There has been a lot of ink spilled over the last two days about why trigger warnings and content warnings in a university is feminism gone bad and performative and manipulative. But as an actual university educator, I wanted to write about this, even if briefly, and talk about what I do as a feminist educator who issues content warnings for her literature classes.
I primarily teach ancient Greek and Roman literature, but sometimes I do get the opportunity to teach modern literature and film. On my very detailed syllabi, which I read out on the first day of classes, I give a general content warning for the class. This is my standard content warning for all my syllabi: “Much of the material we will cover in class contains explicit descriptions and visuals of violence, abuse, slavery, heterosexism, cissexism, misogyny, ableism, racism, murder, suicide, and rape.” I make sure to explain why I give a general content warning for the course and I explain terms the students might be unfamiliar with.
The course schedules on my syllabi also have detailed descriptions of the questions and topics I will pose to the class about the particular book we are discussing. For example, before we even start discussing Beloved by Toni Morrison in depth, I give an extensive lecture on the history of American chattel slavery and I describe the intended structure of that day’s class thusly: “Introduction to Toni Morrison, introduction to Beloved, historical background on American chattel slavery, what American chattel slavery particularly meant for female slaves. This lecture will, therefore, include a discussion of systematic (physical, psychological, and sexual) violence, abuse, murder, torture, and rape.” This is on the syllabus for my Self and Society class from day one. Before each new class, I remind my students what we are doing via email, so they know how to best prepare for the class discussion and so they can engage fruitfully. I should say here that I do not issue trigger or content warnings while class is in session and I probably never will because I do not find that helpful.
Giving my students these types of warnings beforehand allows them to opt out if they need to. My students are allowed three unexcused absences (out of twenty-eight classes) without their grade being affected and without explaining anything to me. And I always help my students catch up, no matter the reason they were absent. They come to learn and they will.
Yes, what I do with content warnings does require a lot of pre-planning and post-planning that many university professors in particular are not comfortable with and of course, these warnings do not in any way predict what I will bring up spontaneously or what the students will bring up in the course of these discussions. I always think of something new while I am teaching despite all my preparation because that is the very point of discussion and since I advocate for collective ownership of the classroom, my students are encouraged and expected to ask new and creative questions about the materials and they do. And moreover, because I am incapable of predicting exactly what will happen in a classroom on a particular day, I am also completely willing to admit here that sometimes my students’ opinions and contributions to class have visibly upset and triggered me while I am teaching, particularly when talking about rape because that is what happens when we live in a rape culture.
I issue these content warnings for many reasons. Issuing content warnings intends to help all students who come to the classroom to engage more safely. In my personal experience and from what my students say in their evaluations of my teaching, they have never restricted the conversation and actually make the conversation more open. They have never unduly influenced how students interpret the works we read because they only point out very salient points about the texts. When we read Beloved, we are very obviously going to be talking about slavery, sexual abuse, and murder. Providing students with these warnings acknowledges that they have valid feelings and that we should always be striving to make all learning environments safer, although I am very much of the philosophy that since we live in a kyriarchy nothing can be “safe”—as opposed to “safer”—until kyriarchy is smashed at its very root. Saying that content warnings prevent people from adapting to the “real world” and marks people with trauma as inherently “fragile” and “vulnerable” is just beyond absurd and supremely anti-feminist. Are we really abiding by the standards of the “real world” (i.e. kyriarchy) and not acknowledging what it does to people? The “real world” is why people are traumatized in the first place and we should be working against it in any way we can. The “real world” tells us not to take care of ourselves, tells us to hide our trauma, tells us that we have to be silent, tells us that being “fragile” and “vulnerable” because of trauma is a weakness, rather than radical resistance. Sometimes I am very sad and I am not going to swallow it all down just to convince you that I am adapting to a world which I hate with every fiber of my being. I am just never going to do that and I am just going to expect any of my students to do that for me.
I would love to talk more about this with other educators and would be happy to answer any questions that people have.