Students don’t need more trigger warnings, they need better teachers

Danger zone.
Danger zone.
Image: Shelby Steward via CC BY 2.0
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“Trigger warnings” may be the greatest red herring of this generation’s culture wars. This is precisely the argument of Rowan Kaiser’s streetwise essay at the Daily Beast, as well as what is intimated by Derek Beres at big think in his piece about the intellectual consequences of trigger warnings. Both of these pieces, of course, are responses to the Atlantic’s September cover story dedicated to the topic, “The Coddling of the American Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, and Greg Lukianoff, a constitutional lawyer and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Not only, Haidt and Lukianoff contend, do trigger warnings have no conclusive positive effects on either the learning process or on assisting a victimized person to overcome their trauma, they more insidiously foster a culture of “vindictive protectiveness” that they believe contributes to the increasing levels of anxiety— and verbal and physical aggression—in younger generations.

I have written about the feminist case against trigger warnings before, outlining nine reasons—from the curtailment of academic freedom to the universalizing of emotions and of reading comprehension in general—why professors should abstain from including them on their syllabi. I have cited feminists like Jessica Valenti, Jill Filipovic, and Roxane Gay, who also quibble with the usefulness and effectiveness of trigger warnings.

But what Haidt, Lukianoff and many of the dozens of other writers who have tackled this topic generally fail to acknowledge is that when it comes to higher education, what’s really important is what comes after the (hypothetical) trigger warning, both on the syllabus and in the classroom.

As an adjunct English literature professor at Hunter College and, now, Fordham University, I have found no pragmatic reason for the employment of trigger warnings in my classroom. My pedagogical apparatus relies on close reading and analysis. In my classroom, I ask my students to link texts to socio-cultural and political phenomena in our everyday lives with the ultimate objective of teaching them the skills to think deeply and then to translate that thinking into critical writing. I believe this apparatus should, if used correctly, render moot the trigger warnings’ necessity.

Here’s why: In their article, Haidt and Lukainoff explain how “emotional reasoning”—or the substitution of thought-out reason with subjective, reactionary emotion—has come to prevail in myriad social conversations, whether on social media or in college classrooms. In today’s age, the authors maintain, “[a] claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong.”

Emotions are reactions, taken as truth and wielded as authority. But what most critics of—and advocates for—trigger warnings overlook is the fact that the act of learning in the college classroom is in large part intended to transform emotions into cogent, logically sound observations of texts. This is the endgame of close reading and critical analysis. Or, Spinoza 101.

Perhaps this glaring omission by trigger warning analysts is due to the fact that our college classrooms are rapidly changing. Many courses are (wrongly, in my opinion) moving online, replacing the space and physicality of learning—sensing, as a teacher, how your students are feeling or engaging with the text under analysis—with technocratic automation.

These critics also seem to universally neglect the role of the professor as teacher in the classroom—a neglect that is reflected in academia with the obliteration of the professoriate in favor of part-time, non-unionized labor (aka adjuncts).

Perhaps the oversight can even be traced to a broader attack on academia in America, from the corporatization of the universities to our devastating amount of student debt. One note I mention the first day in every class of every semester is that my classroom is not a transaction, because I know that being crippled by debt can make students lose their focus. The loss of academic freedom is felt by faculty members and students in equal measure.

Confusion. Frustration. Repulsion. Surprise. Pleasure. Exhilaration. Satisfaction. These are just some of the initial reactions students will experience when encountering a text for the first time in a classroom. Lecture and discussion-based analysis gives structure and meaning to that text, transforming emotion into reason.

All students should hope for this type of magical experience, that is to say, learning. It is a subversive experience, the inestimable, late Harvard literary critic Barbara Johnson wrote in her essay, “Nothing Fails Like Success,” to come face-to-face with what we don’t know: “If I perceive my ignorance as a gap in knowledge instead of an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know, then I do not truly experience my ignorance. The surprise of otherness is that moment when a new form of ignorance is suddenly activated as an imperative.”

Trigger warnings not only block this experience of “the surprise of otherness,” the discussion around them overlooks what actually transpires in the classroom. And both students and faculty members are likely to suffer the consequences.