Thoughts about trigger warnings from professors and emotional reactions from students

I recently came across an article in The Atlantic:

If you suspect based on the subtitle that the article will be sort of a “look at the terrible things the kids are doing these days” screed, you aren't wrong. But it does offer a response: using the lens of cognitive distortions, as seen in cognitive behaviour theory, to examine responses to what teachers and academics say in the course of their work. Even if this article doesn’t follow through on that approach very thoroughly, it might be a valuable suggestion.

I’m not sure. I’ll leave that discussion to someone else. But whatever the strategy, students who don’t have the advantage of experience need whatever way they can get their hands on to avoid judging their worth based on the misbehaviour of authorities.

Back when I was in college, after transferring into a science bachelor’s degree program with a two year technical diploma from the same school, I was a third year student taking a first-year English course to fill a credit requirement. During the second lecture of the course, the professor spent most of the lecture calling on students to answer questions, and then mocking their answers, their word choices, or anything else he could to belittle them. I realized as this approach continued into the third lecture that this had not been a one day occurrence. Students who made the mistake of using colloquialisms, or uttering “like”s or interjections in their responses were penalized with the duty of looking the word up in the dictionary and giving a brief report in the following the class.

With the idea that this was just somebody being excruciatingly pedantic over their favourite subject in a way that was germane to the course, I started to choose my answers more carefully when called on in the lectures. But I also tried to be candid in the hope that if I was collegial that professor would be also. But no; students with correct answers and good elocution had their attitudes and outlooks made fun of. After one answer, the professor asked if I was perhaps majoring in Philosophy.

I don’t know why the professor did what he did, day after day; maybe it was a deliberate tactical approach, a means to challenge indifferent students, mostly fresh out of high school, to be more rigorous; maybe it was intended as entertainment for himself or the students; maybe it was a way to prepare students for a “real world” of abuse out there somewhere; maybe he was just having a bad year due to undisclosed personal issues; maybe he was just a really bitter dude. The professor claimed at the start of the course that his teaching style had the approval of the administration; I find this unlikely, and I even thought so at the time, although I in no way attempted to verify his claim.

In my college experience so far, professors had perhaps been indifferent or impatient from time to time, but they had not carried out a class worth of uniquely tailored personal attacks day after day. This was something new. If this had been course of mostly third-year students I think there would have been a mass revolt; but the mostly first year students in the course continued to put up with it. Perhaps they assumed that this went with the territory.

I didn’t. One day, in the middle of a 15 second answer, the professor slowly turned around and looked at the wall clock for effect and then turned back to me; I decided on the spot that I had had enough of this for the day, apologized for taking up his valuable time, and I walked out of the classroom.

Later in the week, I was studying in the library when I realized that the time for the next excruciating lecture was upon me. I was faced with the choice of rushing to make it to class slightly late, in order to observe (and perhaps receive) more abuse, in exchange for learning material that was occasionally interesting but of little value to my actual major, or to do something else. I decided to spoil my almost perfect attendance record and skipped the class, and let the appointed time go by.

The professor’s office hours were immediately after the lecture, which made it awkward to raise the issue with him in person (as I had the choice of either showing up in his office after awkwardly skipping class, or showing up in his office too angry to speak diplomatically and perhaps too angry to not do something I might regret).

I didn’t go back the next class, or the class after that; I skipped almost the entire remainder of the course’s lectures. I submitted a term paper, and wrote the mid term and the final exam and received relatively good grades for those. My overall mark for the course was quite fair. Although in the first lecture the professor had verbally threatened mark deductions for absences, anyone familiar with the institution’s academic policy knew that the overall course marking wasn’t allowed to diverge from the scheme set out in the syllabus, and attendance was not mentioned in the syllabus, and so it did not. In general the marking seemed to exist in a parallel universe where the professor knew his conduct would be subject to scrutiny.

I don’t know if disciplinary action would have accomplished anything in this case. Whether or not academic freedom should extend to this kind of conduct is a nice topic for a theoretical discussion, but in the end it’s all the same: a student had an emotional reaction to things said in class that the professor thought they were entitled to say.

What I do know is that, other than the possibility of filing some kind of administrative complaint, there was no obvious way for me to get any assistance in coping with the situation. The college offered general counselling services to students; I assumed these were intended for more personal issues, but perhaps they could have helped in some way.

Professors are the face of the educational institution to the students. If the average student has an idea about what the administration’s policy is, it’s going to be mostly based on what their professors have told them.

In hindsight, the field of the professor and the absurdity of the situation have made me wonder if the professor was deliberately trying to play the antagonist in some kind of meta-narrative in order to inspire the writers of the future; that would have been fine as far as it goes, perhaps, but as a student obviously majoring in something unrelated, for me it was just a mandatory waste of my time and money.

What would complete the meta-narrative? Mandatory trigger warnings and specific categories of prohibited insensitive behaviour, in various ways forcing people who are decidedly unprofessional to superficially act like professionals?

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