Control and Content Warnings

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I confess, I’m angry. I’ve been angry since yesterday when I read the letter written to first year students by the University of Chicago negating the idea of trigger warnings, safe spaces and student protest.

Kevin Gannon at the Tattooed Professor posted “Trigger Warning: Elitism, Gatekeeping, and Other Academic Crap” which explains in detail why the letter is bad policy and represents institutional elitism.

More pithy but on point is a tweet by Saladin Ahmed that captures U of C perfectly:

What I have to say is that trigger warnings, which I call “content warnings” make it possible for some students to take classes from me who otherwise could be hurt by them.

Why? Because some of the texts I work with are disturbing as hell. Not only that, but unlike the case of disturbing content in Antigone or other classics of Greek literature, there isn’t a corpus of secondary literature out there to warn, for example, that Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Calligraphy of the Witch has brutal scenes of rape. Why would I begrudge someone fair warning that they’re about to read a dark and violent novel?

I can’t say I always thought this way. I didn’t think about it at all. But then I taught a darkly beautiful autobiography by Josie Méndez-Negrete, Las hijas de Juan, with sustained accounts of abuse, sexual assault and neglect. One of my students was blindsided by the book. It sent her places I in no way expected or wanted her to go. It also moved her deeply. As I processed what she was going through as she experienced the text, I decided whether she went through this not should be her choice, not mine. To make that choice, she needed information from me.

To give my students control and the ability to make these choices costs nothing more than a sentence the week before we read the book. So when I teach Gods Go Begging by Alfredo Véa I give a preview of the coming attractions.

Gods Go Begging is a Chicano noir novel with surreal (I would say gothic) breaks with reality. There are disturbing images of  gang violence and flashbacks to the character’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

That’s it. But it’s enough that a student already struggling with PTSD because of their own experiences can decide how they want to handle the text. They can then come to me for more information if they want it. The decision, the control, is, as it should be theirs, not mine.

My students already know from the syllabus I can be flexible with assigned reading and screenings. So far, no one has opted out of a book or film, though last semester I had a student decide to watch American Me on her own rather than on a big screen in the darkened classroom. Letting her do this cost me nothing.

I think that’s why I am angry. Making classrooms safer (or brave) spaces where students feel they can speak without being attacked or can question or take issue with some speech or action they find silencing makes the classroom a better, kinder space. Me not assuming that my students will respond to texts with detachment is positive. I want them to be moved by these books, these films. Letting them know they’re going to be encountering disturbing material doesn’t spoil it or take away from anyone’s reading.

So I go back to the University of Chicago’s letter. What that letter is saying is basically: we’re in control, not you. Don’t complain, don’t talk back, don’t try and have a say in your education.

There’s nothing brave or new about that.

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