Lewis Faculty Responds to Possible Trigger Warning Policy

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Photo courtesy of UCSB.edu: The trigger warnings measure by the University of California at Santa Barbara has prompted questions whether Lewis will implement a similar measure.

Stephanie Lipinski, Health Editor 

Freedom is a right in our country that many people take for granted; yet academic freedom has been put under a microscope, and not by school officials. College students around the country are beginning to call for trigger warnings on their classroom syllabi.

Trigger warnings began on blogs, specifically feminist blogs, cautioning readers to look for content such as rape, or assault that could produce violent flashbacks for women who have experienced domestic violence or any other forms of abuse. While the blogs had good intentions, this practice is now seeping into our school systems.

The student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara has recently passed a resolution that encourages professors to include trigger warnings in their syllabi. These trigger warnings are to caution students on the content of the lesson, be it a film, reading or discussion that might invoke emotional or physical distress. While this resolution is only advisory, and not mandatory for the faculty to follow, other colleges have begun to follow in UC Santa Barbara’s footsteps.

According to the LA Times, Oberlin College in Ohio has issued an official guideline on trigger subjects, such as racism, sexism, classism and other issues of privilege. Oberlin has even gone as far as to ask faculty to remove content from their class that could potentially invoke a reaction. On this list include famous novels, such as “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

While professors should understand and acknowledge that some students come from different backgrounds and experiences, the process of trigger warnings could be viewed as a form of censorship in our educational systems. The biggest question is, will this practice stick and will it be implemented at Lewis in the future?

“No, I don’t necessarily think we need a policy for that because again, it’s so broad, and what I would consider a trigger someone else might not,” said Dr. Perry Rendel, an assistant english professor here at Lewis.
Rendel agrees that it is important to build a world that is sensitive to trauma survivors, but is not convinced that trigger warnings are the answer.

“It almost contributes to the infantalization of people, typically women, who have experienced some kind of sexual assault. This idea that ‘oh your very sensitive and you must be treated sensitively.’ Is that going to help people heal?”

Jackie White, associate english professor agreed. “It’s not going to help you deal with any trauma you had to completely avoid it.”

Dr. White teaches Native American and Latino Literature, subjects that have a lot of bad history, such as dictators, torture and torment, which are all subjects that deal with sensitive material.

“The classroom should be a safe environment in which we can discuss troubling material, and most literature and film deals with troubling material,” said White. “The kind of irony is that film, literature and a lot of the academic material, such as philosophy and theology is meant to trigger some type of reaction. Meant

to get you to think about and deal with difficult issues.”

Rendel feels it is ultimately up to the class to interpret a traumatic scene in a novel or film. If schools begin to explicitly state what the content of a book or film is, it could restrict students’ critical thinking skills.

“Students should figure out on their own what that scene really is, but if you just tell them there goes an element of literary interpretation and critical thinking,” said Rendel.

While trigger warnings are meant to prevent students’ emotional reactions to violent scenes, White has found that exposing students to trauma can promote healing.

“What I find is that if students read something about an experience like one they’ve had, they feel reassured.” White explained that it gives the students hope; to see a character overcome the same obstacle they themselves are attempting to conquer.

That being said, both White and Rendel understand that faculty must be conscientious of their students. “I understand the student perspective,” said White, “which is we need to be sensitive about people who have certain disorders and make accommodations because that is just a general part of teaching.”

In researching the subject, White found that it is impossible to know what will trigger those with PTSD. “It might not be a similar experience that triggers a reaction,” said White. She explained it could be something as insignificant as someone’s perfume, a doughnut or even the angle of the sun.

With these faculty perspectives in mind, it seems clear that Lewis will not be applying this policy anytime soon. However, only time will tell as colleges across the nation choose to adapt to the requests of their students, or continue to promote open access to materials in the academic field, without warnings on content.

Stephanie Lipinski

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