Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

trigger warnings and trust

So, to continue my earlier post:

Last semester I taught a course called “Confession and Autobiography,” which covered some of the many types of self-writing from Augustine to ... Well, where should you conclude a course on that topic? After considerable reflection, I decided that I would choose Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. I knew that some of the subject matter of the book might be a bit challenging for some of my students — this is Texas, after all, and Baylor is a Christian school, drawing on a more socially and culturally conservative pool of students than many schools do — but Fun Home is a remarkable book, rich and complex and resistant to simplistic readings (not least those that tend to come from the cultural left). I also knew the students were juniors and seniors and would likely have the maturity to handle those challenges, as long as I gave them the proper context.

That last clause is key. If you want to be a good teacher, in any environment, you have be willing to prepare your students for what you assign them. As I have commented before, the decision of what books to assign is morally fraught, and the more seriously you think at that stage the better prepared you’ll be when the time comes for reading and discussion. So, having thought and prayed when I was ordering books, I was ready to spend some time on the first day of class explaining why I wanted them to read Fun Home.

But here’s the thing: there’s only so much you can do in advance. You can offer some kind of abstract description of what’s in a book, but such descriptions are necessarily inadequate at best and at worst profoundly distorting. So I wasn’t altogether surprised when, as the time for discussing Fun Home drew closer, that I had a couple of students expressing some anxiety about whether it was the kind of thing they wanted to read. (I might add that this was a course in Baylor’s Great Texts program, which students sign up for because they want to study the lastingly great, not the trend du jour.) And while I tried to reassure them, I knew that, in the end, the proof could only be in the pudding: it would only be after they had read the book and discussed it, under my leadership, in class that they could know whether the book was worthy of their time, and any discomfort it might cost them.

So really what I was saying to these students was: Please trust me. And even as I was saying that (though not exactly in those words) I was aware that Baylor students don't know me. I had been at Wheaton College for 29 years, and therefore was a thoroughly known entity. Any first-year student there taking a course from me could talk to dozens of other students who had taken classes from me and could say — I hope! — “He’s a good guy, you can trust him.” But at Baylor I’m the new guy.

Now, as it turns out, there were three students in that class who had had a class from me last fall. And maybe — I don't know — maybe they reassured the concerned students. All I know for sure is that I took half-an-hour out from one class meeting just to hear my students’ thoughts about reading the book, and got a lot of great feedback on the culture of the Great Texts program at Baylor. Then, when we actually got into Fun Home, we had some of our best discussions of the semester. The pieces of the puzzle, or so it seemed to me from the head of the table, seemed to fall beautifully into place. And I got two really outstanding term papers on Fun Home.

All of which — and here’s where I’m heading with both of these posts — shows how hopelessly misbegotten the whole idea of “trigger warnings” is. Even aside from the widespread failure, in discussions of this topic, to distinguish between (a) triggers experienced by people who have undergone severe trauma and (b) the discomfort experienced by anyone who’s encountering new and challenging ideas, there is a still deeper problem: a failure to realize that just as important as what you read is whom you read it with — the social and personal context in which you experience and discuss and reflect on a book.

A list of troublesome "topics" — basically, tagging books with simplistic descriptions — is an utter trivialization of all these matters. Any teachers who think that they have met their moral responsibilities to students by loading their syllabuses with such tags — and any institutions who  find such tags adequate — have grossly misunderstood what education is. And that would be true even if such tags could adequately capture the ways in which a given theme (sexual violence, say) is treated in a given work of art, which they can't.

If you trust your teacher and your fellow students, then you can risk intellectual encounters that might be more daunting if you were wholly on your own. That trust, when it exists, is grounded in the awareness that your teacher desires your flourishing, and that that teacher and your fellow students share at least some general ideas about what that flourishing consists in. Which is why, as I pointed out in my previous post and as Damon Linker has also just acknowledged, colleges and universities with distinctive religious commitments can be more open to many kinds of challenging ideas — including those from the past! — than their secular counterparts. Shared commitments build mutual trust, and there are few things more needful for those of us seeking knowledge and wisdom in academic communities.


  • a) thanks for this.

    b) "thoroughly known entity"?

  • I teach high school english in rural NC and just had an interesting time with the Porter scene in Macbeth. We read it in the original language and it went over most of their heads. Then we looked at the "no fear shakespeare" translation and the students were like "wait a minute, I didn't know Shakespeare wrote dirty stuff!!!" For high schoolers, a trigger warning or parental advisory slapped onto copies of Macbeth might actually be a really positive thing in getting them interested in it.

  • I found this really helpful, especially the point you drove toward in your last paragraph. Truly profound.

    It reminds me of Stanley Fish's book denying the reality of "free speech," and of his similar critiques of the of the untroubled way people tend to cite "academic freedom"—as if it were a recognized, neutral principle sitting above the fray instead of an object of contest being fought for by the combatants.

    It is an apparent paradox of this created world that we find the most freedom within explicit boundaries. The secular academy has had to establish such boundaries just as much as religious institutions of higher education have; secular schools just have trouble acknowledging that this is what they've done. And they have no ultimate basis for their boundaries, no foundation. Religious communities do.

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