Karma R. Chávez and Anders Zanichkowsky hosted a conversation with Neil Simpkins and Natalia Cecire on August 13, 2014, on A Public Affair, a regular program on WORT 89.9, a community radio station in Madison, WI. Colin Gillis helped Anders and Karma develop the questions, and transcribed the conversation.
Earlier this year, Oberlin College issued a new policy with regard to what are called “trigger warnings,” signals to readers or viewers that material may be upsetting or uncomfortable or trigger past trauma. Published in, and later removed from its Sexual Offense Resource Guide, the discussion of trigger warnings advised faculty members on ways to make classrooms more inclusive for survivors of sexualized violence. A similar policy was passed at UC Santa Barbara. Both policies came under fire, and numerous publications weighed the merits of offering trigger warnings against those of protecting academic freedom. Others lamented the fact that this practice, so popular on social justice blogs and other digital spaces was making its way into the college classroom.
Discussions didn’t end there. This July, well known queer and transgender theorist, Jack Halberstam wrote a post for the Bully Bloggers, a collection of queer theorists, about the problem with trigger warnings and the renewed focus on “wounded selves” as opposed to “new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes” within queer and feminist communities. Halberstam hoped to “make a point …about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.” A polemic that seemed to chastise a younger generation of queer activists and thinkers as well as what he characterized as a white and feminine mode of response, Halberstam ignited an explosion of response in the blogosphere showing the complexity of people’s beliefs about safe spaces, mental illness and trauma, individual and collective politics, and free speech.
Such a conversation or debate is relevant for all of us to consider, especially if we find ourselves in digital or face to face spaces with others talking about difficult political or otherwise charged issues. So, to help facilitate such a conversation today, in addition to asking Anders to co-host with me due to some long conversations we have had about this along with our friend Colin Gillis, we’ve invited two guests who have weighed in on these debates at various times and in different ways.
Our first guest joins us in the studio today, Neil Simpkins. Neil Simpkins is a Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches beginning and intermediate composition classes, tutors in the writing center, and does research on digital literacy and rhetoric.
Our second guest joins us by phone, Natalia Cecire. Natalia Cecire is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of English at Yale University. She studies economies of knowledge in American literature and culture from the nineteenth century to the present. Topics of particular interest to her include history of science, gender, childhood, media studies, and digital humanities.
Karma Chávez: Neil, I'd like to start with you if that's all right. You are writing a paper on the concept of the trigger warnings with your colleague from University of Texas, Sarah Orem. How did you get interested in this topic?
Neil Simpkins: First, kind of on a personal level, I'm a longtime tumblr user. I didn't use trigger warnings on tumblr at first but started using them. In addition to that, I'm interested in them as a community writing practice and how they translate into institutions and how they translate into feminist and disability studies.
KC: I think you mentioned several important contexts there. Could you talk about the history of the concept?
NS: Like many community writing practices related to gender and other forms of identity, trigger warnings arose from popular community writing spaces, such as livejournal and fan fiction communities, and I also see them used a lot in tumblr communities, where people who have experienced abuse or rape or have mental illness, they use them as a preface to sharing that with readers.
Natalia Cecire: One of the great points that others have made is that there are trigger warnings and content warnings, which rely less on a medical vocabulary; and those two things have become conflated in the discussion of trigger warnings around syllabi. This language has been imported from elsewhere to the classroom, and that's where a lot of the controversy originates.
KC: Could we talk a little about what happened at Oberlin and UC Santa Barbara?
NC: I have never used trigger warnings in the classroom, but am open to using them. However, the medicalization of content warnings as trigger warnings proposes a model of mental illness that may not be true and that may be pathologizing to our students. That may be a decision that should not be made in a blanket way across departments.
NS: Sarah Orem [a colleague at the University of Texas - Austin, with whom Neil is writing an article about trigger warnings] and I are close reading those policies in our article. Often, these policies are talked about as mandating trigger warnings. The Oberlin policy is just a suggestion, and, with the UC - SB policy, this also arises from student activism and uses language from student communities to talk about what happens in classrooms. It's worth noting that one reason the term trigger warning is used instead of content warning is that it's more familiar among these student communities.
KC: The fact that this is bottom-up student activism, not top-down administrative measures, may be another reason for the opposition to them.
NS: I agree with that. The language of both policies also make very visible the presence of students with mental illness in the classroom--and deliberately ties trigger warnings to sexual violence on campus.
KC: Could you talk to some of the objections people have to trigger warnings?
NC: There's a sort of terror among faculty, especially professors of literature, who are used to teaching things with horrible things in them all the time, like King Lear. “Out, vile jelly!” [Referring to the scene where Regan and Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's eyes.] How would you go through and make warnings for all of those things? So one reason professors might object is that it's more course prep. That might sound craven, but it’s a real issue. Of course, that interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of what trigger warnings mean. Trauma may be triggered by any number of things. This is partly the literary scholars' panic: our imaginations run wild thinking of the many things that would have to be tagged.
AZ: This whole conversation has to do with competing needs in the classroom setting. As we see more college instructors in precarious positions, and getting back to questions of etiquette, how do we address these areas of conflict?
NS: First off, a lot of professors already give a kind of trigger warning. When there's a rape scene in a book, I tell my students in advance. One reason why there's such a negative response is that they're seen as subtractive rather than additive to the classroom. Many think that trigger warnings will allow students to get out of reading something. In fact, online they're more like metadata, which make it easier for writers to delve deeply into sensitive topics. How to prepare for the fact that many kinds of things can be triggering? But we can predict a lot of things that may be triggering. For example, in a college classroom, you can reasonably expect that many women in the classroom will have experienced sexual violence. Trigger warnings don't ask instructors to anticipate every possible need.
KC: Colin, Anders, and I were talking about the conservative potential in trigger warnings as something that might give students a way to avoid challenging topics. Could we spend more time talking about the practical side of this in the classroom. What ways can you help students to know there will be complex material?
NC: As I said, I don't use trigger warnings. A lot of times it's because the thing that's going to traumatize my students is the difficulty of the writing. They don't even realize the woman in The Waste Land is being raped because they don't understand the poem, because it’s hard. That said, I do warn them, when I teach something like Beloved, that it's going to be a little heavy. Some might find that that's a little ad hoc.
AZ: Could you say more about teaching Beloved?
NC: What's weird is that they're more freaked out by Beloved than nineteenth century texts. I’ve developed all of my teaching strategies by trial and error, so I've set up strategies for dealing with different things. A lot of it involves ass-covering measures, setting up strategies in advance. There's something depressing about that. We don't want trigger warnings to turn into a legalistic, You can't blame me! I've really tried to make it part of a conversation. But in reality, a lot of times I have to spend more time convincing my students that sexual violence is taking place than having them triggered by it.
JSench tweet: Risk of designating: In addition to @ncecire's point about more work, it's a ? of to whom that work (and complaints about compliance) falls: namely: people who teach race, sexuality, and gender studies. It risks marking their "content" apart as "triggering" & to be avoided.
NS: I'm really committed to not creating politically problematic things in terms of course policy. The conversation about trigger warnings makes me think about addressing things in a not ad hoc way. At UW, for example, we see the classroom as not diverse, but there are often one or two students who are different and whose experiences we want to accommodate. Trigger warnings help to make those students' experiences more present in the classroom and make disability more present in the classroom as a possibility. The conversation has made me rethink many policies, such as attendance, as issues related to ability. We might also look at triggering from a disability perspective and so not treat triggering as something bad or to be avoided.
AZ: There are two ways to approach this: Trigger warnings might take the onus off of the student to interrupt a conversation, while doing things ad hoc might make it easier to address individual issues as they arise, and in activist spaces that is how things come up. There, the question is always, how can we improvise and still be accountable? But let's talk about the Jack Halberstam piece.
NC: It's a rambling polemic. It starts very playfully, with Monty Python, and it tries to work humor into the whole piece, and sometimes it works and sometimes it really doesn't. The key point that I thought was useful was that that when we talk about the individualization of harm we risk sidelining discussions of structural problems, and this is a problem that has troubled feminism for a long time. It also argues that an earlier generation of queer activists really did face serious danger and fought for queer rights in an effective manner, and that younger queer activists have taken on the pain without doing the work. He writes, "Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic [he means hyper-allergic], psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects." This is funny, but it's also a problem. It launches a generational critique as well as a “pull your pants up and get over it” critique of trigger warnings and the language of trauma not grounded in the actual experience of trauma.
KC: It read as one of those pieces that Halberstam never imagined would have the circulation that it did. I don't want to dwell on Halberstam, but has there been a shift where people in social justice communities issue or expect trigger warnings in a new way?
NC: I don't know if it's new, but its mainstreaming might be new. There was a moment in the early 2000s when feminist blogging just got started that these things were new, but it's mainstreaming into college classrooms is new, in that this is a new place for them. Yet the younger generations are not more sensitive. Being a feminist involves being sensitive. I disagree with Halberstam's periodization.
SamH tweet: It sometimes seems like trigger warnings create an immediate solution that doesn't address their systemic causes. Sounds like at the core of TWs is a need for trauma-informed classroom spaces and practices, esp. around trauma that involves systems of oppression. It also seems like TWs in some ways create an immediate solution that .doesn't always target or hold accountable the actual system that creates the trauma. What are some movements or campaigns that might be effective in both targeting the systems that create trauma and addressing accountable classroom spaces? It feels like a balance between immediate needs and systemic change.
NS: It's interesting how trigger warnings are seen as individualistic and not linked to systems, since they're about marking the way language affects spaces. What Halberstam really focused on was changing the name of a bar from tranny shack to tshack, something that trans people in the area had organized for. So I'm interested in the linking between issues related to naming in the trans community to trigger warnings. The purpose of trigger warnings is acknowledging how the experiences that people bring into a space and knowing in advance that you can participate meaningfully there.
AZ: One of the issues that is really crucial to deal with is what is the role of our trauma and victimhood in organizing and building community. What is the place of the personal in the political right now?
NC: One of Halberstam's points is that there is this disjuncture between grievance and grieving, citing Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race. The TW debate transmutes questions of grieving into grievance, or it's been interpreted that way. For teachers, it's important to think about grievance as a way to address grief in a systemic way. Cheng's point, though, is that when we always transmute it into grievance we lose the possibility of grief. This is a difficult point to make: the way that people feel structures a lot of the psychic life of the nation and of policy-making. There's another dimension there that is lurking, and that's part of what's at the back of the trigger warning debate. We don't have good language for talking about grief.
AZ: Maybe there's not enough of the personal in the political.
NS: I'm thinking about this distinction between grievance and grieving. What does that mean when we connect it to disability. I'm not sure disability accommodations are the notation of grievance. Often, disability is treated as narcissistic and self-centered, and that's how it's being characterized in this discussion, that these are individual desires imposed onto a group of people who doesn't need them. That's one way that we depoliticize disability. The question is still there about grief and grievance, but we also need to talk about the experiences of people with disabilities.
NC: I'm totally in agreement that accommodations are not about personal narcissism. What I meant was that once there's a system in place, an ability to file a grievance, this takes the burden off of individuals to request accommodation, there's a code that can be followed, [where people with disabilities can say] we as a class need to be put on the same level as the rest of the university.
KC: Another point we thought was important in your piece, Natalia, concerned the feminization of neoliberalism. The forms that Halberstam critiques—safe spaces and trigger warnings, specifically, but also psychologization and subjectivity—really are forms through which neoliberalism can operate; indeed, maybe they are primarily modes of individuating harm and defusing structural critique. But they are also deeply feminized, as Gayatri Spivak pointed out in a famous reading of Freud's line, "a child is being beaten," and have the double-edged power of interiorizing (rendering unavailable to structural critique) and acknowledging women's psychology as complex. When neoliberalism takes feminized forms, it is difficult to attack neoliberal forms (here, subjectivization, safe spaces) without being flatly sexist. And the form that Halberstam's critique takes seems to me to succumb to that difficulty.
Would you explain what you mean by neoliberalism and then suggest how we might attack its gendered forms without succumbing to sexism?
AZ: In other words, if something is being feminized, how do we critique it without being sexist?
NC: Neoliberalism refers to a form of economics that emphasizes deregularization and privatization, and Halberstam and I use it with the understanding that economic practices go hand in hand with cultural ones. For example, unpaid labor and flex time, which have historically been associated with feminized labor, have now become the norm. Neoliberalism has taken on a good number of feminized qualities, where many things we welcomed in the 80s have in turn screwed us over and made us disposable to our employers. Halberstam is critiquing modes that he's calling neoliberal and bad, modes he is calling weepy, white lady feminism. The problem is that neoliberalism manifests in all these feminized forms, but we want to critique its power to individuate and reduce the possibilities of political action without being totally sexist, without saying these forms are the problem and by the way they're all feminine. The question might be that what do we mean be neoliberalism, and I think it's that it's a pernicious economic formation that has cultural features.
AZ: We always need new etiquette, and sometimes we can only describe the rules we have. Could you guys talk about this, how the trigger isn't the problem, it just happens. What is the etiquette for trigger warnings that we have now or you're following?
NC: As I mentioned before, I just make it up as I go along.
NS: That's how accommodation usually goes. Universal design, for example, recognizes that you can never meet everyone's needs, but trigger warnings are an effort to make a space more available to a larger number of people. They're a tool in the toolbox of universal design.
AZ: Maybe in the absence of etiquette, we have ethics.
From Dan S. Wang~
There is a line of analysis that has gone unaddressed in this conversation, important because the discussion mostly concerns itself with trigger warnings in college classroom settings. That analysis begins with the observation that modern universities are factories for the production of middle class subjectivities. One significant result of the massive post-war growth in American research universities was the production of a vast professional and managerial class. Since then the instrumentalization of higher education as an equation between college degrees and middle class earning potential has only turned more and more explicit. From the marketing of educational institutions one sees at street level today, membership in the middle class is what is being offered. From a Foucauldian perspective, middle class persons are the product, normalized in their behaviors, aspirations, and values.
Obviously the production of middle class subjectivities exposes tensions corresponding to unresolved contradictions, including those within any given individual regarding their particular class background and preexisting value system. But the authority of the accredited university, including as delivered via the structure of the academic course, suppresses the mass of tensions to the extent required for the production of stable class subjectivities.
Instituting trigger warnings is a trend that fits rather easily into a value system that has always privileged civility, respectability, and conformity. A move toward trigger warnings adds to that a valorized pseudo-inclusion, false because the reality is that university attendance is and cannot be universal, and therefore only a segment of the population will ever have the benefit of such inclusion. Within this context, one effect of trigger warnings on campus is a layering of the classroom with a sanctioned form of conflict avoidance—a value that aligns all too well with bourgeois class interests and performance.
Predictably, such a value system invites the disruption of class identification through shock. And in fact much of twentieth century cutting edge art and culture traveled the road of transgression in upsetting its middle class audience, from James Joyce to the Fugs. When thinkers with activist agendas like Halberstam stand up for the freaky legacy of queerness, they remind us that destabilizing middle class values through otherness is one of its virtues, now in danger of being lost. Whether transgression does anything but finally inure audiences to scandal while commodifying it is another question. But if radicals are to leave transgression behind as an old and worn-out strategy, and work on something concrete instead—say, the redistribution of wealth or the universal availability of health care—we had better learn to process our traumas in the course of struggle rather than hide from them.
Colin Gillis: I think this adds an important perspective, although as Karma and I have discussed, defenders of trigger warnings would argue that, while your points about the university as a factory producing middle class subjectivity are valid, the critique of trigger warnings per se proceeds from a problematic understanding of them, assuming, incorrectly, that they discourage engagement with the things to which they are attached or that they make said material less shocking.
From Brigitte Fielder~
My main concern with the current conversation around “trigger warnings” is that it has taken the foreground in questions of dealing with potentially upsetting material in college classrooms. I fear that it therefore risks taking the place of the more specific and complex pedagogical conversations we ought to be having – and which scholars of gender and sexuality studies and studies of race and ethnicity have been having for decades, and which we continue to have surrounding our pedagogical strategies, without such widespread national attention. The college classroom is a very different environment than the digital spaces from which this concept originated and therefore requires different tools. More complex pedagogical strategies for dealing with students’ reactions to course material are necessary, and instructors have long been in conversation with one another (albeit often informally) about such difficult pedagogical questions. The “trigger warning” debate is given more weight, in my opinion, than it merits in this larger scheme.
The very concept of a “trigger warning” risks reducing the necessary work of teaching difficult topics and materials and responsibly addressing students’ reactions to these in a way that embraces both learning and compassion to something like lines on a course syllabus. As others have mentioned, I am also concerned with the medicalization of this term, and view this as a particular limitation of where these conversations will lead. One perpetually unanswered question surrounding “trigger warnings” is what kinds of trauma might merit a warning? Sexual trauma seems to top the list (as it should, given the prevalence of this form of violence on college campuses), but what about racial trauma – something much less likely to be acknowledged, particularly at predominantly white academic institutions? What forms of trauma are we equipped to acknowledge, and what does this say about who we cater to in our classrooms? Moreover, how can we acknowledge the validity of personal experience while also seeking the engagement of students who don’t share in these experiences? I, for one, emphasize in my courses that some topics are (and ought to be) universally uncomfortable, even though we may have different relationships to them based on our own embodied experience.
One might consider the usefulness of discomfiture as a pedagogical tool. As a scholar of nineteenth-century American literature who focuses on race and gender, I cannot help but think of how the concept of a “trigger warning” might apply to my own courses. Sentimental literature often demands that the reader “feel right,” as Harriet Beecher Stowe so neatly put it. Anti-slavery literature is just one example of a wide-reaching genre that very deliberately puts demands on readers’ emotions in order to persuade. My students engage my courses’ assigned readings with both the intellectual interrogation and emotional investment. This is what allows them to make connections that link discussions of the rape of enslaved black women with contemporary rape culture on college campuses. The worst thing about the terribly discomfiting content of nineteenth-century literature is its resemblance to what students find recognizable in the present. If any statistics of rape on college campus are to be believed, I have probably had both rape victims and rapists in my classrooms. And students who don’t fall into either of those categories are not exempt from the inevitable difficulties of wading through these texts and our discussions of them. No “trigger warning” is sufficient to deal with the dynamic that is produced by college students thinking together about difficult topics that are relevant to their lives. But how to facilitate such classroom discussions responsibly and productively is a pedagogical conversation that I continue to pursue.
I am also troubled by what seem to be frequent dismissals of concerns with “trigger warning” policies as constituting simple “misunderstandings” of what such policies might look like (e.g, the assumption that instructors will be asked to “anticipate every possible need” or that the term “trigger warning” will be continually conflated with the concept of a “content warning”). Such concerns ought to be taken more seriously because these very misunderstandings are quite likely to be taken up by students or administrators in their interactions with – and evaluation of – the instructors who tackle these difficult topics. I want to repeat @JSench’s tweet, as it wasn’t really addressed in the radio interview:
In addition to @ncecire's point about more work, it's a ? [question] of to whom that work (and complaints about compliance) falls: namely: people who teach race, sexuality, and gender studies. It risks marking their "content" apart as "triggering" & to be avoided.
In the midst of this conversation, I cannot help but think about the case of Shannon Gibney, a professor of English and African diaspora studies at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), who was reprimanded via her college’s anti-discrimination policy in 2013 because her lesson on structural racism had made some white male students uncomfortable. One might also consider the case of Charles Negy, a professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida who has recently come into the spotlight for his classroom discussion of religious bigotry, which he compared to racial bigotry. Or the case of Steven Salaita, whose job offer from the University of Illinois was rescinded following controversy over his critical tweets about Israel’s attack on Gaza. The question of who is justified in being offended and why is inextricably linked to the conversation about whose feelings of trauma are legitimate, and who should be protected in classroom conversations about structures of power and violence. These connections need to be a significant part of the “trigger warning” conversation. How will universities make the concept of “trigger warnings” understandable to students, and how will they do so in a way that protects academic freedom? For academics who are themselves embodied in such ways that draw this kind of critique, or whose work hinges on necessarily uncomfortable content, we cannot be too careful about how conversations about pedagogy are translated into university policy.