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

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