In Colleges, Content Warnings Trigger a Debate

July 15, 2014

In higher education, an issue du jour involves the debate over “trigger warnings.” This is the notion that college teachers should take special care to warn students that a particular course of study or discussion, or a particular work of art, may be upsetting, even traumatic. It’s a topic that seems simultaneously like an El Niño in a martini glass, and also a gateway issue, if you will, leading to deeper questions about America’s educational system.

From an institutional perspective, the subtext is that considering the soaring cost of tuition, young people — and you could add, their parents — expect, and feel entitled to, a wide range of protections. Linda Simon, who recently retired from her position as an English teacher at Skidmore College after 16 years, sums it up, “[For] $63,000 a year in tuition, students feel as though you owe them a ‘positive experience’.”

But in terms of curricula, particularly in conservatories, what does that mean? And who should establish the standards for this positive experience? How should the standards be enforced? And finally, faculty concern over freedom of speech aside, at what point does protection result in a negative experience, however you define that?

Popping the Bubble

Jo Sarzotti, best known as a poet, is also the acting director of Interdivisional Liberal Arts at Juilliard. She remembers few complaints over the years objecting to sexual or violent content, and most of those came from religious students.

“Last fall,” Sarzotti wrote in a recent email, “I had a student complain in a student evaluation form that I used abortion as an example of a difficult ethical decision (in a course titled Ethics, Conscience, and the Good Life — a core requirement) without first consulting students’ religious beliefs (not sure how I would do that). I do not think this student was traumatized, but I will raise this issue next fall when I teach the class.”

Sarzotti went on to say that she wonders whether the whole issue of triggers has been overblown, and whether it may be part of a move toward censorship from the religious right.

My first reaction to this story was, how on earth do these students live in the world without being constantly “triggered” by news events? They must live in bubbles of some kind I can't imagine. At Juilliard, especially in Liberal Arts, we make efforts to expose our students to the world, break through their bubbles, get them out of the practice room, rehearsal hall, at least for a bit. We believe students are “entitled” to as broad a vision as possible through reading and discussing great works of literature, philosophy, history, etc, as well as considering current events from many perspectives. They should grapple with “difficult” texts, images, ideas, music; living a good life is also “difficult,” and they should be prepared.”

As for the question of how institutions should handle triggers, she wonders whether the problem really needs a formal response. “I don’t want to seem callous, and it is a hard question; I think some description of assigned material is always in order anyway, but I would draw the line at excluding texts for their potentially “traumatizing” effects.”

Trauma vs. Difficulty

One example of an apparently traumatizing text is Dream Boy, a 1995 novel by Jim Grimsley, about incest and Gay adolescent love. In an opinion piece in May, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the head of the English Department at Skidmore College, Mason Stokes, recounted how, 15 years ago, he was teaching a course in LGBT literature and a young woman, an incest survivor, read Grimsley’s novel and afterward spent a week in a psychiatric hospital.

As an aside, the desire for trigger warnings in academe has apparently grown out of certain feminist and social justice blogs, to identify posts focused on sexual assault and eating disorders.

Stokes apologized to the student who continued the course with the arrangement that the novel would not be included on the final exam, and she wouldn’t have to write an assigned paper. “Had I issued a trigger warning about this novel, we could have negotiated these terms in advance, avoiding the trauma that sent my student to the hospital.”

“Those who oppose trigger warnings like to lambast the millennial generation for being whiny and sheltered, so afraid of life that it must be protected from it. But this is to conflate difficulty with trauma …” — Professor Mason Stokes, Skidmore College

Stokes ended his piece by saying, “Those who oppose trigger warnings like to lambast the millennial generation for being whiny and sheltered; so afraid of life that it must be protected from it. But this is to conflate difficulty with trauma, to miss the distinction between that which helps us find our place in the world, and that which removes us from it.”

But one’s student’s trauma may be another’s mere difficulty. Where do you set the bar for the majority of students? L. Michael Griffel, chair of the history department at Juilliard points out that such personal issues as parental divorce, bullying, love gone bad, and pregnancy also cause distress. “Even comedians’ monologues, while making the majority of an audience laugh, tend to upset and hurt some people, because jokes often rely on the vulnerabilities and misdeeds of people.”

Griffel suggests that the responsibility lies with students to reveal personal concerns as they enter school, and the syllabus should clarify courses that may be ‘difficult.’ “This is the extent to which I would “trigger” my course. … Beyond the syllabus warning, a teacher can — and I sometimes do — state in class that we will be discussing X (for instance, the treatment of lust in Strauss’ Salome) in our next class meeting. This gives a student an opportunity to be absent if the topic is too distasteful. Surely, if an entire course were to be about sexual cravings in opera, that student should not register for it!”

On the Danger of Forgetting

WarsawBut what’s the real danger here? It’s that proportion is lost, that personal sensitivities undermine cultural continuity, that teachers shy away from difficulty and complexity, and that books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, even Huckleberry Finn, will be left out for fear someone is traumatized.

Or think of Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, which, you’ll remember, begins with a man, a Jew, trying to remember how he came to be living in the city’s sewers during the Warsaw uprising that began in August, 1944. On the one hand, who would object to hearing a seven-minute classical music piece that includes narration?

On the other hand, what sort of triggers would be appropriate in order to analyze the piece, which, as an aside, is not historically accurate, but rather a flight of imagination drawing together a mash of real events. So let’s say as a teacher you wished to sort out the facts and trace them to their source, or else try to document and explore the horror behind the narration’s climax, the singing of that most sacred Jewish prayer, Shema Yisroel; how would you approach that? What material would you use to explore?

In his 2010 history, Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder writes a devastating and relentless description of the uprising, including the notorious, barely believable cruelties of SS Special Commando, Oskar Dirlewanger. Would you use that? In her 2011 film, In Darkness, Polish director Agnieszka Holland leaves you with a heartbreaking, R-rated, true story of Jewish survivors living in the sewers of Lvov, which parallels similar experiences in Warsaw. Would you use that?

“What does the text of Survivor mean to me?” Schoenberg once wrote. “It means … a warning to all Jews never to forget what has been done to us … We should never forget this, even if such things have not been done in the matter in which I describe in the Survivor. This does not matter. The main thing is, that I saw it in my imagination.”

And so the question remains, how much detail is required for students to remember, not just understand, the context for Schoenberg’s music, and by extension remember the Warsaw uprising, and by further extension remember something of the Holocaust, itself?

Personal Spaces

Interestingly, this question of triggers, and by association the whole issue of entitlement, seems to be largely an American quandary. And a quandary more for colleges than conservatories, where the focus is, obviously, less on liberal arts topics than on tradecraft. Moreover, conservatories are still apprenticeship environments and achievement-based; a sense of entitlement has no traction.

Jeremy Cox, the chief executive officer of L’Association Européenne des Conservatoires (AEC), is based in Brussels and offered this perspective in an email:

For students over 18 taking studies at the Bachelor, Masters, or Doctoral level, the assumption would be that they have the intellectual and emotional maturity, and an a priori affinity with the expression of all human experience through art, to be resilient in the face of all the challenges that the subject matter or context might raise. Indeed, I would say that there remains a sense of an educational obligation not to side-step these issues.

In fact, if anything, this sense of obligation has been strengthened in recent years. Conservatoires are very conscious of the need for their education to involve more than the production of musicians who play spectacularly well but are lacking in ideas and reflective capacity. This is partly a function of the reform process in European higher education known as the “Bologna Process,” launched by a declaration in 1999 and now in its second ten-year phase (2000-2010, 2011-2020). This process has made the “three-cycle” Bachelor, Master, Doctorate pattern uniform across all higher education and, for conservatoires, has replaced what were often professional-style diplomas. …”

Cox adds that while there are some particular areas where trigger warnings have begun to influence teaching practices in European conservatories, it is a minor concern. A more pressing concern is the growing sensitivity toward cultural diversity in Europe. The widening river of immigrants from Africa and southern Asia has led administrators to steer teachers away from a Eurocentric perspective.

“For students over 18 … the assumption would be that they have the intellectual and emotional maturity … to be resilient in the face of all the challenges that the subject matter or context might raise.” — Jeremy Cox, CEO of L’Association Européenne des Conservatoires

And there is one other problem of growing concern: “the invasion of the intimate, physical space of the student and, in a situation of one-to-one teaching, (which) might cause misunderstanding, distress and worse.” Cox gives the example of the singing teacher needing to touch a student to monitor the diaphragm, and notes there is growing recognition that institutions have a legal responsibility to discourage the abuses of the intimate, one-to-one, teacher-student relationship.

“Some recent prominent cases — in the UK, for example — have brought to light the darker side of what is generally still seen as a positive, and perhaps even essential, aspect of the conservatoire teaching tradition. Students generally benefit from working under the close and individual tutelage of a leading exponent of their instrument. Such a teacher can be not only a pedagogue but also a role model and a sponsor of their early forays into the profession.

Unfortunately, this also means that the teacher can be an all-pervasive figure in students’ lives — able to inhibit as well as promote their careers if there is a falling-out in the relationship. As a result, even students who are themselves adults can feel powerless to assert their own wishes or concerns within the teaching relationship. Accepting behaviour that upsets them may feel a lesser evil than risking having their career prospects blighted.

The Great Expectation

In May, in a New York Times story, “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” Marc Blecher, professor of politics and East Asian Studies at Oberlin, was quoted as saying, “If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified. Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone.”

Asked to expand his comments, he replied in an email, “my main point was not the defensive one that they nonetheless quoted, but rather the uses for which academic freedom is designed — i.e., stimulating hard thinking and rigorous, unflinching analysis in our students.”

“ … allowing people to feel safe and comfortable in a classroom environment — and encouraging students to express themselves and be who they are — is a great [intention], but I don’t think we should confuse that with the role of education, which is also to equip people to deal with the significant challenges we all face as we pass through life.” — David Stull, president of San Francisco Conservatory

He added, “I hope and trust this thing is now burning itself out, and I've decided to promote that by not saying anything further in public about it.” He suggested having a word with David Stull, the former dean of Oberlin Conservatory who last year came to head the San Francisco Conservatory.

Stull’s perspective is that the debate over triggers has grown out of unanswered questions about the literary cannon — what should be included and what not — as well as the trend among colleges to assume the role of “service organizations.” This is especially true among the most expensive schools where, as he puts it, “sometimes seems as if students are buying a resort package rather than an education.”

And so it’s in this brackish water that institutions are becoming sensitive to the issue of entitlement. As for triggers, Stull says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I think allowing people to feel safe and comfortable in a classroom environment — and encouraging students to express themselves and be who they are — is a great one, but I don’t think we should confuse that with the role of education, which is also to equip people to deal with the significant challenges we all face as we pass through life.”

He points out that class discussion may reveal passionate points of view, which in turn need analysis and refinement. And during that process students can learn there may be more than just two sides of an issue, that everything is not a simple dialectic, and also that people with other points of view are not necessarily good or bad.

“Trigger warning proponents,” says Stull, “suggest it’s better to have warnings than discussions that might be offensive, but my view is that those discussions are not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is to imply that it’s possible to comprehensively offer trigger warnings and yet teach a class of substance. … It’s simply not a reality.”

Stull’s other, more pressing concern is that triggers and the notion of being entitled to a ‘positive experience’ are part of the broader issue of knowledge inequality, which runs parallel to income inequality. As administrative costs increase, including benefits, and public money for higher education decreases — along with pressure to offer ever-finer dorms, cafeterias, laboratories, and playing fields — a true quality education is less accessible, particularly as more and more schools look to find new ways to meet expectations, often at the expense of quality education. Online courses are one example, despite low completion rates and long-established evidence that the alchemy of teacher and student is a key to academic success.

As “more and more people don’t have access to quality higher education,” concludes Stull, “the tougher it’s going to be in this country to even have this debate. … The question is, as costs rise and the expectation of entitlement rises simultaneously, how does the college manage expectation relative to what they know they can deliver? That’s the question that has yet to come into focus.”

Mark MacNamara ( is a San Francisco-based journalist who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Nautilus. In recent months in SFCV, among other pieces, he has written about a music director accused of embezzlement; a profile of conductor Alondra de la Parra; an essay about the controversy over ‘trigger warnings’ for college courses; a report on a strike at the Metropolitan Opera; and a feature about the housing problem for artists in San Francisco.