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  1. Science & Tech
24 October 2014

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.

By Pam Lowe

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.

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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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