The Current

Should college and university professors attach "trigger warnings" to certain kinds of course material?

A student Senate motion at the University of California asks professors to include warnings on course material that could trigger damaging emotional reactions in vulnerable students. Some see caring professors aware of ongoing issues as positive. Others see this as an attempt to coddle and censure....
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A student Senate motion at the University of California asks professors to include warnings on course material that could trigger damaging emotional reactions in vulnerable students. Some see caring professors aware of ongoing issues as positive. Others see this as an attempt to coddle and censure.

As a matter of fact the tree was very much alive. Okonkwo's second wife had merely cut a few leaves off it to wrap some food, and she said so. Without further argument, Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping. Neither of the other wives dared to interfere beyond an occasional and tentative, "It is enough, Okonkwo," pleaded from a reasonable distance.Excerpt from Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart"

Chinua Achebe's novel "Things Fall Apart" was published more that 50 years ago and tells the story of a young man in rural Nigeria who experiences the tension between his traditional culture and the harsh impact of colonialism. "Things Fall Apart" is considered one of the most important novels in contemporary English and African writing.

But at Oberlin College in Ohio, professors are now advised to proceed with caution if they are going to teach "Things Fall Apart". The college has passed a motion that requires professors to "be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, able-ism, and other issues of privilege and oppression." It also calls on professors to remove triggering material -- anything that may cause a damaging emotional response -- when it doesn't directly contribute to learning goals. It also encourages professors to "strongly consider" making triggering material optional.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Student Senate has passed a similar advisory motion asking professors to add warnings about triggering material to their course outlines.

When people show something that is graphic or incredibly upsetting they usually let you know they are going to show you that.So when I was in a classroom and we were watching a film and there were suddenly scenes of rape and sexual abuse, it was shocking mostly because there had been no warning, there had been no preparation, the teacher hadn't mentioned it at all.Bailey Loverin, student who put forward advisory motion to add trigger warnings.

But not everyone is on board with these policies and some worry that efforts to protect students will end up stifling academic freedom and free speech.

For their thoughts on where the right balance lies, we were joined by three people.

  • Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan's Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. He's also the author of Campus Confidential: 100 Startling Things You Don't Know About Canadian Universities. Ken Coates was in Saskatoon.

  • Carrie Rentschler is the Director of the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies. She was in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

  • Raechel Tiffe is a Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Merrimack College. She was in North Andover, Massachusetts.

We'd love to know what you think of this. Should universities warn students about what they are about to read and watch?

Tweet us @thecurrentcbc. Or e-mail us through our website. Find us on Facebook. Call us toll-free at 1 877 287 7366. And as always if you missed anything on The Current, grab a podcast.

This segment was produced by The Current's Catherine Kalbfleisch, Idella Sturino and Pacinthe Mattar.


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