Triggers in the Past

Over the past few weeks, a discussion about trigger warnings has percolated across the blogosphere. Educators, op-ed columnists, and pundits have debated the use of these warnings about potentially upsetting content on syllabi or in the classroom (and leave it to the Chronicle to publish a disdainful mockery of the concept). As I’ve developed my courses, both at the survey and upper levels, I have confronted some of these same questions about the past: Is there anything in history from which we should shield our students? Or, to put it more broadly, how should we approach material that some of our students may find offensive, hurtful, or painful?

As a scholar and a teacher, my instinct is to answer “no” to the first question, and “with care” to the second. For me, much of the point of doing history is that you can’t edit out the parts you don’t like, in no small measure because otherwise the whole wouldn’t make much sense. At the same time, there is important material that will help students understand and grapple with the past that can also be personally disturbing. In other words, I work from the premises that triggers are real, that I don’t know everything about my students and their lives, and that the material we cover in class, which includes discussions of chattel slavery, oppression of women, Native Americans, and others, violence, war, and so on, could trigger serious reactions for some students. That’s of course not to mention that I sometimes find it hard to discuss (even from my very privileged position in life) some of the more unsavory aspects of American history. I feel distaste when I’m called on to quote slaveholders or explain European theories about Natives—many of the times someone says something that we today would consider unquestionably out of bounds.

I have found these issues much easier to deal with in the first half of the U.S. history survey course (up to Reconstruction) than in the latter half. Perhaps it’s something about the distance in time, or the lack of photographic realism for much of the course. Mary Rowlandson’s seeming nonchalance at the deaths of so many of her relatives and neighbors is a bit jarring (I occasionally track how many times the phrase “knocked in the head” appears in the text), but seems foreign enough both to me and my students that a disclaimer about the violence seems unnecessary.

In the first half of the survey, the area where I do disclaim is when we deal with race and slavery. When we work on the economic practices associated with slavery, for example, I have a prepared mini-lecture on terminology and the struggles that modern historians of slavery have with using the words and phrases in which whites described enslaved peoples without actually adopting their worldview in their writing. In many cases, my disclaimers seem to open the door to thornier conversations. For example, when we discuss secession, I ask students to read an excerpt of South Carolina’s Declaration of Immediate Causes as well as a letter from Alabama secession commissioner Stephen Hale to the governor of Kentucky. The students do fine with the former, but the excerpt of the Hale letter includes a passage that catches students cold:

Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property and her institutions — nothing less than an open declaration of war — for the triumph of this new theory of Government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassinations, and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation, to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. Especially is this true in the cotton-growing States, where, in many localities, the slave outnumbers the white population ten to one.

I warn them beforehand that the passage might disturb them, and it’s one of the few we don’t read aloud in class. In addition, I’ve found that I need to state the obvious first before we can actually discuss it. Reading along in class, they don’t usually catch the sinister coded language embedded in the phrase “consigning … her wives and daughters to pollution and violation” right away. My students won’t translate that into modern English (or simply can’t bring themselves to use the term), but once I say the word “rape” out loud, then we can usually begin to discuss the passage and how it fits in the context of arguments for secession.

That experience was nothing, however, compared to my first trip through the post-Reconstruction portion of the survey last fall. For the first time, I found myself teaching about lynching, asking my students to read Ida B. Wells, and discussing how the practice worked culturally, socially, and legally. I remembered from previous encounters that Southerners who participated in lynchings frequently photographed the events and would then print and mail them to friends or relatives as postcards. This is both horrifying as to us as human beings, and a rich source base for discussing what lynching was and why it was important. But it gave me pause to think about sharing these photos. To give you context, here’s what I tweeted:

To my mind, my students needed to see these images. They make the practice more real, even as it leaps off the page in the work of Ida Wells. They open a conversation about what the white people were thinking who posed with their wives and children, sometimes with law enforcement officials as well, and then sent these through the mail to friends and relatives. But putting up those photos as slides would simply shock my students, possibly trigger reactions for some, and certainly do no honor to the victims.

In this particular case Twitter came to the rescue, as in discussing the issue several people suggested printing out the photos and allowing students to choose whether to view the images. To my material side, that suggestion made even more sense when I connected the idea that my students holding images in their hands would experience a very similar physical object to what the historical actors we were trying to understand held. I still felt awful searching through dozens of images for the “best” or at least most representative images and spent a good hour running across my department hallway to make sure I pulled the images off the department printer before anyone else would accidentally discover them. Because of the way the lesson worked, I don’t actually know how many students decided to view the images, but I’m fine with that.

The debate about trigger warnings has taken some odd turns in the last few weeks (no really, click on the link from the Chronicle at the top of the post). I want to make two broader points about the practice. First, for all of the accusations of soft and coddled students with helicopter parents trying to shelter them from every incidence of unpleasantness, there are actual, real issues that deserve to be addressed with care because they could have an impact on students that is tangential to their education at best and may prove deeply harmful at worst. Second, warning students is both humane and transparent. I don’t want my students to think I’m a cold automaton reciting facts or analyzing documents without any emotion. I’m not a machine, and looking at these images, or discussing those arguments, disturbs and bothers me as someone living in the twenty-first century. Our students should see us struggle to figure out the world around us and the material before us.

For Further Reading

Without Sanctuary, which features photos of lynchings

“Trigger Warnings Become a Source of Conflict in Higher Ed,” Associated Press, April 26, 2014

“Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” New York Times, May 17, 2014

“What HBO Can Teach Colleges About ‘Trigger Warnings,’” The Atlantic, May 20, 2014

18 comments on “Triggers in the Past

  1. Brad Lewin says:

    I guess I must be a relic (having graduated college in 1973) but part of going to college and learning is to be confronted with ideas that may be disturbing and that don’t fit into our world view. What has occurred in the past – to state the obvious – is seldom pleasant and to allow us to pick and choose what we decide to learn is as as offensive as some of the the things that have occurred in the past, defeats the purpose of learning and doesn’t permit students to get ready for situations they may face in the future.

    Learning is about being challenged and being made uncomfortable. From this emerges a greater understanding of different ideas.

    • Joe is not suggesting foregoing confronting them with potentially discomfiting material, but rather that there is nothing wrong with giving students a “heads-up” before doing so. I’ve been trying to work through this idea in the past week or so as the debate has grown and the last four sentences of this piece have been the most valuable that I’ve read on the topic so far.

      • I have avoided most of the conversation about “trigger warning” because I suspect I will find it unproductive, but I wanted to second what Michael says. Trigger warning, as used in certain internet circles for the last decade or more, has been as much about giving people who have experienced trauma a chance to ground themselves before moving on as it is giving them a chance to opt out. People generally have a different mindset walking into a slasher movie than they do walking into an animated family film, and you don’t want someone to find themselves suddenly in the wrong theatre (I hope that metaphor makes sense)

    • I appreciate your comment, though I think you’ll find that I largely agree with what you say here. As Michael noted this morning, I’m not in favor of avoiding sensitive topics altogether or otherwise creating an artificially sunny portrait of American history. My point is more specifically that we shouldn’t rush headlong into discussing all material as if it’s all the same, or as if it does not depict emotionally problematic issues.

  2. I teach 7th and 8th grade, and though I often first obtain permission slips from parents explaining the importance of the lesson I have utilized photographs or descriptions of severely whipped slaves, lynchings, and emaciated holocaust survivors. In my personal experience nearly 90% of parents allow their children to be exposed to these images or texts. I teach at an inner city school where most students unfortunately have personally experienced violence, hunger and discrimination. After these lessons, my students become more connected to history.

    • Thanks for this. Obviously at the college level I don’t need to ask permission from the students’ parents, but I’m glad to hear that most parents are willing for their teenagers to discuss these issues.

  3. I don’t want to go into specifics, but my thinking about this has evolved quite a bit since I started teaching in North Philadelphia. Joe, I think this line is especially important: “I don’t know everything about my students and their lives.” These things matter to real people—that’s the whole reason we have to teach such terrible things in the first place.

    I have seen some really problematic uses of triggers as a concept—like this student petition, which implies a university should ban “the presence of triggering people and images on our campus.” That’s a risible and dangerously anti-intellectual attitude. And I think we need to resist trigger-warning creep; if I started letting students opt out of things they might potentially find disturbing, I’d have no attendance policy left in any history course.

    But there’s a difference between telling the brutal truth, and telling the brutal truth in a way that ignores the reality that students have their own inner lives, histories, and problems. There are plenty of things we can do, short of censorship, to show respect.

    • ryanbravata says:

      Well said.

    • Dan says:

      Great points. This is the thing – providing fair warning to students about some content is one thing, and oftentimes a good and humane idea. It’s when a select group of people start insisting loudly that schools mandate this kind of thing that you get the problem. Not because providing advanced warning is a bad thing (something many professors already do), but because it then leads to banning these triggers all together. After which, further down the road, it leads to even more attempts by a vocal, agenda-driven minority to mandate what can and cannot be taught. It’s easy to dismiss the slippery-slop argument in just about any debate, but Jonathan’s link to the petition confirms that it’s already happening. It’s the point at which universities give in to these demands and start mandating what professors can and cannot show that is the point of no return.

  4. Loretta Valtz Mannucci says:

    I am perplexed. It seems inconceivable that any US college aged person is unaware of the whole range of bad and dangerous feelings and behaviors that abound in the States , as in the world at large. Apart from periodic mayhem in schools where their peers ‘loose it’ with automatic weapons, they will all have seen at least a few of the tv series centered on violent crimes- very often racist or misogynist. The tv news are also full of episodes – mass rape and massacre are ‘covered’ in detail.

    Among their own age group, poor American youth ends up in jobs that often allow only bare subsistence [see, for ex. B. Ehrenreich or, way back,Studs Terkel's "Working"] a form of de facto slavery from which escape may only be through enlistment in the armed forces ( and so the danger of injury or death ).

    Your beige, ivory, olive,black or brown students necessarily know by college age all about prejudice and stupidity; as do those whose religion is treated as if it were a physical/genetic trait (antisemitism).

    The South lost the war and won the peace, largely due to the economic /political interests shared by strong financial minorities located in both ‘North’ and ‘South’ – and this not withstanding a very heroic opposition among ordinary people in both areas ( see various joint farm unions and a strong current among the populists: lynching was the criminal response ( i.e. terror) to linking up of spontaneous formations among non-white and white (including immigrant) farmers and workers ( see the major early railroad strikes).

    • Mark Mulligan says:

      [trigger warning: rape and sexual assault]
      “I am perplexed. It seems inconceivable that any US college aged person is unaware of the whole range of bad and dangerous feelings and behaviors that abound in the States , as in the world at large.” I think that depends on the nature of the trigger. For example, let’s say a student has been a victim of rape or sexual assault in his or her lifetime. Certainly this student knows and understands the horror that they went through. Nonetheless, maybe they would like a little heads up, “by the way, the material we’re reading for next class contains sexual violence.” That doesn’t indicate that the student is sheltered from assault–quite the opposite. It’s giving a student who has experienced something traumatic a chance to mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for potentially re-experiencing trauma. Take the trigger warning on this comment as an example. I’m not censoring talking about rape or sexual assault. I’m alerting readers that I’m about to talk about it.

  5. I mentioned this on Twitter, but I’ll reiterate here, with the caveat that I’m still a student and don’t exactly know how this would work for faculty. However.

    Most campuses have some psychological and counseling services for students. Many communities also have crisis centers or hotlines. If you are trying to deal with a topic that you worry might trigger flashbacks in students with traumatic experiences, consider consulting a mental health expert for best practices and ways to help a student if they do have problems during class. There’s no point reinventing the wheel, although it may need to be adapted for your specific circumstances.

    • This is a good reminder. Because in my case the instances where I would see such a disclaimer as necessary are relatively few and limited (that is, to a single class period, say) I haven’t reached out to the staff at my institution. But I could see it being particularly useful in a class explicitly focused on sensitive issues.

  6. I teach courses on religion and slavery, so avoiding potentially “touchy” material is just about impossible. I’ve had students who’ve commented on having to read somewhat disturbing material, but of course, if I remove all sensitive material, I’d be presenting a whitewashed, sanitized version of history. What I’ve done, is not to post trigger warnings, but along the lines of what I believe Joe was suggesting. I acknowledge that sometimes the material can be uncomfortable to read or to view. Mainly as a CYA measure, I also note that “inclusion of material in the course does not imply endorsement of the views contained therein by the professor or the college.” I think that most students understand that, but I also think these days, I feel much better having that little line of text in there.

  7. Lori Gemeiner Bihler says:

    Professors teaching the Holocaust have been grappling with these issues for a long time. As for myself, I tend to give a quick “heads up” just prior to showing a particularly disturbing image or reading graphic text. I believe it is important to give students a chance to brace themselves for a moment or two.

    Most teachers of this topic (Holocaust) at the college level agree that you don’t want to over saturate the class with graphic and disturbing imagery, but that it is vital to confront students with the realities of the horror. On that note, a whole other discussion rages among scholars of the Holocaust on whether such horrors can or should actually be represented or “re-presented” in the classroom at all. That’s another issue altogether, though, for another space.

  8. […] Should history professors shield their students from certain topics? Joseph M. Adelman explores that question and the use of triggers in “Triggers in the Past.” […]

  9. […] Three of my classes–Western Civ, American Culture, and American Politics–will be at the prison. This will be my fourth year teaching out there, and I’ve been following the hubbub on trigger warnings–see here, here, here, and here. […]

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