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A Response to Trigger Warnings at UCSB

Right now, UCSB is at the center of a flurry of media attention that is depicting today’s college students as oversensitive, overly politically correct and even ‘trigger-happy’ with modern-day censorship in the very place it never should happen — academia. A few weeks ago, the Associated Students Senate passed a resolution directing student representatives to meet with administrators to develop a way for professors to create “trigger warnings” for material that could potentially spark symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in students, with such material including “Rape, Sexual Assault, Abuse, Self-Injurious Behavior, Suicide, Graphic Violence, Pornography, Kidnapping, and Graphic Depictions of Gore.” In response, major outlets such as NPR and the Los Angeles Times have reported on the resolution, with a fair number of them printing op-eds that condemn the bill and express criticism of what’s seen as an oversensitivity in what one outlet called “the wimpy generation.”

As it is written, the A.S. resolution has no immediate, concrete implications. Contrary to what’s been reported by outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the resolution has not resulted in any action by the UCSB administration and no policy changes have been made. Nevertheless, what has happened is there are students on this campus — specifically student government representatives — who believe that there is an issue with students who are victims of PTSD experiencing “severe emotional, mental, and even physical distress” from professors showing material that elicits such reactions, all while not giving any warning that this material can have such effects. But are professors really obligated to give such warnings? According to Lisa Hajjar, president of Santa Barbara’s ACLU Chapter and a UCSB sociology professor, the answer is not really. Hajjar said the resolution could mark an infringement of academic freedom by potentially dictating what an instructor can and cannot teach.

As defined by the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, academic freedom is “the indispensable quality of institutions of higher education,” and the organization explains this freedom to be most fundamental because “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” Hajjar said this means professors are entitled to freedom of research and freedom in the classroom, essentially giving them the right to decide what course material to use and how to use it. As what Hajjar calls a “professional privilege,” this liberty does not rest in the hands of students.

When professors are being advised to alter or even remove course material simply because it is upsetting, or just not very pleasing, we’re all at a loss. We’re at a loss of insight into challenging ideas, at a loss of educational enrichment we could be gaining, and at a loss of an open and fluid environment that invites all ideas to flow freely and lead to new paths of thought. But right now, “A Resolution to Mandate Triggering Content in Academic Settings” does not explicitly ask for instructors to do any of this; the document asks only for warnings, not removal or adjustment of material. But the vague wording of the document leaves room for interpretation: It includes requests for student representatives to “urge” professors to list trigger warnings, and then also states that they should be ‘urging’ these instructors to “not dock points” from a student’s grade if they’re missing class because of “triggering content.”

Being as general and poorly-worded as it currently is, the resolution is in need of more specific language that deals less with professors and more with the Disabled Students Program. The resolution itself states that the UCSB program recognizes PTSD as a “disability,” so shouldn’t students who are victims of PTSD be using this resource as a vehicle for assistance? If instructors are going to excuse students from being penalized for missing class or assignments due to “triggering content,” shouldn’t there be a consistent system for diagnosing and formally assisting a student who suffers from PTSD and has special needs? And how do we know this content is really “triggering”?

However, even while protecting freedoms so crucial to higher education, we must recognize the legitimacy behind the intentions that lie behind this resolution. One of the arguments against this bill claims it would act as a crutch for students who do not wish to be challenged with potentially offensive material, essentially boiling it down to “just get over it.” We’d invite everyone who stands behind this to imagine the most terrifying or painful moment of your life, and then imagine being spontaneously forced to relive that moment in the middle of a lecture in Campbell Hall.

Speaking to students in the Student Veterans Organization and seeing the support that the resolution has received from campus groups advocating victims of sexual assault, it is clear that there are students affected — psychologically, emotionally and sometimes even physically — by class content. The presenter of this resolution shared a first-hand account of witnessing a graphic rape scene, as a victim of sexual assault, and said she was given no prior warning that this was being shown. Putting a disclaimer on graphic video or photographs is not a lot to ask for; it’s something that Hajjar says she has done with course material containing graphic war images, and it’s something we do for movies and food and other stuff all the time. But in the realm of higher education, professors have been entrusted with a responsibility to decide how and what to instruct. It’s difficult to draw the line of when too much is too much, or when too sensitive is really just too sensitive, when we’re talking about college — the time for exposure to new ideas. And that’s the reason instructors have been hired to make that call.

Even though this resolution is only symbolic, it has proven successful in opening a dialogue about the prevalence of PTSD — a medically recognized anxiety disorder that is beyond the control of the sufferers, as defined by the American Psychological Association. Living in an increasingly interconnected world, joined together by technology and other means of globalization, means we are more and more aware of the treatment of our peers. We are not whiny, Millennial brats who claim that anything we don’t agree with is invalid, political correctness is a shield we try to throw on everything potentially offensive and censorship is the new way of the future. No, Los Angeles Times, we are not “upset” by your editorial outlining all the ways we, and other universities, are supposedly attempting to clean up the real-world issues we’re learning. Just as we know our own civil liberties, we know what academic freedom is and how crucial it is to our development of character and intellect.

So if anything, UCSB faculty should look to A.S.’s bill for what it really is — a symbolic cry for help, but one with no implications for affecting what they can actually say.




A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 3, 2014 print edition of the Daily Nexus.

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One Response to A Response to Trigger Warnings at UCSB

  1. stan klein Reply

    April 4, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Thanks for the sane and rational analysis of the “trigger warning” issue.

    I fail to see the logic of the argument (espoused by a professor within the article) that a “warning” constitutes infringement of academic freedom.
    Perhaps in some convoluted manner not disclosed within the text, one might worry that in some unusual circumstances a professor or instructor will feel the need to alter her or his course. But nothing stated in the proposed amendment (at least as presented in the above piece) indicates that the instructor is required to do so. He or she clearly maintains freedom to post whatever he or she feels is relevant to the material being covered in class.
    All that is being asked is for a warning.
    Suppose I place a warning sign on a highway noting that bridge height is 15 ft. I do not thereby compromise anyone’s right to travel on the highway nor do I force Cal Trans to take action (if experience runs true, they likely will take as long as it took to build the Hoover Dam to make the adjustment needed!).
    All the warning does is alert drivers that if their vehicle is more than 15 feet tall, they might consider an alternate route. But it is up to them. They are free to proceed.
    In the case of instruction, the trigger warning is simply that – a warning — and student and instructor alike are free to do as they choose provided a warning is posted.

    As for unequal access to course material — that could be an issue; but it is not one that requires dropping the “warning” concept. People miss class for all sorts of reasons. There are many mechanisms that can be adopted to deal with this — make-up exams, notes, office hours (discussion sans images), and so on. There is no rational warrant to throw out the baby with the bathwater — unless perhaps your course is composed largely of material that merits “warning”. If that is the case than (a) the student should consider the advisability of taking your course and/or (b) the instructor should consider the necessity of images taking such a pervasive presence in the classroom. In some cases (e.g., history of porn) this will be unavoidable and the student has the responsibility to see that s/he avoids taking a class composed of known triggers. In other cases, the instructor should ask him or herself whether s/he is engaging academic discusion’presentation or engaging primarily in political discourse (there is a place for such, but the classroom is not necessarily the most appropriate venue to espouse political beliefs on a captive and paying audience).
    PTSD is sadly very real. I have a family member with PTSD. Certain things can get this person very upset to the point of paralysis of mind and body.
    The plural of anecdote is not data,so I assure you, after having read 150+ works on the topic (I am writing up a novel theory on the flashback/memory aspect of PTSD), there is little doubt that PTSD and associated flashbacks are potentially debilitating. Those brushing such symptoms off as so much student/university hyper sensitivity have the sensitivity and intellectual understanding of a brick. If, sadly in my view, the LA Times so opines re “warning signals” for triggering events — so much the worse for the Times.

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