Trigger Warnings and the U.S. Survey

While I was away from the blog last week it seems like everyone was talking about teaching and “trigger warnings.”  I am not sure how all this got started, but I did find Jenny Jarvie’s piece at The New Republic and Joe Adleman’s post at The Junto to be informative.  In the context of a history class a “trigger warning” is used by the instructor to alert students that a topic is about to be introduced that could be offensive or cause negative reactions.

Earlier this week, NYU’s Jonathan Zimmerman posted a mock U.S. survey course syllabus complete with trigger warnings.  Hilarious.  Here is a taste:

This course will explore the main themes, trends, and dilemmas in the history of the United States. In accord with our college’s new policy on trigger warnings, I have affixed a cautionary note to each week’s topic. If the topic threatens to provoke feelings of trauma or panic in you, please inform me beforehand and I will excuse you from class. I’m looking forward to learning together in a safe environment!
I. Puritan New England: Fair warning to Quakers and Catholics: The Puritans sometimes cut off your ears and bored out your tongues, so skip this week if you don’t want to hear or talk about that. Ditto for practitioners of Wicca, who will surely be alarmed by the trials of their sister witches at Salem.
II. The Revolutionary War: Up to one-third of the people in the colonies remained loyal to the British Crown. Hounded mercilessly, they fled north to Canada and took up hockey. Present-day Canadians might want to sit this one out, lest they suffer still more ridicule.
III. The War of 1812: American forces sacked York, Canada, the site of today’s Toronto. Yet another reason to alert the Canadians in the class.
IV. The Civil War: Confederate apologists say this conflict was fought over “states’ rights” rather than slavery. In fact, it was about the rights of states to practice slavery! Some white guys in the South won’t want to hear that. Y’all have been warned.
Frankly, I have no problem with trigger warnings.  I use them all the time in class.

2 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings and the U.S. Survey

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  2. My first reaction to trigger warnings was dismissive, assuming that it was just another manifestation of political correctness combined with sheltered, privileged students.

    I've had to revise my assumptions, however, as I've thought about students who face real trauma when confronted with triggers, especially students who were sexually abused or suffer from PTSD.

    In all the discussion, however, I've not heard much from Christian academics on the subject. It would be worth having a theological conversation among confessing historians about trigger warnings.

    For example, the most applicable Bible passage I can think of is I Corinthians 10:32-33 where Paul enjoins believers to restrict their liberty for the sake of the gospel. Since his goal is to promote the truth about God he is willing to sacrifice his personal preferences and beliefs. Could this be applied to trigger warnings? Our goal is to teach truth about the historical method to our students and we should be willing to accommodate our students' past traumas for that broader goal. Maybe.

    However, the passage cuts the other way as well. When the KJV says “give none offence” it is not saying to simply avoid upsetting people. The Greek there evokes a literal block, something that a person stumbles or trips over. There's a concreteness to the meaning here. As I've heard the passage applied, it's not offering a drink to a recovering alcoholic or the like.

    In that spirit, I'd be very leery about inserting trigger warnings simply to avoid upsetting students. Confessing historians do believe, after all, in the offense of the cross, the idea that the radical truth claims of Christianity will necessarily offend non-Christians. To apply that to the historical discipline, students need to hear the truth about our human heritage of sexual hurt, racial hatred, and class prejudice even if they find such truths offensive.

    There has to be a qualitative difference between upsetting a student who is blind to their privilege and triggering memories for a student who suffered trauma in their past (or present, sadly). Navigating the distinction is messy, thus the absoluteness to the conversation. It's probably easier to do all or nothing, but we aren't called to the easy path.

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