educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Trigger warnings: Bang! Bang! Your mind is dead

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Have you heard about “trigger warnings”? Trigger warnings, as defined in this great September Atlantic piece, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” are “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.”

If you are not hanging on campuses much lately, you may be stupefied by this concept, but there it is: Protecting students from or warning them about ideas in college courses.

Trigger warnings are taking a beating in the higher ed world. In the Atlantic piece, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt take a fascinating look at them and similar campus dynamics. You probably get the gist of their argument from the article title.

But they go a step beyond just saying how frustrating, annoying, pathetic, etc. this protective behavior is, and that extra step is of interest to those raising children in this age of hand sanitizer and you-can’t-ride-your-bike-across-the-busy-road-until-you’re-16. They make the startling claim that this type of hypersensitivity creates thinking patterns in students akin to the thinking patterns of those with mental health disorders:

“A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.”

They reinforce this idea throughout the article. They point out that if “everyone around you acts as if something is dangerous […] then you are at risk of acquiring that fear too.” They say that an increasing focus on “microaggressions” coupled with over endorsing emotional reasoning” could lead to “a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion.”

Not everyone agrees with their argument. In a piece in The New Republic, “The Trigger Warning Myth,” Aaron Hanlon thinks blaming trigger warnings for the very real mental health problems on college campuses is excessive. Hanlon, a professor, thinks the trigger warning issue has been inflated. I will say that a quite limited survey of my students at Drexel revealed no trigger warnings yet.

However, regardless of the depth of the problem, if you are appalled by the idea of trigger warnings (a kindred issue is indeed going on at Duke right now), you stalwart denizens of the “real world,” you might make it clear to the schools your child visits that you don’t want scrubbed courses, for many reasons. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, these efforts “to shield students from words, ideas, and people […] are bad for students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if students expectations of safety are carried forward.”

Of course, trigger warnings didn’t come from nowhere. They appear to come from a broader “coddling” students are accustomed to. And of course those students didn’t come from nowhere.

They came from us.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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One Response to “Trigger warnings: Bang! Bang! Your mind is dead”

  1. Scott, The problem, on one level, is knowing beforehand what kind of image or phrase is going to trigger a response. I was teaching a comparison between Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist” and R. Crumb’s graphic novel (well, graphic short story) version of it, to see what students thought about Crumb’s visualization of the story. I’ve done this for several years, with very interesting results.
    This year, for the first time, a student emailed me saying she had eating disorder issues and just couldn’t read the text. I gave her permission not to read it, and suggested that she mention her reaction to the text on the discussion board, as that might evoke some interesting awareness among her classmates.
    She ultimately didn’t say that on the discussion board, but in fact left a very sophisticated comparison between the Kafka and the Crumb; she emailed me privately and said she didn’t want to expose herself that way on the discussion board, identifying herself as having an eating disorder.
    I hadn’t thought about the privacy issue (d’oh), and was startled by the high quality analysis she gave, based on only reading a certain amount of (either) text, I suppose. I still don’t know what I “should” have done.
    Don

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