Warning: this post is about trigger warnings. I know many people are hypersensitive to these things, even to the point of being deeply offended by them, so I thought I’d be nice and let you know what’s coming up before proceeding below the fold.
Miri has a good article on trigger warnings that makes the point that these are routine and common. She’s right. I use them all the time, and here are a few examples.
In my introductory biology course, the first thing I tell the first-year students is that there is going to be a heavy emphasis on evolution…and that furthermore, essentially every course in the biology curriculum uses evolution as a framework.
In my neurobiology course, I let the students know when they sign up that it is going to be a math-heavy course, and that they’re going to be surprised by how much chemistry they’re going to need.
In my developmental biology course, I have a section on teratology, and specifically on human birth defects. I always warn the students at the beginning of those lectures that I’m going to be showing photos of deformed human fetuses.
Critics seem to think that trigger warnings are all about attempts to censor and hide information, but it’s quite the opposite. It’s good pedagogy. It is respectful to the students. It’s about alerting them to the presence of emotionally difficult material in the course.
You will not be surprised to learn that many American students have a reflexive opposition to the teaching of evolution: they think it is “controversial”. The worst of them may even have been told it is Satanic. That, obviously, is not an attitude that is conducive to learning. Some of them even believe that you can study biology without understanding evolution.
Slapping them in the face with the facts does not reduce the resistance to new ideas — I have to prime them. I let them know what the course is about, I tell them what to expect in other courses, and there are no surprises. They may be primed to oppose what the instructor is saying, but at least they’ll be alert and engaged. So that’s one purpose of a trigger warning: to mark the boundaries of what will be discussed, and in advance to set the boundaries outside the student’s comfort zone.
Another important principle is informed consent, and that trigger warning provides the necessary information. Most students don’t have a clue what a course is about within our discipline. Cell biology? Oh, you look in microscopes a lot, right? No: it’s mostly chemistry and molecular biology. Neurobiology? Isn’t that like Psych 101? No: the physiology part is a lot of quantitative electrochemistry, with added molecular biology.
Now you may be wondering whether these really deserve to be called “trigger warnings” — maybe you have a set of preconceptions that trigger warnings are nothing but avoidance mechanisms for cowardly liberals. You’d be wrong. Trigger warnings are about being aware that something you’re going to say in some way violates accepted norms — it’s about being able to recognize that the material you’re presenting may be breaking boundaries of someone’s accepted standards. And since teaching is all about exposing students to new ideas, you had better be conscious of what breaks students’ comfort zones, or you’re a lousy teacher.
My example of what I do in my developmental biology course probably best fits what most people think of as being a standard trigger warning: I’m going to show them something horrible that is going to elicit a strong emotional reaction in some people. And I know some people think that’s ridiculous, if they’re taking an embryology course, they should have a thicker skin and be able to look at dead deformed babies. If they’re taking a physiology course they ought to be able to look at spurting blood with casual disregard. If they’re taking a course in the sociology of crime, they ought to be able to regard rape with equanimity.
That’s exactly wrong. The purpose of these classes isn’t to cultivate callousness, but knowledge and awareness. There has to be some degree of objectivity — you don’t want professionals to melt down in a blubbering mess every time they encounter trauma — and part of the process of achieving that objectivity has to be preparation and a kind of psychological bracing that the warning gives.
Again, this isn’t about sheltering people from uncomfortable truths. The people who most need trigger warnings for emotional impact are those who already have the most intimate and direct knowledge of the phenomenon being discussed. A teacher does not need to lecture drily to a person who has experienced a miscarriage or rape to get the message across — they already know that part of it. And the people who most need a warning about information that will defy their preconceptions are those who are most ignorant about it.
You know, human beings have evolved these sophisticated modes of communication and these elaborate social interactions to help us function as a group. We recognize that there are all kinds of messages we send to people to help them cope: we fret and fuss over exactly how to deliver bad news, how to persuade people, how to inspire enthusiasm, how to prepare our children for the real world, how to convey courtesy, how to put personality into an email message. Blunt recital of facts is rarely interesting or persuasive.
So why do people get so hostile to the idea of wrapping a message in context and preceding it with a signal about the nature of the content to be delivered? It’s what humans have always done. If you think otherwise, you’re oblivious to human nature, history, and the principles of good communication.