Trigger warnings: Part II

Isadore Weiner

Isadore Weiner

At the end of the spring semester, m’colleague and I asked what the students thought of the book we’d selected for the advanced writing about literature course we’d co-taughtThe Reader, by Bernhard Schlink. Before the semester began, we had talked about the sexual content of the book. I’ll admit that I was less concerned than m’colleague was about it. I didn’t think the sex was very explicitly discussed in the book; I’ve read much more graphic content in other works of literary fiction. Still, several of the students wrote on the discussion board that the sex made them uncomfortable. A couple of these wished we had given them a more comprehensive heads-up than we did. (I recall that we both told the class that there would be some sex in the book at the beginning of the semester.)

Over the course of the semester, about half of the class developed papers about the abuse in The Reader—more than I was expecting. Perhaps the research these students did or the fact that several class discussions involved the sex and its abusive nature kept these topics at the forefronts of these students’ minds. I am glad that the students were able to rise to the occasion, in spite of their reservations about the book’s content; they wrote incredible papers and made wonderful, insightful comments during discussions.

This is not what happened at Columbia University. Taylor Sperry recently wrote about four students’ objections to Ovid’s MetamorphosesThese students created a petition to require instructors who wanted to use Metamorphoses (and other texts with triggering content, presumably) in their courses to include trigger warnings on the syllabi. Sperry writes:

This initiative was sparked by a recent incident in which a student—a survivor of sexual assault—“described being triggered” during her reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and who subsequently “completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.”

I’ve written about trigger warnings before and even discussed them during a presentation about censorship in schools. I still have a lot of the same reservations about trigger warnings. I think they’re a soft form of censorship. Faculty may be reluctant to include books with literary, academic, and social merit because they have to wade through the minefield of trigger warnings. Students may use trigger warnings to skip over course content.

My concerns, however, are nothing compared to the backlash that advocates for trigger warnings have received from literary critics, faculty, and other people with more opinions than compassion. Sperry rounds up a number of insensitive responses in her article that make anti-trigger warning folks look like complete jerks. Trigger warnings, if nothing else, deserve reasonable discussion.

Sperry’s article and my experience with the advanced writing class caught me off-guard. Because I have no such trauma in my past, it’s hard to for me to truly understand how someone could be so triggered by sex, abuse, or similar content that they can’t step back and see the part that content plays in the larger work. Metamorphoses is not just about rape or infanticide. The Bible is not about murder or rape, either. The Reader is not about rough statutory rape.

I’m not sure how the discussion should be presented or framed, but trigger warnings put the focus on such a small part of works that get chosen for college courses that it blows them out of proportion.

2 thoughts on “Trigger warnings: Part II

  1. I was not aware of this controversy. It’s too fresh in my mind to have an informed opinion, but it’s rather weird that the students would want a trigger warning for the sex in the Reader, while the extermination camp scenes wouldn’t need warnings? We don’t read to be challenged all the time in our leisure time (I do like some comfort reads sometimes) but in a class, I would expect to be put out of my comfort zone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s my thinking–but then, I’m not triggered by extreme content in books.

      Also, you’re absolutely right about how more people are bothered by sexual content or violence + sexual content than they are by horrific violence. When I read The Reader, I was most affected by the death march scenes and the church fire than by anything that happened to the narrator.

      I spoke to m’colleague about it after the last class session. She thinks the focus on sex is an American thing. (She’s German.) I haven’t heard about students in other countries clambering for trigger warnings. Are these American things only?


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