Trigger warnings raise issues of academic freedom, sensitivity on college campuses

By Steven Viera || Senior Editor

With reporting by Julia Cinquegrani || Editor-in-Chief

College campuses have a long tradition of pushing boundaries and shaping the direction of American culture, both popular and academic. But on today’s campuses, in contrast to those of the past, the debates are not on expanding the freedom of expression, but reigning it in.

For the past year and beyond, colleges across the nation have grappled with incorporating trigger warnings and other accommodations into their curricula, raising issues about the balance between academic freedom and student sensitivities.

The term “trigger warning” first appeared in online communities as a way of giving notice to entrants that a website’s content may invoke memories of sexual assault or trauma. Recently, however, these warnings have migrated from digital to real-world spaces, particularly college campuses. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Students’ Requests for Trigger Warnings Grow More Varied,” traces how these warnings and requests for them have become a growing trend of American academia on topics ranging from abuse, sexuality, abortion, war, and more.

The article noted that, on many campuses, professors and schools have responded to student concerns and removed material that may “trigger” memories of past trauma from their lesson plans. It went on to discuss a case from the University of Kentucky when, this summer, the school distributed a recommended book for incoming first-years–Picking Cotton–along with a placard on the first page that issued a trigger warning and told students they only had to read particular passages due to content relating to sexual assault.

Aside from the University of Kentucky, other institutes of higher education, like Oberlin College, have embraced trigger warnings and established formal college policy about them.

While many recognize trigger warnings as a necessary step to accommodate students with complex issues and traumas, many others–including college faculty–have decried trigger warnings as an unnecessary sheltering of students from foreign points of view, which is an integral part of the education process.

“We can’t function if we have to warn everybody about every traumatic topic,” said Philip N. Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, in the article in the Chronicle.

Even President Obama weighed in on the debate, siding with those who stand opposed to trigger
warnings.

“I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” he said. “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view… That’s not the way we learn.”

Other professors elaborated, saying they feel as though college administrations are too concerned with how students will feel about a lesson then how students will learn.

“Sensitivity has become a more important criterion than intellectual challenge [to the administration],” said Neil Gilbert, who teaches social policy at the University of California, Berkeley, according to the Chronicle. “If a number of students say you’re insensitive, the administration dings you.”

A related article in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” calls this phenomenon “vindictive protectiveness”–the need to defend students’ emotional well-being at all costs and to scrub potentially sensitive lessons at the cost of an education.

While trigger warnings have become more and more prevalent on campuses across America, one place where they have not yet formally appeared is at F&M.

“Kim Armstrong, our associate dean who co-chairs the faculty’s Committee on Educational Policy, reports that the Committee has not received any questions from faculty or students about this topic,” said Joel W. Martin, provost and dean of the faculty at F&M. “The committee articulates the goals of the F&M education and addresses major curricular policy issues.”

Martin then elaborated on an issue relating to trigger warnings raised in the national
discourse.

“To the Chronicle’s question of balancing academic freedom and students’ sensitivities, that’s seems to assume a false binary; there are richer ways to describe the issue and they are needed because each College must define its own educational identity and objectives,” he said.  “Here, we strongly support academic freedom, and we seek to hear and learn from the concerns of our students, but we also rely on our mission statement for essential guidance to all we do educationally; that mission statement articulates the noble aims
we pursue in the classroom and
beyond.”

Martin went on to quote a portion of F&M’s mission statement: “To inspire in young people of high promise and diverse backgrounds a genuine and enduring love for learning, to teach them to read, write and think critically, to instill in them the capacity for both independent and collaborative action, and to educate them to explore and understand the natural, social and cultural worlds in which they live.”

Senior Steven Viera is a senior editor. His email is sviera@fandm.edu.

Senior Julia Cinquegrani is the Editor-in-Chief. Her email is jcinqueg@fandm.edu.

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