Fair warning

Oberlin’s trigger warning policy will be fair and effective if rewritten with student and faculty input

After facing heavy criticism from faculty members, Oberlin College has tabled its policy on trigger warnings, which is meant to alert students about class material that might be disturbing, and give them the option not to view or read such material. The policy’s main criticisms are that its definitions are too broad, it threatens academic freedom and it was drafted without sufficient faculty input.

We begin by addressing the first criticism. The policy was published in the college’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide, but it is not specific to sexual assault survivors. It defines a trigger broadly, as something that “recalls a traumatic event to an individual.” As Marc Blecher, professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin has pointed out in his criticisms of the policy, “what could trigger off somebody in the abstract is almost anything.” This definition leaves wide room for interpretation. What started as an effort to support survivors of sexual violence has expanded to encompass everyone who has experienced “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

However, just because the policy as it is now is broadly applicable, that does not mean its concerns are not valid. Survivors of sexual trauma sometimes suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, in which certain triggers may cause flashbacks to their assaults. This may also be true for students who have been physically victimized because of their race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Post-trauma psychological conditions are real, and even if they are not as visible as a physical disability, students who suffer from them still should be accommodated.

The trigger warning policy encourages professors to offer alternative assignments to students who might be disturbed by the primary material. But many professors are concerned that the extremely broad definitions of “triggers,” coupled with suggestions for alternative assignments, is a threat to academic freedom. If anything could be a trigger, critics say, professors could be pressured to replace a significant amount of material on their syllabi.

The main question is what stifles learning more — forcing students to view or read material that may traumatize them enough to inhibit their ability to participate in class, or subverting all material that may be a trigger but also contributes significant academic value to the course?

Social injustices are inescapable in our curriculum, just as they are in our day to day lives. In an American history class we confront the institution of slavery. In a gender studies class we confront the horror of sexual assault. Classes like these should be viewed not as venues to re-oppress students who have experienced trauma because of discrimination and violence, but rather as opportunities for students to turn their experiences into mechanisms of education for their peers.

In order to find this ideal balance, the administration should seek extensive feedback both from professors and students about how such a policy should be constructed. This approach addresses the third main criticism of Oberlin’s policy. Some faculty who teach sensitive material about gender violence and topics of similar gravity may already use personal judgment to warn students about the content of their syllabi. These professors would be particularly valuable resources, as they could share their experiences about how students have reacted to the material and the warnings prior to it.

It is essential that administrators also garner feedback from students about what degree of warning they feel is necessary, and whether professors have been receptive to the needs of trauma survivors. Such data could be collected anonymously in order to protect the identities of the students. Because such a policy would exist to serve them, their honest input is essential to the process of crafting it.

Published April 15, 2014 in Opinion

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