tw: rape, sexual assault, suicide, neuronormativity, n word, hate speech, ableism, racist language
When I first read Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in my junior year of high school, I cried. For an hour. 16 years old in an AP English class, and I cried. For an hour. The next day, I approached my teacher and said something along the lines of, “Look. This thing made me bawl my eyes out last night. I can’t handle discussing it for an hour. I can’t do it.” She let me and my friend (who had read a piece earlier in the year describing that time freshman year she got raped at knife-point) go to the library.
With all the recent conversations in and around academia about trigger warnings, I thought it important to share that story. The American Association of University Professors issued a report last year in which they called trigger warnings a “threat to academic freedom.” They also say, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” These particular academics seem to think that their right to intellectual discourse is more important in any given moment than, say, a student trying to avoid having a panic attack in the middle of class.
Here’s the thing. Trigger warnings aren’t for things that make us uncomfortable. They aren’t for things we don’t feel like talking about. They’re for things that cause panic attacks, flashbacks, and similar symptoms. They’re for things that shut us down so completely that we cannot function for the rest of the day.
A lot of academics seem to think that by asking for trigger warnings, we are asking for censorship. In my experience, this could not be farther from the truth. I have never once asked a professor to stop teaching any given material just because it triggered me. I have never once asked that an assignment not be discussed in class simply because I am there. What I have asked for is permission to step out. When someone shows a film with a violent depiction of, say, suicide, I want the option to leave the room before it comes up. I want the option not to see the film at all. That doesn’t mean I want “special treatment.” I will gladly take a 0 for my participation grade, if that 0 means I don’t have to relive sex with my ex abuser in the middle of a Tuesday morning.
Before you tell me to get used to it, that the real world doesn’t have trigger warnings, allow me to draw your attention to, say, movie ratings. Parental Advisory warnings. Synopses on book jackets. Before you tell me that it’s too hard to remember all the possible triggers in the world, consider this: you don’t have to. Simply ask students to put any triggers they may have on the “get to know you” note cards you have us fill out at the beginning of the semester and write the ones you get back down. There probably won’t be that many. Odds are, they probably won’t come up that often.
Trigger warnings aren’t that difficult a concept to master. When it comes down to it, wouldn’t you rather give a student a 0 for the day’s participation than a panic attack?