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:
My survey class is discussing lynching tomorrow, and I wanted to show them some of the images (esp. those used as postcards).
— Joseph M. Adelman (@jmadelman) September 20, 2013
But I don’t know if I can bring myself to include these in the PowerPoint. They’re too awful. — Joseph M. Adelman (@jmadelman) September 20, 2013
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