Mitchell’s Musings 9-12-16: Chicago

12 Sep 2016 8:23 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 9-12-16: Chicago


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


We are used to the idea that movies are rated for “mature” content (PG-13, R, etc.). TV shows also are similarly rated. Sometimes radio and TV programs are prefaced with a statement that there is language some might find offensive. So is there any real difference between these types of warning systems and the “trigger warnings” for college courses that have been in the news in recent years?


The use of such warnings in course syllabi – in contrast to movie, TV, and radio warnings – has produced (triggered?) substantial controversy. An engineering professor at Auburn University recently got himself fifteen minutes of fame by putting the statement "TRIGGER WARNING: physics, trigonometry, sine, cosine, tangent, vector, force, work, energy, stress, quiz, grade” at the top of his syllabus as a parody.[1] Much more attention was paid – because it wasn’t intended as a joke – to an orientation statement from a dean at the University of Chicago: "Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."[2]


Obviously, despite the noncontroversial precedent of movie ratings, the trigger movement is being taken by some as a serious matter, although how widespread the concern is among practicing academics can be questioned.[3] In particular, the Chicago statement received substantial attention and applause – more from the political right than elsewhere.[4] LA Times columnist Maureen Daum – who is not a right-wing observer – argued that the use of triggers, by itself not a big deal in her view, has become mixed up with “the much larger phenomenon of leftist groupthink masquerading as liberalism.”[5] That is, in her view a practice that is relatively harmless has come to stand for something else.


Note that the Chicago statement is self-contradictory. In order to protect free speech, it seems to support a ban on the use of a type of statement (speech) by an instructor on a syllabus. You can argue whether a policy of “not supporting” use of trigger warnings is an absolute ban on them. But given that statement, if you were a junior (untenured) faculty member at Chicago, might you not be reluctant to use a trigger? Would you want to be doing something which the university doesn’t “support”? The statement, after all, is being made by a campus authority figure. If the dean were just expressing his personal opinion, he could have said so, and then further clarified that he was not articulating an official policy. But that wasn’t what he did.


There is a difference between someone deciding not to go to an R-rated movie to avoid the offensive content and a student responding to a trigger warning on a syllabus. The former situation represents a choice about an entertainment. The latter might be interpreted by the student as meaning you don’t have to read material that might offend you and yet you would nonetheless receive credit for the course. Or it might be taken to mean that you don’t have to read what offends you and that the instructor is bound to supply you with alternative readings that you prefer.


Just putting a trigger warning on a syllabus without further comment is potentially confusing. If the potentially offensive readings are nonetheless required, the syllabus should so indicate. You don’t have to go to an R-rated movie and there really is no consequence if you don’t. But if you take a course, you do have to do the assigned work. And some courses, moreover, are required for completing a major, or even to graduate. A syllabus trigger warning has an element of importance that a movie rating does not. So it needs to be explained.


I am unaware of any university requiring the use of trigger warnings. And it is not clear how you would mandate their use without also defining what kind of content is offensive. Is it any content with violence? Any content with sex? Would the warnings cover reference to wars – inherently violent - in history courses? Could students complain about a lack of a warning on any topic of their choosing in some university tribunal? That kind of complaint mechanism could lead to de facto censorship by anyone who didn’t like the way a topic was discussed.


So we might add a proviso to our view that the Chicago dean should have made it clear that he was merely expressing a personal opinion and not a university mandate (if he was just expressing a personal viewpoint). Sometimes, norms can become quasi-mandates without any official policy change. What started out as a fad of adding trigger warnings could become an expectation of more. Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen noted in a New Yorker article that the discussion in criminal law classes has been impeded by student objections to including as a topic the law of sexual assault.[6] That is, the demand for trigger warnings – which are not mandated by Harvard – has morphed into a demand to omit a section of the curriculum that lawyers are supposed to know something about.


Perhaps, therefore, the Chicago dean might better have said that while the use of trigger warnings was a matter of instructor discretion, their use did not mean that potentially offensive topics would be avoided or that dealing with such topics is at the option of those enrolled. My guess is that is what he meant to say.


As far as articulating official policy, he might further have focused on what the University of Chicago is not doing. Chicago is not creating the “bias-response teams” which have embarrassed other universities by censoring courses and speech in response to someone’s complaints of offense. You don’t have to be an expert in organizational behavior to know that such teams, once they are created, will seek out work to do to justify their existence. At least two universities that created such teams have had to disband them after the teams started to do what they shouldn’t do or seemed poised to do so.[7]


Daum is correct; trigger warnings by themselves are relatively harmless. But if they are used, their implications should be explained to students. And going beyond such warnings in the direction of institutionalized thought police should be avoided. There will always be a few cases of academics who misbehave in some extreme manner – teaching wacko conspiracy theories or whatever. But they can be dealt with in an ad hoc manner. And, if you are wondering about yours truly, I don’t have anything labeled “trigger warnings” on my current syllabus, but I have long provided a very brief description of what each assigned item is about. And it is clear that all the items listed as assignments are required.

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[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/09/01/professor-tops-syllabus-mock-trigger-warning.    

[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/25/u-chicago-warns-incoming-students-not-expect-safe-spaces-or-trigger-warnings.    

[3] NPR reported on a survey it conducted – which it qualified as nonscientific – in which half of college instructors said they used trigger warnings. That result seems implausible since there are many fields – math, the sciences, computer science, etc. – where (other than the parody of footnote 1) – it’s hard to see how they would be used. See http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/09/07/492979242/half-of-professors-in-npr-ed-survey-have-used-trigger-warnings. (Would there be a warning for religious fundamentalists that there is scientific evidence of evolution or that there is evidence that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old?)

[4] http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/09/02/higher_education_beyond_parody_131683.html. However, the Chicago approach was supported by a former Obama administration official: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-09-07/a-fix-for-the-culture-wars.

[5] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-daum-trigger-warnings-20160831-snap-story.html.

[6] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trouble-teaching-rape-law.

[7] http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/u-of-northern-colorado-will-disband-controversial-bias-response-team/114095

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