Friday, August 12, 2016

A place in the Classroom for "Trigger Warnings"? via @DavQuinn #142

Is there the beginnings of a backlash against political correctness? In a piece in the Irish Independent today by David Walsh he asks if the "PC brigade is now the biggest threat to free and open debate". In a wide ranging article he gives plenty of examples of what is political correctness gone mad. Walsh sees both side of the argument: "To the extent that political correctness aims to prevent genuine racism, genuine misogyny and so on, we can all support it" and "But when it tries to shut down debate about the right-to-life, the nature of marriage, immigration etc, it becomes an extremely serious threat to free and open debate and therefore to free and open societies". I can see his point.

One of the interesting examples Walsh discusses is the use of "Trigger Warnings", an example he uses caught my eye: they are "provided by lecturers to students as they introduce a subject the students might find offensive", and I wondered have I ever done this in my classes - or if I need to. A trigger warning is defined by as "a stated warning that the content of a text, video, etc., may upset or offend some people, especially those who have previously experienced a related trauma".

Image source: Family Inequality.
In any one of my classes I have no idea if any of my students are LGBT, have been raped, suffer from a mental condition, have been bullied, have a disability (though sometimes I will be notified of learning disability if a student chooses to register this with the College), what religion (if any) they are, their race, their age, if they attempted suicide or have lost a close friend/relative to suicide, if they have a phobia, what their political affiliation is, if they are vegetarian, or if they have used drugs. Nor do they know any of this about me. The world can be a difficult place for anyone who is discriminated against because of anything above - of course it is completely unacceptable to offend anyone because of what they believe or have experienced. But the world is also a minefield where you can easily offend someone accidentally or without thinking beforehand. 

Are "Trigger Warnings" a get-out-of-jail card? Much of this is at the request of students themselves. The Atlantic in an article entitled "The Coddling of the American Mind" tells us about an example where "some students have called for warnings that.... F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma". Fair enough I suppose, but where do we draw the line?

In my statistics class I use data on rat experiments - could this offend Animal Rights activists? I use breast cancer data - could this traumatise women in my class who have had breast cancer? I use data on death rates in Australia - someone who has been recently bereaved may get upset at this. I use data on hospital wait times - this could trigger bad memories for anyone who has had to endure our Accident and Emergency system in Ireland. I use data on wine - a recovering alcoholic might not like this. Should I apologise in advance for all this in my first class of the semester? I think I will this year and perhaps use it as an opportunity for Data Analytics students to become aware of triggers in their work. 

The 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, once wrote that "This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it", when founding the University of Virginia in 1819. Wise words indeed.

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