It would be hard to do a social science degree without having to reconsider aspects of your personal life. Photo: Getty
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Why UK universities must steer clear of trigger warnings

It is important for staff to assist and support students while teaching and learning sensitive issues, but we should not be sanitising the curriculum for them.

The world is not necessarily a happy place. Social scientists like myself know this well, thanks to the huge amount of time we spend examining difficult issues such as racism, gendered violence and poverty in minute detail. These issues are a core part of our teaching and learning in universities, meaning that we expect our students to face these head-on as part of their studies. But a new trend is emerging in higher education of which British universities must steer clear – trigger warnings.

“Trigger warnings” are based on the idea that people can have adverse emotional or psychological reactions in response to potential reminders of past trauma, particularly from violent events. Clearly, this can happen, but it is not universally the case. Even for people that do experience flashbacks or other negative reactions, what may or may not “trigger” a response is highly individualised and is not necessarily generalisable. For example, a victim of rape may have a stronger reaction to a reminder of the smell of their rapist’s aftershave than they do encountering written descriptions of sexual violence. Yet despite their limited use, “trigger warning” is increasingly appearing in descriptions of materials across the media. As the usage has grown, so has the range of issues that may require them, including sizeism, ableism and colonialism alongside racism, rape or suicide.

In the US, academic staff have begun to be asked to provide trigger warnings on teaching materials that might upset students, with some classic works of literature like The Great Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway and Huckleberry Finn stamped with these warnings. So do these well-meaning calls for labelling of texts, from Shakespeare to academic monographs, really achieve anything? Is some material so sensitive that it should be removed from the curriculum?

Clearly not all parts of the curriculum will personally resonate with students, but it would be very hard to undertake a social science degree without having to reconsider aspects of your personal life, experiences that have encountered or your beliefs about the world. Some students will inevitably find this emotionally challenging. While studying difficult material is not new, increasingly academics are being asked to justify, change or remove materials over concerns about upsetting students. This is simply too close to censorship for comfort, and undermines the very idea of what a social sciences education should be.

Sensitive issues in the classroom

Much social sciences teaching focuses on areas that are usually considered sensitive issues. My own classes cover difficult subjects such as rape, domestic violence, abortion and death. These topics are taught in both large lectures as well as smaller seminars, using set readings and audio-visual material that can be difficult to read, watch and listen to. I was interested to find out what students think about dealing with these issues in the classroom, so undertook research into what students of all backgrounds, identities and beliefs think about encountering sensitive topics at university.

This research found that while students can and do find these issues uncomfortable and difficult, they overwhelmingly strongly believe that sensitive topics should remain on the curriculum. Students value the opportunity to be able to learn and discuss areas of life that are often considered taboo. They clearly understand that sensitive issues are a crucial element within social science education and appreciate the safe space that university provides to learn and discuss difficult topics.

Moreover, my research has shown that students appreciate that issues deemed to be sensitive are not universally agreed on, nor can we necessarily predict how people will feel about experiences that are personally close to them. Students affected by rape or mental illness have reported how studying these issues has benefited them by contextualising their experiences. They experienced less discomfort than a right-wing student felt in classes discussing the legacy of Thatcherism with left-wing peers. In other words, if we were to routinely label classroom materials that might upset people, it would be difficult to know what parts of the curriculum would not carry a trigger-warning.

Happy vs satisfied students

While I have never been asked to justify or remove topics from my syllabuses, colleagues at universities across the UK are concerned about the potentially negative impact of teaching and learning sensitive issues on students. Student satisfaction is a high priority within today’s marketised higher education, and there is a general danger that in the drive to increase student ratings, changes could be made that would be detrimental to student learning.

Moreover, it can be challenging to claim that classroom discomfort is a successful learning experience in a world where positivity and happiness is often equated with success. Yet learning through discomfort is exactly what many students experience and actually appreciate. Indeed, the students in my study reported that despite this discomfort, they felt that discussing such issues are ultimately beneficial to their learning and an important part of their university experience.

It is important for staff to assist and support students while teaching and learning sensitive issues, but we should not be sanitising the curriculum for them. It is far better to teach students to read introductions and abstracts and to come to their own conclusions about materials set as part of their studies than to sticker our library books with warnings or remove topics from the curriculum altogether.

Dr Pam Lowe is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University’s School of Languages and Social Sciences. She specialises in sexualities, feminist theory and parenting culture. Dr Lowe has recently completed a research project into student experiences of teaching and learning sensitive issues.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.