Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 4, 2015

an imaginary student replies to Freddie deBoer

Freddie deBoer imagines a kind of universal trigger warning, perhaps to be issued to students on their arrival at college:

You’re going to be exposed to stuff you don’t like at college. We will try to give you a heads up about the stuff that might upset you, but what is considered potentially offensive is an inherently political, value-laden question, and we aren’t always going to agree with your prior beliefs about that question. We cannot guarantee that everything you might be offended by will come with a warning, and we are under no obligation to attempt to provide one. We will try to work with you with compassion and respect, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to deal with the curriculum that we impose, and not our responsibility to make sure that it doesn’t bother you. If you can’t handle that, you don’t belong in college.

That’s very well said, and I agree with pretty much every word — but I think that a great many students in almost all of our universities will dissent from its premises. They may not be able to articulate their dissent clearly; they may not even consciously formulate it; but I think a dissent is implicit in much of what I read about the various trigger-warnings controversies.

It might go something like this:

You speak of “the curriculum [you] impose,” but I deny that you have the right to impose anything. I am passing through this place, headed for the next stage of my life — possibly graduate education in some form or another, more probably a job — and I am paying you to prepare me for that next stage. In short, we have a business contract in which I am your client, and it is your job to serve what I perceive my needs to be, not what you may happen to think they are. It’s not as though we’re living in that long-ago age when universities were considered repositories of timeless wisdom and professors custodians of that wisdom. You faculty are employees of an ideological state apparatus in a neoliberal regime that constitutes itself by a series of implied or explicit contracts in which goods are exchanged for fees. Please stop acting like this is the University of Paris in the age of Aquinas and we’re all seeking transcendent wisdom. I control my own values and am not even interested in yours, much less willing to be subservient to them. So do the job I am paying you to do and shut up about all that other crap.


  • What's remarkable is that we're in this era of assessment and looking for evidence-based approaches and "getting tough" about student learning, yet essentially no one in power seems to want to ask if maybe this service mentality has hurt students and degraded their capacity to learn.

  • Exactly! Students behave exactly as we have taught them to behave and when they do we exclaim, "Kids these days!" (I didn't make that clear in this post. My bad.)

  • this is EXACTLY why the correct answer to this is PRICE determination!

    Freddie, PRICE college loans based on ability to pay (major selected and job placement stats for college) & amount borrowed...

    OVERNIGHT, your "this is how we do it here" will deliver a lower cost college experience.

  • Only one thing perhaps amiss in your imaginary student's response: it seems doubtful that they would reference Aquinas or even know who he is. At least not if they're UC Berkeley students, who appear to want white males (even gay Foucault) banished from a course on _classic_ social theorists (http://www.dailycal.org/2015/01/20/occupy-syllabus/).

  • I'm opposed to the politically-correct concept of trigger-warnings though discretionary warnings about reading/viewing materials that may involve evocative (not necessarily overly and gratuitously graphic) violent or sexual content may be a useful tool for helping students that have experienced serious real-life trauma to asses whether a course is right for him/her. For example, I know a professor that showed the Children of Men in a film-theory class and one of his students, unbeknownst to the professor, was a veteran. The student didn't accuse the professor of insensitivity or upsetting him, etc.--he simply informed the professor that, as a military veteran who experienced real combat and suffered from PTSD, a few of the film's scenes hit him a bit too close and simply asked the instructor if he could give a word of notice beforehand if any other films considered similar content.

    The principle here isn't that a work--written or visual--upsets one's worldview and opinions, it rather concerns giving notice about content that may re-trigger trauma for persons who've experienced the real thing. This isn't what deBoer refers to above, nonetheless it's something that we ought to acknowledge more in discussions about (and distinguish from) the intellectually-stifling politically-correct concept of trigger-warnings.

  • What if a school told its prospective students:

    "The faculty here will impose a curriculum on you, the same curriculum they impose on themselves. While our graduates do very well in graduate school and in the job market, you won't be much occupied with those matters during your studies here. They won't serve as a preparation for the next stage of life in particular, but rather for your life as a whole, whatever professional path you might take. The things you will study here are sources of timeless wisdom. In some ways, the contemplative life here might remind you of the University of Paris in the age of Aquinas. You will be required to seek transcendent wisdom, or at least to responsibly inquire into whether there is such a thing. While everyone controls their own values in some limited ways, here you will , together with you fellow students and teachers, subject those values to radical scrutiny."

    How many students would sign up for such a thing?

  • M. Caswell--

    What's the enrollment at St. John's? :)

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