The video of my first-day lecture to students in my editing class has garnered some attention, but despite the hundreds of thousands of viewers who have applauded it, a handful of people have objected to it because it is described as a “trigger warning.”
I am thus castigated, taking one at random: “Making fun of people who have to deal with mental illness in college totally makes you and this professor look really witty and smart.”
Mind you, there is nothing in the half a dozen minutes of the video (some complained that it was too long) ridiculing or denigrating people with mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder. The objection was merely over my jocular use of “trigger warning.” In previous semesters I had described that lecture as a Miranda warning, which I trust will lead to criticism of my lack of respect for the constitutional safeguards of the Fifth Amendment.
I know my limits. I know how to teach English grammar and usage. I know how to demonstrate the craft of editing. I know how to train and monitor editors. I cannot furnish a sense of humor for the humorless.
But the whole phenomenon of trigger warnings and “safe spaces” merits some attention.
I experienced a proto-trigger warning all those years ago in Professor Robert Anderson’s New Testament class at Michigan State, in which he found it necessary to emphasize on the first day that it was to be a class on academic study of the texts, not an opportunity to testify. And he had to repeatedly deal with students who came to the class with a literalist understanding of the Bible who found the academic approach disquieting.
If I were teaching English literature, I would not dream on embarking upon Huckleberry Finn without an extensive discussion of the language and the racial attitudes presented in the novel. I could not imaging teaching Nabokov’s Lolita without first identifying pedophilia as a core aspect of the book and talking about how to deal with it.
And obviously, given how widespread sexual abuse and exposure to physical violence are in our culture, it is incumbent on all who teach to be sensitive to the difficulties students may have in dealing with sensitive material.
But it is also obvious, or perhaps should be, that the requirement of trigger warnings and safe spaces is ripe for abuse.
We already see the safe spaces that fundamentalists on state boards of education have created by requiring biology textbooks that treat creationism as a theory equally scientifically valid as evolution, so as not to shake the faith of the pious.
It is not hard to imagine how trigger-warning and safe-spaces policies could be exploited to stifle anything that conflicts with a student’s preconceived beliefs and attitudes, leaving the faculty on the defensive and the university hobbled in the free exchange of ideas.
It will be instructive to see how this plays out.