Between Triggers and Bullets

Steven Volk, October 12, 2015

In college and hidingThe waters of higher education have been troubled this first month of the fall semester. Both mainstream and the educational media have focused on the controversies that continue to churn around the use of “trigger warnings,” prior advisories of potentially traumatizing material. The Faculty Senate at American University, with the support of the provost, passed a resolution allowing faculty members to continue to issue “trigger warnings” but only to prepare students to process material, not to excuse them from exposure to it. Students who fear personal reactions to the instructional content will be directed to student support services.

At the same time, the toll of real bullets, fired by applying pressure to real triggers, continues to climb on college and university campuses. In the last two weeks alone, we have mourned the losses from a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon and shootings at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and Texas Southern University in Houston. Last year, students were killed at Seattle Pacific University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. There were a reported 27 shootings on or near campuses in 2013. I attended a workshop earlier this year led by faculty from Virginia Tech who are still coping with the aftermath of the 32 people who were fatally shot on that campus in 2007.

This is not a post about gun control, although heaven knows I fervently support it. That’s not the purpose of the “Article of the Week” blog. I make no attempt to suggest what should be done about the violence other than a issue a heartfelt call for politicians to avoid making statements that, on their face, are patently absurd. (Yes, Mr. Carson, guns actually do kill people.)

Rather I ask a simple question with some importance for those of us who teach and work in higher education: What is the relation between triggers and bullets? Does the fact that we live in a time of increasing mayhem and violence, that this violence often occurs on college campuses, and that students are continually stumbling onto news of violence when they open their smart phones – does any of this help us at least understand a desire expressed by some students to be in a “safe” space? And does this help us determine how best to teach our students in our courses?

Triggers

Parental AdvisoryFor those of you who have been living off the grid for the past few years, trigger warnings are prior advisories placed on curricular content, reading assignments, or parts of discussion, warning that some students might find the material disturbing, inappropriate, or possibly traumatizing. These warnings have been at the sharp end of an important debate about speech issues on campuses, although critics often tend to conflate or confuse a variety of separate concerns in this regard. Trigger warnings, a particular speech-issue related to questions of potential reaction to traumatic material, come out of a larger cultural milieu that saw the placement of advisories on films, music, video games, and other media content warning parents and others of explicit or other potentially difficult subject matter, so that they could tune away if so wanted.

“Trigger warnings” as a specific type of advisory more concerned with the potentially traumatizing impact of their content on those who had experienced sexual violence, appeared first in self-help and feminist online forums and were intended to alert readers for whom such material could cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. From there, as is all too common in internet culture, the warnings multiplied to a point where bloggers were warning their readers to turn away if they were “triggered” by alcohol, or insects, or, well you get the point.

Insect triggersIt is not surprising that the culture of online trigger warnings migrated into the university. Some students began asking for prior warning of materials they deemed to be “triggering.” (Oberlin’s own role in this issue has been widely reported, and often misreported. The college continues to be the poster child for trigger warnings, leading one, particularly offended commentator at the American Conservative to grumble, “Honestly, I wish [Vladimir] Putin would invade and occupy Oberlin.” Seriously?)

The call by a tiny number of students, mostly coming from selective liberal arts colleges and a few flagship universities, has nevertheless become a standard part of the fascination, dismay, or contempt of the media with what is happening on our nation’s campuses. If Alan Bloom famously talked of the “closing of the American mind,” the Atlantic now tells us of the “coddling” of the American mind.

The debate over trigger warnings has stirred considerable angst on some campuses, as the faculty senate’s action at American University indicates. The American Association of University Professors, in a statement last year, resolved that “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.”

I would agree. But Mason Stokes, an associate professor of English at Skidmore, put a much finer, and appropriate, edge on it in his aptly titled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Don’t Tell Me What’s Best for My Students.”

What seems crucial to assert is this: I know my students and their needs better than any faculty senate. I know my material — its power and its effects — better than any representative body. Any resolution that claims to know what’s best for my students is substituting ideological generalities for the granular specificity of the classroom, for the particularities of disciplinary knowledge.

I would resist a resolution condemning trigger warnings as vigorously as I would a resolution requiring them. The only way to cut through the straw-man caricatures that dominate this debate is to rely on the expertise and sensibilities of individual faculty members, as they develop an improvisatory relationship to knowledge, to difficulty, and to their students.

Exactly. But those of us who teach in higher ed, whether at selective liberal arts colleges or large public commuter campuses, don’t have the luxury of looking at campus culture as some rare bird nesting in a far-off tree and observed through binoculars. As Mason Stokes reminds us, these are our students and we have to try to understand what is motivating even a relatively few of them to crave safety.

Bullets

Noonan-Life isnt perfectPeggy Noonan, the conservative author and the one-time speech writer for President Reagan, has decided the whole current generation of students has got it wrong. Writing in the Wall Street Journal this past May she referred to current students as a “trigger-happy generation,” remarking: “if reading great literature traumatizes you, wait until you get a taste of adult life.” She suggested further that this “significant and growing form of idiocy… deserves greater response.” (How a whole generation got tarred with Noonan’s brush is something of a mystery. There were about 21 million students in the tertiary sector when last counted in 2012. How many have been even tangentially involved in the trigger-warning debate?)

I would agree with Noonan that learning often takes place in those spaces where students are made uncomfortable. Indeed, sometimes it is only when we are put in intellectually untenable places, when we are confronted with contrary evidence, that we begin to revise our understandings. Comfort can quickly become complacency, which is never particularly healthy for any educational enterprise.

But if Noonan wants “trigger-happy,” I’ll give you trigger-happy:

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 467,321 persons were victims of a crime committed with a firearm in 2011. In the same year, data collected by the FBI show that firearms were used in 68% of murders, 41% of robbery offenses and 21% of aggravated assaults nationwide. Most homicides in the United States are committed with firearms, especially handguns.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that firearms (excluding BB and pellet guns) were used in 84,258 nonfatal injuries, 11,208 homicides, and 21,175 suicides. When all deaths by firearm are included, there were a total of 33,169 deaths related to firearms in 2013, and these exclude firearm deaths due to “legal intervention.” (For those who want to get past a phrase that often can only be understood as a euphemism for homicide, I refer you to #BlackLivesMatter and the article I posted earlier this year.)

CNN recently reported that from 2001 to 2013, 406,496 people died by firearms on U.S. soil. (Federal legislation passed in the 1990s has prevented the CDC from engaging in any research that could be seen as advocacy for gun control. That provision has commonly stopped any gun studies because researchers don’t want to risk losing federal money.)

Mass Shootings - Economist[Source: The Economist]

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

As I reported in an earlier “Article of the Week,” Sam Sinyangwe of the Mapping Police Violence project reported that 179 African Americans have been killed by the police so far this year. Sinyangwe writes, “In the aftermath of Ferguson…there was this big question ‘Is this a pattern, is this an isolated incident?’ What [my data] shows is that Ferguson is everywhere. All over the country you’re seeing black people being killed by police.” He notes that “Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that’s taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.”

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

A report released on September 21, 2015, by the Association of American Universities confirmed early reports, finding that nearly one in four female undergraduates (23.1%) responding to their survey said that they had been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct, and that fewer than a third of the respondents reported the incidents, even when they involved rape, to campus or local authorities. The report found that:

  • One-third of female college seniors reported that they had been the victims of non-consensual sexual contact at least once since enrolling in college.
  • For transgender, queer, and other gender-nonconforming seniors, the number was an even higher, 39.1 percent.
  • Just 38.9 percent of students thought reporting sexual misconduct would result in campus officials taking action.

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

According to the annual report produced by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA (“American Freshman: National Norms”),  in 2014 students’ self-rated emotional health dropped to 50.7%, its lowest level ever and 2.3 percentage points lower than the entering cohort of 2013. Additionally, the proportion of students who “frequently” felt depressed rose to 9.5%, 3.4 percentage points higher than in 2009 when feeling “frequently” depressed reached its lowest point.

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist and do not present these data in any attempt to suggest a causal link between feeling unsafe on campus and the call for “safety” in the form of trigger warnings, or a desire to banish uncomfortable or unpopular viewpoints from classrooms or contrary speakers from campus. I am quite sure that other issues are also involved and I remain opposed to the censuring of legitimate academic discourse.

But it does strike me that the rise of what I have begun to call a “culture of safety,” a culture that increasingly is bumping up against the culture of academic freedom, likely has at least some tendrils, if not full stems, in the fact that our students are products of a society that is not just violent in its own terms but, through a 24/7 media and social media environment, transports the violence of the world onto their devices dozens of times a day (if not an hour). We all are witness to frequent scenes of terrorist violence, gun-mayhem, and photographic images that are truly disturbing, from beheadings and bombings to drowned babies on the beach. And while the frequency with which these images circulate may prove numbing for some, for others they aren’t. Our students are part of a larger culture of instability and loss, and they will be impacted by it.

To ignore the possibility that our students are feeling particularly vulnerable because, when pressing the trigger issue, they don’t always get it right; to see calls for “safe space” as demands which are only made by hypersensitive students who should “just get over it,” doesn’t help us think about our jobs in the classroom and on the campus.

We are faculty, not therapists, and often are both at a loss to know what an appropriate response should be and quite clear that we cannot act as our students’ psychologists. Yet, at the same time, I would argue that it is responsible pedagogy to show our students both courtesy and respect by preparing them for those discussions that we know will be difficult, troubling, or that carry an emotional wallop.  We do this not because we believe we can issue a magical warning that will protect susceptible students from harm, but because we are preparing our classroom to be a space where all can learn.

By preparing for the learning that must take place in our classrooms and on our campuses, by creating an environment in which all can learn while being aware of the particular moment our students (and we, ourselves) are living, we can better defend the important principles of academic freedom and create those uncomfortable spaces so necessary for an education.

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