Steelmanning and responding to trigger warning arguments

This post was spurred by the discussion about trigger warnings in academia over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Over the last year and a half or so, there have been a lot of terrible arguments about trigger warnings in college classrooms. Opponents of trigger warnings have depicted students with triggers as whiny, mollycoddled, censorious babies, incapable of handling life. They’ve drawn false parallels between exposure therapy – which is performed by a mental health professional in a controlled environment, after an assessment by that mental health professional that it would be a useful mode of treatment – and being triggered in class – which is not – in order to claim that being triggered in class is actually good for you.

If you believe that anyone who expresses support for trigger warnings/contents note is a whiny mollycoddled baby, please go read geobiology and geochemistry Professor Hope Jahren’s very detailed post on what being triggered is like for her as a trauma survivor, and then come back. Even if you don’t think that, it’s a really good post and worth reading anyway.

Meanwhile, I’ve come across some arguments that are worth more consideration, and thought of a few extras myself. I’m going to summarize those arguments, and then suggest a university policy that would address both most of my concerns and most o f those of the people making these arguments. I thought up this draft policy while I was biking home from campus earlier this evening, and immediately typed it up with no further refinement once I arrived at home, so I’m sure it could use some tweaking.

“Nearly every argument in favor of trigger warnings/content notes that I see has a different version of what should be warned for, as does nearly every forum or blog that uses such warnings. If you want me to do this, give me a consistent account of what I need to do.” Author’s note: You can see what I’ve warned for in the past on this blog by looking over at the tags and checking out the tags that start with “tw:”.

“I don’t mind if individual instructors want to put these in, but I don’t want my institution putting more constraints and restrictions on me. For students with legitimate needs, there’s already a disabilities office, so why do we need anything else?” Author’s note: I address the second half of this question implicitly in my draft solution, which makes use of the disabilities office but also includes other elements and rationales for having them. Unlike some proponents of trigger warnings/content notes, I do see the disabilities office as an important element precisely because it doesn’t require students to depend on the grace of instructors, some of whom think, or write in major media outlets, about how students with triggers are whiny mollycoddled babies, to get useful accommodations.

“Trigger warnings/content notes appear to be an attempt to implement accommodations using a social model of disability, in which the idea is that we should make environments more inclusive, so that differences aren’t disabling, rather than accommodating on an individual basis [Author’s note: I agree with this sentence]. That’s cool and all, but this doesn’t seem like a feasible context and setting in which to do it, because there are many different conditions that can involve triggers and individual triggers are so idiosyncratic. I get that I could just warn for the major things and it would help some people, but isn’t doing this that way really unfair to the people with unusual triggers who then don’t get the accommodations they need?”

“Through adjunctification, corporatization, and other means, the power and autonomy of college and university faculty is gradually being stripped away by administrators and politicians. I’m worried that however reasonable trigger warnings/content notes are in theory, in practice they will be co-opted by administrators and politicians to further degrade the status of faculty. Or possibly, I’m a grad student TA who never had much power and autonomy anyway and I’m worried that this will be co-opted in a way that hurts me.”

“I’m afraid that if I do this incorrectly, or don’t warn for all the ‘right’ things, I will be blamed for any adverse reactions that a student has. I don’t know anything about mental health and I don’t want to be responsible for managing a student’s psychological symptoms without professional guidance.” Author’s note: You aren’t actually being asked to manage anyone’s psychological symptoms here, any more than you’re being asked to manage someone’s ADHD symptoms by giving them extra time on an exam, but I understand the fear of getting something wrong when people are telling you it’s really important but not being consistent about what you need to do.

“It seems to be liberal and leftist students pushing for these warnings, but I’m afraid that conservative students will co-opt the idea – especially the broad versions of it that say I should warn for things like racism and misogyny – to disrupt my attempts to teach material covering LGBTQ people or issues, non-Christian religions, white or male privilege, etc.”

“The student activists pushing for trigger warnings at some of these schools, like Oberlin, seem to be lifting their proposed implementations directly from blogs and Internet forums, and trying to use policies as a way to express desired social norms. But a classroom isn’t the same as a blog or message board, and policies aren’t the correct way to propose a social norm.”

And here is the policy idea that I spent my bike ride designing, which, again, could probably use adjustments. But I hope that people will find it useful, as something to improve upon if nothing else. I’m trying to minimize gatekeeping, maximize access, minimize the opportunity for instructors who think they’re fighting a great battle against political correctness to screw over students, minimize co-option opportunities, and maximize ease and consistency of implementation, all at the same time.

Students who need content notes for specific topics or depictions as an accommodation can get them with documentation from a licensed healthcare provider, including a licensed mental health provider. No specific diagnosis or history is required, only documentation from the healthcare provider that the accommodations are necessary. As many students with mental illnesses do not realize that they may qualify for accommodations, each semester, during the first week of the semester, there will be a table in the student center with information about how to request disability accommodations, with informational materials specifically addressing mental health and accommodations.

To facilitate this process, a list of licensed mental health providers who accept student health insurance (including those in the university counseling center), local sexual assault crisis centers, local domestic violence agencies, and [if there is one in that area] local members of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, and their contact information, can be obtained at the following locations: [locations].

The university recognizes that there are traumatic stress responses that may affect student functioning but are sufficiently short-term that students cannot obtain documentation from a licensed healthcare provider during the time frame in which accommodations would be helpful. If they wish, students who have experienced an event of actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others [Author’s note: This comes from the DSM definition of a qualifying trauma for PTSD], within the last month [Author’s note: A month after the trauma is when it becomes PTSD rather than Acute Stress Disorder, and Acute Stress Disorder sometimes goes away on its own], may get a note from [Relevant College Staff/Admin] stating their need for content notes if material similar to the event. All student accommodations, whether obtained through the Disabilities Office or the [Relevant College Staff/Admin], are confidential, and the [Relevant College Staff/Admin] will not be required to report conversations with students about accommodations [Note: I get that this one is a problem because it implicitly discloses to an instructor that the student recently experienced a particular sort of trauma, which is a violation of the student’s privacy, but I couldn’t think of how better to handle students who have a sudden, new, urgent need for accommodations – this is the sort of case where a pure social model approach would work better].

Some instructors may wish to provide content notes beyond what is required by this policy. Examples of such content notes can be found at [links to articles where college instructors have talked about how they implement trigger warnings/content notes in their classes]. Content notes are NOT a value judgment on the material that they cover.

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