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COMMENTARY: As students become more sensitive about artistic content, “trigger warnings” could have large impact on teaching & practice of the arts
Catherine Rampell, The Washington Post, 11/30/15
You’ve probably heard about “trigger warnings,” which alert readers or viewers that what lies ahead might be upsetting or offensive. Initially such warnings were intended to help protect sexual assault survivors from reliving their trauma. But on college campuses, they have lately been demanded for all sorts of other displeasing material.
 
Among the traumatic topics to which students have objected to being exposed: spiders, “fatphobia,” indigenous artifacts, “images of childbirth,” being told their favorite artist was probably gay, suicide in a ballet, images of dead bodies, nude models in a drawing class, nude images in an art history class and bloody scenes in a horror film class. Also, the Bible.
 
These are real subjects of student complaints, as reported by professors in a new survey released by the National Coalition Against Censorship. About 800 members of the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association, two large scholarship organizations, participated in an opt-in online poll in the spring. While this wasn’t a scientific survey, it nonetheless was the first major attempt to look beyond isolated anecdotes and better gauge the scope and usage of trigger warnings, among other efforts to bowdlerize academic discourse.
 
The takeaway? Trigger warning mandates remain rare, but plenty of educators (and presumably students) already feel their chilling effects on speech. Eggshells, it seems, lie everywhere, strewn by conservatives and liberals alike. And if current trends continue, we risk teaching a generation of citizens to care more about avoiding offense than preserving open dialogue, and to flee challenging ideas rather than to rebut or (heaven forbid) embrace them.
 
Fewer than 1% of survey respondents said their institutions had adopted policies on trigger warnings, but 7.5% said students at their institutions had initiated efforts to require them. Twice as many — 15% — reported that students in their own classes had requested trigger warnings. Likewise, 12% said their students had complained when they hadn’t been warned about distressing content. A majority of educators (58%) said they’ve voluntarily provided some sort of warnings about course content, though the warnings may have been broadly worded and they didn’t necessarily allow students to opt out of course materials.
 
Some professors said they thought trigger warnings had pedagogical value. But most expressed anxiety about how they affect academic freedom, and many reported feeling bullied into sanitizing their syllabuses. Trigger warnings, one educator wrote, force “teachers to change their teaching plans based on calculations about what topics might hurt students’ feelings or make them feel ‘unsafe.’ ”
 
Students have objected to classroom discussions of religious beliefs, as well as exposure to sexual content. One educator said complaints about the moral propriety of nude models in a studio art class led administrators first to offer trigger warnings and ultimately to stop using nude models altogether. In another high-profile example, religious students at Duke boycotted the assigned summer reading, Fun Home, because the graphic novel depicted nudity and homosexuality.
 
Such cases jibe with other survey data showing that young people are supportive of stifling speech offensive to targets on both the left and right. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 40% of millennials believe the government “should be able to prevent people from saying … statements that are offensive to minority groups.” A third of millennials also say the government should be able to prevent speech “offensive to your religion or beliefs.”
 
In both cases, young people were substantially more likely to express support for such speech limits than older respondents were. In fact, millennials were about four times as likely as their grandparents’ generation to support speech restrictions. Useful, comparable historical data are hard to come by. At least one survey suggests young people have probably become more allergic to free speech since the 1970s, and anecdotal evidence from professors supports this. At the very least, our institutions of higher learning are increasingly becoming both victims of, and co-conspirators to, youthful illiberalism.
 

FURTHER READING ON THE TOPIC:

The prevailing narrative on trigger warnings is just plain wrong
Tyler Kingkade, The Huffington Post, 12/1/15
The lack of any widespread push for trigger warnings doesn't mean faculty aren't worried about the possibility. They said they fear that professors might be scared away from covering certain subjects or that they might lose their jobs if they discuss something that offends students.
 
Do 'trigger warnings' harm academic freedom? Most educators think so
Benjamin Wermund, Chron, 12/1/15
President Barack Obama voiced similar concerns earlier this year, chiding what he saw as over-sensitive college students. "I don't agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view," Obama said at an Iowa town hall meeting on college affordability. "I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with 'em. But you shouldn't silence them by saying, 'You can't come because I'm too sensitive to hear what you have to say.' That's not the way we learn, either."

PLUS: Hat tip to YCM reader Nick Obourn of the College Art Association for providing links to these commentaries. –TC


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