Braver Than We’ve Ever Been: Content Warnings, Moral Panic, and Intellectual Leadership Among University Instructors

This essay is based on my experiences as a student, a instructor, an instructor of other instructors, and a one-on-one adviser to students from marginalized communities, as well as to survivors of sexual and gender based violence. I hope it lends you a little calm, and maybe some empathy and hope.

First things first: I don’t care what high horse you’re on about free speech. If you are an instructor, and a student lets you know they have a trauma-related medical (including mental) condition, and asks you to warn them if certain topics are in assigned materials or are likely to come up in class so they can appropriately prepare themselves to participate, you are legally obligated to make that extremely reasonable, incredibly easy, minimally invasive accommodation, or you are violating their rights as a person with a disability. As a practical matter, this is not up for debate. Students have a right to participate in their education. Take it up with Congress. You can demand documentation from them before you will comply, if you want, but to me that seems like either an extraordinary lack of empathy or a startling level of ignorance over the obstacles victims of trauma (especially sexual assault, especially on campus) face in getting formal recognition from institutions, especially if those institutions are in any way threatened by acknowledgment of their harm, as is the case for universities formally acknowledging that a student was assaulted on campus, or, say, military organizations formally documenting PTSD. Legally, you can certainly do that before you will make a very minimal, simple accommodation, but morally, I feel pretty okay saying it makes you a total asshole.

Especially for my colleagues in the social sciences, in which the texts we ask our students to read discuss actual people in the real world, and even more so those in my own discipline who teach about war and violence, I’d also like to suggest that it is a service to our students, when we teach materials that deal directly with human suffering, trauma, and violence (as I often do) that we indicate in advance that they will be doing so, especially when those assignments include graphic depictions of such and/or first person testimony. Certainly, this may help students with more complex personal histories to engage more fully with the material by knowing what’s coming, so they can prepare themselves to interact with it rather than be stopped from doing so by an involuntary trauma response. But it is also true that it would be impossible for us to exhaustively warn against all triggers, because trauma is not logical and triggers are not universal or predictable. But even those concerns aside, I would argue we should be encouraging all of our students to give such assignments particular time, attention, and space to breathe, in order to treat those materials and the human beings they describe with the full respect they deserve. The cognitive dissonance around disturbing and extreme suffering is well-documented; we distance ourselves from or outright reject what is too horrible to accept. The people whose pain is being described, no matter how clinical or detached the language (itself already a way to reduce our engagement with that pain), deserve much more, especially if they were willing to relive their experience in order to give testimony and educate others. These are not texts to be scanned a few distracted sentences at a time while on the bus or in between jokes with roommates. Our students should know that potentially disturbing material, especially violence, is coming in these texts, so they can engage fully with its consequences. They may choose not to do that. But as instructors, it expands their educational opportunities for us to give them the chance. Teaching our students empathy in the face of suffering is a meaningful and valuable skill, both morally and intellectually.

I might also gently suggest that if you make casual references to the trauma of others — jokes about rape, for example, or casually positing a hypothetical scenario of racist or homophobic violence to illustrate a trivial point — in the classroom, you should consider the empathy and concern for human subjects that you model for your students, and recall that such concern lies at the heart of the ethical obligations of our disciplines. You might even go further as to consider who such comments tell your students your classroom is “for,” who is objective and outside of events as opposed to who events act upon, and who exists for you only in the hypothetical. It is worth asking yourself whether these effects matter to you, and if not, why you think that is.

Universities shouldn’t be sending out letters preemptively finger wagging at students to stop whining about their desire to fully participate in campus life and academic inquiry. We shouldn’t be scolding students for wanting to have a fuller, richer set of conversations and opportunities to learn from others, and thus asking us to support a variety of spaces on campus with different rules governing conversation and priority given to different voices. Because not all conversations can be had in all contexts, and many of our most common contexts in the university normatively exclude those groups of people for whom universities were not originally intended — racial and ethnic minorities, disabled people, queer people, and women.

Universities should be reaching out to students, letting them know where they can go if they need a little extra support to engage fully in the university community. Universities should be encouraging faculty to think about the range of experiences represented in their classrooms, to see that as an asset to learning even as it may present obstacles to be navigated, and to consider the loss to learning if students whose experience with the educational system has taught them to keep their mouth shut about their own oppression, or else be targeted for abuse, are made to understand that universities are more of the same. They should be applying those well-honed critical thinking skills to see the difference between oppression, and those who use the language of oppression as a rhetorical device to derail challenges to the status quo. They should be using their keen observational skills to observe the world that students are navigating, and listen to students about their experiences. To consider what it must be like to encounter casual references to rape in the classroom that echo the dismissive tone with which your peers talk about what happened to a young woman at a party last weekend, or to be assigned a film that depicts violence similar to what you experienced through the gaze of a lens that feeds greedily on that victimization, humanizing perpetrators and objectifying victims — a process that will be discussed in detail in class, as though it was just pretend. To imagine the isolation of being the only black student in your class, looked to constantly to give “the black perspective,” judged constantly in light of racist stereotypes and implicit biases about your assumed limitations, to be constantly having to point out to your white classmates and teachers things in the world that they are ignorant of, but that you have never had the option to ignore. To observe that queer students may be skeptical of how much truth can be contained in texts and studies that regularly pretend they don’t even exist.

Sure, sometimes students carry ideas to far. That’s sort of what we do here. You hear a cool sub-field mentioned in your survey class and for awhile of course that’s what you’re going to do forever. You read a great theorist with bold new ideas you’ve never heard before, and of course they’re right about everything, 100%, all the time. You join a political movement and throw yourself headlong into the issue, black and white, clear as day, you know what we need to do to fix it. And then you experience some more and you get some guidance and you find the soft edges of your certainty. You find your way towards a more nuanced understanding — maybe a rejection of what you used to think, maybe just a more complicated version of it that accounts for a fuller understanding of the world. That’s what means to learn.

Is every space going to be a perfectly safe space all the time? No, because none of us can just magically turn off our position within a broader context of oppressive systems, or the implicit biases those systems have socialized into us. And sometimes, we have to talk about our ideas and reasoning without first understanding their relationship to power and oppression, without fully anticipating their impact on others. We have to do that as part of coming to know those consequences, as we go about the imperfect work of understanding our place in those structures. But should we strive to make our classrooms places that resist rather than replicate oppression? Should we listen to our students when they tell us the impact of experiences they have in our classrooms, when they point out where we are falling short? I mean, I think so, and if you don’t, you should sure be ready to defend that perspective when challenged by your students. Should we sometimes cultivate spaces especially sensitive to certain concerns? Yes, because those spaces allow for the setting aside of some issues and ideas so that others can be explored, and that is just how conversation works. These are just conversations that center a different set of experiences than you’re used to. Do we need to engage with ideas that challenge us? Yes. Do we need to spend valuable class time on giving bigotry a platform? I don’t think so. You can decide what baseline assumptions you want to use in your classroom, but you don’t get to pretend like you don’t have any, or that there is a single universal set. Rarely, for example, do we encourage students to spend instructional time in anthropology arguing both sides of whether racial superiority can be ranked via population studies of variation in head size. You could have a classroom where you do that, I guess, but it would seem there are much more interesting conversations to be had if we go ahead and take that issue as a settled no, and use it to open the door to talking about power and history within the discipline, and who is subject and object, and who decides. If you have one student that’s adamant it should be taken seriously that white people are biologically superior, well, I think maybe that’s a good moment not to just rely on the clarifying process of debate among students, but for you to step up and be a teacher.

So is the moment when a student declares that all spaces must be safe spaces, or that philosophers who owned slaves should not be included in the curriculum. Are there a few students out there who will be certain that’s right and necessary? Yeah, probably. Every year I have a freshman who thinks Ayn Rand is the second coming, too, but that’s the ideological certainty of being 18. You teach through it. Not by belittling or dismissing them, or writing them off, but by asking them why they think that should be so, and what its associated trade-offs might be, and what nuances might exist here. In other words, you teach. That’s what we do here.

This isn’t about students who are coddled babies. With even a basic understanding of privilege and statistical numeracy, you can see that college is browner, poorer, queerer, and more female than at any time in history. This is about a generation of students who are braver in their thinking than we have ever been. They dare to see a world full of many experiences, to imagine a world that is kinder and more just and more connected and more interesting, and to strive to manifest that hope, not once they’ve climbed to the top of the status quo, but right now, right here, in their intellectual and social communities. If they are entitled, it is the radical assertion that they, too, are entitled to be and learn here, as fully and as comfortably as their white straight upper-middle-class male peers have always been — or perhaps more accurately, not quite that comfortable, and with a bit more added intellectual destabilization and discomfort for those very comfortable guys. To me, that sounds like a desire to learn and engage, not a consumerist transactional demand or an expectation that everything should be easy. They want to learn, and they want to listen — to you and to one another. They just also want to be seen, and to be heard, as full human beings at the same time.

I think we can handle that. We don’t need to send out cease and desist orders on intellectual conversation. After all, we’re not coddled babies either.