Trigger warnings and being responsible for your students

There’s been a spate of articles this spring stoking a controversy about “trigger warnings” in college classes. I say stoking a controversy because I have yet to see much evidence that there is a real conflict around this, rather than some experimentation at a few campuses plus the looming interest of the chattering class, most of which enjoys both reminiscing about college and opining about the state of the youth today. For the sake of adding a bit of data to the conversation, I thought I’d share the strategy for content warnings I used in teaching this semester. (I’ll note that like all instructional practice, these are strategies I will surely tweak and revise in future semesters, and I welcome comments to that end.)

Why trigger warnings?

Trigger warnings, at least as I know them, come out of feminist and social justice blogging, where it’s become standard to add a brief alert to readings at the beginning of a post that deals with especially violent or graphic sexual content. So for example, if I wrote a piece about Jerry Sandusky, the post might begin: “Trigger Warning: child sexual abuse.” The idea is to alert readers who have undergone trauma of their own that they are about to encounter information that might set off a particularly strong reaction.

Some instructors at colleges have taken up similar practices, and according to the reporting I linked above, it seems that student groups at a few campuses have been pushing to encourage (or perhaps require?) all instructors to consider doing so.

Much of the negative reaction to trigger warnings seems to fall into two camps, fear about censorship and concern about coddling students. I sympathize with these concerns, which I think may be rooted in our shared experience of an increasingly corporatized university system where intellectual freedom may be under a slow assault. Yes, there are many ways in which universities have come to see young people as customers to be attracted and appeased, not as students to be pushed and challenged. But I encourage other instructors to at least momentarily set aside political concerns and consider the issue from a pedagogical and ethical point of view. I think that something like a trigger warning can be a useful tool for creating a classroom environment that feels safe enough for students to be able to tackle difficult subjects. Continue reading


Unsettling truths

Read this report on the untruth of Russia-based news coverage claiming Odesa’s Jewish community is making plans for a mass evacuation. Then let us think about the rather postmodern unsettling of truth in Ukraine today.

The Truth is Out There

It isn’t that the truth of a statement has become irrelevant, as strawman critiques claim as the basic postulate of postmodernism. Nor is it that words are simply reality–as though, because the world is known primarily through language, speaking a change immediately makes it so. Instead, the relationship between truth, statement, and time is complex. And as Putinism demonstrates, that relationship turns out to be manipulable. Continue reading

WWII and the power of stories


"Happy Victory Day!"

“Happy Victory Day!”

Russia is running out of stories.

On May 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an addition to Russia’s criminal code that establishes severe penalties for “rehabilitation of Nazism.” As the law states, this could include denying the findings of the International Criminal Court at Nuremburg or spreading false information about the activities of the USSR during World War II. Those found guilty may be fined up to 300,000 rubles (about $10,000) or subject to up to three years imprisonment, or even more if they use mass media.

Many countries, of course, have similar laws. But Russia’s new law has little to do with concerns about Holocaust deniers and everything to do with the current political need for an unambiguously pro-Russian official history of World War II.

Continue reading