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Trigger Warning. This post contains trigger warnings.

May 23, 2014



Much debate about these right now.  This debate can become quite useful and liberating if properly focused.

Increasingly in academia there has been discussion as to the nature and extent of advance warning that students should receive regarding material that might be shocking or distressing.  These “trigger warnings” might refer to anything from racial slurs casually cited by Mark Twain to a poem that has the word “rape ” in it.

I teach Sade.   I don’t like him but I teach him because he helps to organise some fascinating conversations.  When you teach Sade then warning people about what’s coming is only polite and common sense.  Sade, I should state immediately, is an option within an option on my course.  The course in question is elective to begin with, and having elected the module as a whole – nobody is forced to study Sade in detail.  They are however required to endure an hour of discussion on Sade.

As I say to students – you do not have to write an essay about Sade – there are other options.  You do not have to like Sade or respect him in any way.  If your view is that the works of the Marquis are just nasty and dangerous and profoundly wrong then yours is a perfectly respectable point of view and enjoys a perfectly respectable intellectual pedigree.  You may want to think about how to theorise your offence.

Students have certain important rights.  I cannot bring myself to accept that students have the right never to be offended, because having one’s values challenged is an integral aspect of the learning process.  Trigger warnings can serve a purpose but hopefully not the purpose of a deterrence.  What trigger warnings can certainly do is provoke an argument about the legitimation of offence.  Students do not have the right to be protected from that which gives offence but they have every right to express their sense of offence.  Part of the problem (no all of the problem) involves perceived power dynamics within higher education.  Too often, it is assumed that if a text is on the course it carries with it a kind of unimpeachable authority.  Too often, it is assumed that students are required to endorse or admire material because of the canonical authority conferred upon it by its pedagogic status.

Lecturers can help the situation by being alert to the unexpected possibilities of “offence”.  In the case of Sade these possibilities are not very unexpected but  students can react quite startlingly to material that lecturers may assume in innocuous.  And the students may well be right.  In a collegial learning environment (as opposed to a hierarchical accreditation factory), the life experience of students may well illuminate forms of injustice and exclusion embedded in texts which have eluded the people organising the module.

Students being able to express outrage is healthy.  Students being able to startle lecturers with their passionate response is pretty much essential.  But students opting out of anything which might upset them ain’t good for anyone.


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One Comment
  1. I put warnings in my syllabi if there is explicit material or other content that may upset people, such as the fact that Paul did not write certain letters attributed to him in the NT. But frankly, it is more to protect me than them.

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