior, but all the students wanted was to have their own worldviews affirmed. It was way back in those days (in the 1970s) that I began to wonder if Christianity was on the right track.

    • Sadly, the conditions for sugar plantation workers is still horrific. There is currently an epidemic of kidney disease decimating poor cane-workers in Nicaragua (and several other growing countries I believe). No one is yet sure what the cause is, but it seems almost certainly related to the work. There is little access to treatment there, and workers are pressured to try to hide their illness because plantations will fire them if they turn out to be sick. So they continue working until the disease reaches a deadly stage. I think it’s estimated that well over 20% of young men in many towns is affected.

      Workers are also supposed to wear protective gear to protect from the pesticides and other toxic chemicals that they use on the fields, but they are not provided with this gear. They are allowed to buy it from the company. The gear is expensive and their wages abysmally small, so no one wears it.

      I will only purchase sugar from companies that buy Fair Trade from farmer-own co-ops or the like and I encourage others to do the same. The conditions that we’re willing to put other people through for our convenience just makes me ill. 😦

      • Where do you find Fair Trade sugar? i live in Vineland, NJ, and the stores around here don’t have any kind of Fair Trade labeling. I switched to Fair Trade coffee while I was using my Keurig. Now I can’t afford those pods, so I have returned to brewing a pot at a time with regular ground coffee. Cumberland County NJ is poor itself, and doesn’t really reflect any type of economic justice in the products we buy around here.

      • Hi! I use this company although there are other organic brands as well. I understand that it’s not always easy to find this stuff depending on where you live. It used to be a lot harder for me, but I’m in Minneapolis now, where food abounds. I think Amazon sells and ships it as well if you were ever interested.

  3. I wonder if there is something specifically troubling about older texts for young students who have never encountered anything like them. I remember being baffled by undergraduates in the 1990s who objected and took it personally when I had them use an anthology of classic essays. John Muir’s radical environmentalism and William Hazlitt’s belief in an immortal soul roused some indignant protest. It was not that the students disagreed; they disagreed with being made to consider this material at all.

    I had never encountered such a reaction before apart from religious fundamentalists, such as Sheila describes, but it probably extends to non-religious fundamentalism, or people who are religious fundamentalists about a certain economic vision of the world. The idea that contrary views are toxic influences and must be blocked out is the common and salient feature of this type of thinking. Everyone and every school has a limit to their tolerance, but some have no tolerance at all. We should ask why that is, and why some people feel so frail and threatened.

  4. Agellius

     /  May 26, 2015

    Not only should people not be so sensitive, but they need to know about this stuff in order to know how much better they have it. Part of the problem, indeed, is that people growing up in the modern United States seem to have no idea that the ease with which you can stay alive in this time and place is the exception in world history and not the rule.

    • Do you think that is really true? We have more hyper realistic, hyper violent film and television than ever. I do not mean this is a bad thing in itself — much of it is also far more morally serious than older shows and movies. Americans historically have idealized war, genocide, “bible times,” etc. Isn’t that harder to do when Cormac McCarhy is set next to Faulkner and Melville as the American voice for our time? Even the abuse of this material as a kind of porn that desensitizes cannot be accused of sensitivity. And yet it’s also a time of hyper-sensitivity over “micro-aggressions” and such.

      • Agellius

         /  May 26, 2015

        Do I think it’s true that modern Americans have no idea how exceptional our time and place is in terms of safety and prosperity? Yes. Not all, of course, but generally, I think young people have an idea that they have a “right” to live as we live today, and that this situation would always come about for everyone, automatically, except that bad rich people keep acting all selfish and greedy.

        I don’t think there is any substitute for reading the source materials from, say, pre-Christian times, in terms of realizing where our civilization started, how much things have improved since then, and how it came about. I don’t see any better way of putting our current situation into historical perspective in order to realize how good we have it, and more importantly, understand the need to preserve it, and what we’re preserving it from (i.e. barbarity).

      • I don’t think there is any substitute for leaving the enclaves of wealth and privilege to work in inner city schools, visit poor churches, and live in struggling neighborhoods to see how little the thoughts and actions of non-white Americans resemble your representation, especially the recent immigrants. I don’t know a better way to put our historical and cultural perspective in order.

  5. Agellius

     /  May 27, 2015

    I know that was a general statement and not necessarily addressed to me personally since you don’ t know my background. But for the record I don’t live in a wealthy enclave and I grew up in a lower-class, predominantly minority area with a gang problem. My dad was an alcoholic who committed suicide. I was raised by a black stepfather and have a black stepbrother (who is also gay). My wife is non-white and my kids are mixed race. So the views and perspectives of poor non-white kids (as well as white kids) are not entirely foreign to me. I still think that generally speaking, even poor non-white American kids have an easy time compared to most people in most times and places throughout history, and tend to take the benefits of our society and culture for granted. Of course I’m talking about kids who were born here. Obviously immigrant kids might have a different perspective.

    • That’s an interesting history — maybe you will agree that many people have enough personal history to learn the lessons that can be learned from studying history, and experience tends to be more accessible. I meant immigrant kids born here or who mainly grow up here — cultural dislocation always gives you a lot of perspective, and childhood gives you the time and impressionability to led it really soak in. Older adult immigrants do that too, but it’s not so formative of their identity.

      • Agellius

         /  May 27, 2015

        I can’t say I agree that personal history is an adequate substitute for studying history. Unless you’re a migrant, your personal history always takes place within your own time and place. However interesting it might be, it can’t give you a universal perspective; it doesn’t allow you to see your own time and place from a distance, as it were, and compare it with other times and places, in order to judge the ways in which it might be better or worse. By the way I didn’t mean studying history per se, but learning about other times and places in whatever way, which could include simply reading their literature.

      • It’s not a substitute for studying and learning about history but another way to achieve some of the general insights you can get from history too.

  6. Here’s an interesting claim from an academic about triggers and the perception of bias: He is opposed to trigger warnings that effectively censor discussion and says avoiding the perception of bias and insensitivity to different views is the norm for faculty. However, he sees a lot of social media banter about conservatives among academics that is visible to the public, and he worries this will be their undoing.

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