Faculty to discuss “trigger warnings”

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Story by Alicia SteeleStaff writer

The Faculty Development Center is starting a series of “Coffee and Conversation” discussion meetings to talk about topics that affect teaching and learning on campus.

The first discussion will cover the topic of trigger warnings, which the Faculty Development Center defined as “statements or alerts on assignments or syllabi that warn students about explicit violence, sex or inflammatory content that might cause a strong emotional response.”

Elizabeth Price, Interim Faculty Development Center coordinator, said the idea of trigger warnings has emerged from blogs, especially feminist blogs and stories of sexual violence and other things that may have been difficult for someone to deal with.

“What you’re seeing happen is this idea of (trigger warnings) being put into classrooms, and of course this is very controversial on both sides,” Price said.

She said professors are concerned about trigger warnings because it could be an infringement of their academic freedom.

“But then of course on the other side you have students who have had a variety of different experiences in their lives, and we are much more aware of mental health issues than we have ever been probably in the past,” Price said. “And we don’t want to put students in a difficult position or interfere with their learning by forcing them to confront something that they can’t deal with.”

Price said she read articles that talk about trigger warnings from The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education that discuss why professors at other universities use trigger warnings.

Price said students requested an alternate assignment and were asking not to participate in the assignment based on moral grounds.

“That’s kind of this line that they’re finding trickier to negotiate,” Price said. “What causes emotional trauma versus what you object to morally. The whole idea of college for most people is the idea of helping you all bridge that gap from what you knew before you got here and then expand your mind into who you’re going to be and what you’re going to think after college. So when you have a preconceived set of ideas and you’re not willing to engage in materials that challenge those topics, are you missing out somehow on a college experience?”

Price said she is not for it or against it, but she would like to bring faculty together to have this conversation and talk about the best ways they have found to handle this type of situation.

Andrew Black, assistant professor of English, said he has not had an experience with trigger warnings, but he has noticed articles written in popular news sources.

He said there is a growing tendency to dismiss trigger warnings, and the tone of an article he read “almost suggests that we shut down the conversation altogether because of the nature of the challenge.”

“Unlike a lot of recent literature on the subject, which offers the typical generalization of millennials, I respect students too much to see these concerns as shallow or immature,” Black said. “Rather, it offers me as a professor an opportunity to be transparent about what I teach and why I teach it.”

Paul Walker, associate professor of English, said he believes trigger warnings are not necessary in the classroom because anyone attending a public university should expect that new and possibly emotionally triggering ideas will be presented.

“When a student attends and pays tuition at a public university, doing so implicitly and explicitly expresses a willingness to learn new perspectives about the world,” Walker said. “Which includes perspectives that could lead to questioning beliefs, cultures, practices and mindsets – all of which can be laced with emotion or past trauma.”

Walker said while exceptional cases occur, using trigger warnings is a way to coddle students and portray them as less capable of managing their emotions and making decisions about information they come across while attending Murray State and in the world.

“If we want to produce students who are critical thinkers and responsible citizens, we should try to avoid trigger warnings and instead be transparent about the classroom as a space for active learning, where openness to all perspectives is welcome, but disagreement and dissonance are also encouraged and dealt with in mature and sensitive ways,” Walker said.

Walker said he has never had a student ask for an alternate assignment, but has had students say they were uncomfortable with the class discussion, in which case he led a discussion on discomfort’s role in learning, and how to productively listen, question and explore one’s ideas.

Two discussions about trigger warnings are planned, and all instructors and administrators are welcome to attend either session Monday from 1:30 until 2:30 p.m. or Thursday from 8:30 until 9:30 a.m. in room 107 in the Oakley Applied Science building. Free coffee will be provided to            attendees.