Monday, August 29, 2016

Trigger warnings and you

It truly is fascinating how trigger warnings have come to be the center of so much attention. In and of themselves, they are nothing to write home about - especially not in the context large educational institutions facing a large number of students from many diverse backgrounds. The worst case scenario is that a student looks at the warnings, shrugs, and then move on with their studies. It does not get more dramatic than that.

There seems to be a perception that putting trigger warnings on required reading somehow turns it into optional reading. That these warnings, somehow, enables students to pick and choose which readings are relevant to them, discarding those with the (in)correct label as somehow not required for their intents and purposes. That trigger warnings are some kind of "get out of reading free"-cards.

Let there be no mistake: if you do not read and engage with the required coursework, you will fail the course so hard that the resulting draft sets off car alarms. No ifs or buts about it.

What trigger warnings do is allow students to prepare for what they are about to read. If a book contains depictions or descriptions of sexual violence, those who have a history with sexual violence can steel themselves in preparation for those passages. When students reach the relevant point of the book, it does not jump out at them and cause them to relive their past experiences by sheer force of surprise.

Students who do not have such past experiences can just ignore any such warnings and read on as usual. Or, better, read the book with the knowledge that it indeed contains sexual violence, and that the scenes depicted or described are not to be seen as innocent everyday acts. Students can thus become more observant and critical readers - skills that are highly relevant to cultivate in an academic setting.

Trigger warnings don't set themselves, of course. Someone has to (re)read the books in question and make a judgement call as to whether this or that warning is applicable. More often than not, this someone is in a teaching position. In the process of revisiting the coursebooks, they have to critically engage with the required reading and rethink what it is they are actually teaching. Thus, their understanding of the various aspects and nuances of the coursework is enhanced, and they become better able to aid future students. Even if they find that no warnings are necessary.

Given all this, it is hard to understand what the fuss is about. Unless, of course, those who shout the most are also those who are least likely to engage critically with the subject matter, and thus brutally ignore the fact that trigger warnings in no way make required reading optional. It would be ironic indeed if those who worried about trigger warnings turning required reading into optional reading, themselves treated the reading required to understand trigger warnings as optional reading.

It is only polite to assume they know better. -

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