Monday, February 25, 2013

Trigger warnings in the history classroom

Since a colleague alerted me to it last week, I've been mulling over Ruxandra Looft's guest post at Shakesville on trigger warnings in the classroom.  A lesson on the recent use of sexist language by a German politician led her to consider how and when to use trigger warnings with her students.  A taste:

But what happens when a student is trapped in a classroom where a discussion brings up terrible and traumatic memories? How can a student easily and subtly remove herself from that moment?

I have thought about prefacing our discussions with a trigger warning introduction to the class but I question how effective that would be. By saying that we are going to discuss topics of a sensitive nature that may make some people uncomfortable and offering students the chance to leave, aren't the very students meant to be spared then singled out and isolated in front of the entire class? While well intentioned, that offer seems useless at best and marginalizing at worst.

The other option? Steering clear of volatile topics in the classroom and playing it safe. But by not talking about harassment, the sorry state of gender equality, and the heroic efforts put forth by activists seems akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There has to be a better way. But how does one work trigger warnings into the classroom lesson plan? How does a teacher effectively and sensitively negotiate topics that require trigger warnings and how are escape options presented in a sensitive and appropriate manner to students whose past traumas follow them into the classroom?

Looft's questions, and the countless anecdotes shared in the comment section, made me think about the ways that I might be failing my students, and how I might create a more welcoming and productive environment in the classroom. 

Teaching the first half of the U.S. survey leads me through some pretty thorny topics, but the one that often concerns me the most is the pervasive sexual violence perpetrated against black women, particularly the enslaved.  As part of a larger conversation on patriarchy, the sexual prerogative of Anglo-American males is a vital part of understanding the social and cultural history of the United States.  But at this point, I'm sadly too aware that every time I teach this class, there are students sitting in front of me who are the victims of sexual violence, and I shouldn't force them to confront their trauma anew in my classroom if they aren't comfortable doing so. 

At the start of the semester, I tell my students that we'll be talking about things like rape, but I don't think that's good enough.  Looft is right to argue that delivering a more specific trigger warning at the start of a class period is even worse; no student can excuse themselves without drawing attention in that situation.  I think it's incumbent upon me to start placing information in my syllabus alerting students to discussions of triggering material.

I do think, however, that refreshing that trigger warning in the classroom and setting the tone for the day can be important and productive.  The unease some students feel discussing topics like rape can lead to uncouth, immature comments that make everyone uncomfortable, and I'm the first to admit I'm terrible at handling those situations.  When a student makes an immature remark about rape, no matter what their motivation, I feel like I've been punched in the gut, and all of my teacher training disappears.  But our obligation as teachers is to make the classroom a safe space by laying the groundwork early and nipping problems in the bud, as I started to learn in my first semester leading discussion.  Not knowing how to deal with a student's inappropriate and misogynistic behavior, I hoped it would go away, only to have another male student in the class ask me at the end of the semester why I hadn't done anything to stop someone who was poisoning the learning environment.  None of my excuses - I was a new teacher, I didn't want to create a scene, I was as intimidated by this person as my students were - should have kept me from doing what was right, and I am still ashamed by how much I failed my students that semester.

Reflecting on that episode, there are a few conclusions I can draw.  First of all, I think it shows that we never know who our classes are going to impact in this way, making trigger warnings all the more important.  Secondly, I think it's clear that trigger warnings shouldn't just be stated or included in the syllabus.  Instead, we might talk with our students about what they are and why they are important.  After all, if an affected student chooses to attend a class knowing what will be discussed, he or she should enter a classroom where the sensitive topic - rape, lynching, or the wounds of combat - will be treated with respect by the teacher and the students. -Erin

Friday, February 8, 2013

"I’m sorry if anyone in Connecticut felt insulted by these 15 seconds of the movie..."

After Joe Courtney called Lincoln's filmmakers out for presenting Connecticut's legislators in a historically inaccurate manner, screenwriter Tony Kushner has responded in an open letter in the Wall Street Journal.  He returns fire, appropriately noting that Connecticut's electoral support of Lincoln was not nearly as high as Courtney claimed, using the scholarship of CCSU's Matt Warshauer for support.  A valid point, certainly.

And yet the issue at hand, the voting record of Connecticut's congressmen, is addressed as follows:

We changed two of the delegation's votes, and we made up new names for the men casting those votes, so as not to ascribe any actions to actual persons who didn't perform them.  In the movie, the voting is also organized by state, which is not the practice in the House.  These alterations were made to clarify to the audience the historical reality that the Thirteenth Amendment passed by a very narrow margin that wasn't determined  until the end of the vote.  The closeness of that vote and the means by which it came about was the story we wanted to tell.  In making changes to the voting sequence, we adhered to time-honored and completely legitimate standards for the creation of historical drama, which is what Lincoln is.  I hope nobody is shocked to learn that I also made up dialogue and imagined encounters and invented characters.

One of the things that stands out to me in this apology-that's-not-an-apology is the issue of "the story we wanted to tell."  This has been one of the issues with Lincoln from the beginning; inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin's work, this movie had a specific interpretation (what historians would call the story they wanted to tell), and it would have been different had it been inspired by another scholar's work on Lincoln.  In choosing this interpretation, the people involved in the film did something similar to what we do when we write lectures.  We know the argument we want to make to our students, and we pick accounts and evidence that help us make that argument.  We are not supposed to make up evidence to support the argument we want to make - if we could do that, lecture writing would be much easier.

Kushner says, rightly so, that this is a work of historical fiction.  The story they wanted to tell was a national one, focused around one man and one amendment, and the changes made could be made, apparently, because this wasn't a story about Connecticut and its "tangled regional history."  Kushner says that the changes made to Connecticut's voting record are not so bad because he also changed the names of the congressmen, all in service of telling the story.  I find it very hard to believe that a Tony-winning writer and Oscar-winning director didn't have the creative capacity between them to tell the story they wanted to tell without actively falsifying the historical record in this particular way.  While I am the first to get on my high horse about how New Englanders don't know their own region's racist past (and present), for Kushner to say we're all overreacting about these 15 seconds is deeply problematic and rather patronizing.  -Erin

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Spielberg's roll call called on the carpet

Spielberg's Lincoln has been endlessly discussed by historians, and I have read many articles and roundtables on the subject.  I went to see it on New Year's Eve with my father, who rarely goes to films, but was interested in going when I raised the prospect.  We both found it deeply moving, and its clear explanations of some thorny 19th century political issues made me cheer.  We saw the film in a theater in a small town in New York, because our neighboring small town in northwest Connecticut doesn't have one, and I heard a crowd of New Yorkers and Nutmeggers gasp in surprise when the vote began and a Connecticut congressman voted against the amendment. 

I will admit, I didn't know how the Connecticut delegation had voted, and I was quite willing to believe it was split, and Spielberg had included it to drive home the existence of New England racism.  Now Joe Courtney, who represents most of Eastern Connecticut in Congress is demanding an apology and a correction from Spielberg, as the congressional records show that the entire Connecticut delegation voted for the 13th amendment.  He's even provided us with a scan of the page showing the votes.  Provided this all holds up, and there's no error here, I would be interested in reading Spielberg and Kushner's explanation of the choices made to change knowable historical facts for the screenplay of the film.  What historical and artistic work were these changes meant to accomplish?  Joe Courtney, his staff, and whoever else was involved in prompting this (perhaps some historians in the state itself) may have just shown us another dimension to the historical work Mr. Everyman can do. -Erin

ETA: The Atlantic ran a piece on historical inaccuracies that included pseudonyms given to Democrats who voted against the amendment.