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Trigger Warnings: Just Good Teaching? Critical Conversation #7

October 26, 2016 Scott Seider

What if, rather than being a harbinger of broader social forces or trends, trigger warnings simply facilitate good teaching and learning?

The University of Chicago energized the debate around trigger warnings this fall with its letter to incoming freshman announcing: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings.” Within the university context, trigger warnings generally refer to a professor alerting his or her students that upcoming content may be upsetting or offensive.

Scott Seider, Boston University, is the JCC Focus Author for November 2016.

Here is Scott’s response:
There are valid points raised by both proponents and opponents of trigger warnings, but my question is this: What if, rather than being a harbinger of broader social forces or trends, trigger warnings simply facilitate good teaching and learning?

I teach a course on adolescent development for aspiring secondary educators in which I assign Stanford psychologist Claude Steele’s work on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to situations in which individuals worry that their performance will inadvertently confirm a stereotype about members of an identity group to which they belong. Aspiring educators need to understand stereotype threat because of the ways in which it has been shown to hamper adolescents’ academic performance. To dive deeply into the issue of stereotype threat and how to disrupt it, however, requires acknowledging and naming some of the hurtful stereotypes about identity groups to which students in my classes belong.

For a number of years, when these stereotypes came up during this class session, I could feel the air go out of the room. Even in a room full of aspiring educators committed to combatting pernicious stereotypes through their work, naming those stereotypes out-loud felt hurtful and made my students more reluctant to engage with the material. In response, over the past few years, I’ve found myself beginning our class session on stereotype threat with something like the following:

You can’t talk about stereotype threat without acknowledging the existence of stereotypes, but I want to say directly that just talking about stereotypes– even when we all acknowledge they’re untrue and that the point is to disrupt their effects– just acknowledging those stereotypes can feel hurtful. And so we’re deliberately taking on a topic that can feel hurtful because of the importance of being equipped to disrupt stereotype threat for our students.

As I give this preamble, I can see heads nodding around the room, and my students have demonstrated far higher engagement and thoughtfulness in the session’s subsequent discussion and activities.

Until the recent furor, I never consciously thought about this preamble as a “trigger warning”, but just a means of combating a recurring obstacle to teaching and learning each time I taught this session. And far from excusing my students from grappling with challenging material, my so-called trigger warning simply acknowledges that we have hard work to do as a class for the ultimate benefit of the adolescents they will serve. I hope that university faculty wary about trigger warnings weakening their freedom of expression or being mandated by administrators (concerns I share!) won’t forget to consider the role that trigger warnings may play in facilitating powerful teaching and learning in their own classrooms as well.

(Scott Seider is the JCC Focus Author for November 2016. He has been JCC’s contributing editor for the “Civic Engagement on Campus” column for many years.  His final article for the column is “For Youth, By Youth: A Third Student-Run Homeless Shelter." For a links to Scott’s articles, see the Connexions newsletter, November 2016.)