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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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