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Do conservative students receive trigger warnings? We asked 3 professors

(Image via Flickr/CALS Cornell)

(Image via Flickr/CALS Cornell)

Trigger warnings are a hot topic on college campuses. Sensitive students demand that they are warned before receiving information that they could be considered offensive or damaging to them.

This new trend is mostly attributed to liberal students who can find the hidden institutional racism and sexism in nearly every walk of life. But do conservative students ever recieve trigger warnings?

Red Alert Politics spoke to three professors from The New School who offered a variation of trigger warnings. However, they insisted that it was a non-partisan issue. Oftentimes, the professors selected what they deemed as sensitive material worthy of warning students rather than liberal activists complaining in the college classroom.

“[Trigger warnings are] relatively recent, they’ve only been around for six or seven years,” Claire Potter, Professor of History and Director of the Digital Humanities Initiative, said. “I only encountered them in my classroom in the fall of 2011. The vast majority don’t know what they think about them.”

Potter said that trigger warnings were more about faculty vs. staff rather than conservative vs. liberal students.

“It’s a power issue within the university. Faculty saying they’re in control of their classroom and informing students they don’t get to pick and choose what you learn on a syllabus,” she continued.

In her experience, Potter said she never had a conservative or liberal student ever request a trigger warning. The only experience she had was when several outraged students claimed that the sex scene in the film Black Robe showed someone being raped because there was no consent between the two characters even though the idea of consent didn’t exist in 1634.

“They wanted to talk about trauma, I wanted to talk about history,” Potter said.

In future classes, Potter said she put warnings on the syllabus for future films if there were extremely violent scenes that students could find disturbing.

“I’m giving a trigger warning in the most empathetic and respectful way,” Potter said.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, assistant professor of history, also said she never had a student ask for a trigger warning despite teaching at a liberal school.

“I personally have never put one on a syllabus, but given I teach about sexuality and the body and race and food, I know that there will always be a fair degree of discomfort in my classroom,” Petrzela said. “I actually seek that out because I think it is usually intellectually productive. I do warn the class verbally if something is very graphic or violent, and that doesn’t just mean depicting physical violence.”

In one assignment, Petrzela made her students read Milo Yiannopoulos’ defense of fat shaming which she defined as violent speech.

“I think it’s important to engage with that kind of rhetoric and his platform, but I also knew that the tone, without context, could derail the class discussion, especially for students who had struggled with eating disorders,” she continued. “So I generally described what was coming, why I assigned it, and that they should brace themselves. I think it’s important to highlight that even people who give more formal trigger warnings, do not, in my experience, allow students to skip the readings, but rather warn them to ensure they can engage meaningfully with the material rather than avoid it.”

Petrzela claimed that she received thanks for the trigger warning from more conservative students than liberals.

Doris F. Chang, an associate professor of psychology, said that she begins her term with a discussion about the fact that the students will have differing views about the topics of race, class, and other sensitive issues.

“We have a frank conversation about the fact that the topics we will address will likely elicit strong emotions, because a) we are discussing topics that are attached to a lot of pain and suffering for many, and b) that in general, we in this culture do not have a lot of practice talking explicitly about race and ethnicity, power, privilege, inequity, etc,” Chang said. “They are taboo subjects in many ways, and so like with anything that we don’t have practice discussing (e.g., sex talk in some communities), it can be hard. Therefore, we also work to create a set of community agreements about how we are going to approach having these difficult dialogues.”

She said that this conversation is equivalent to one giant trigger warning to alert students that they will be discussing sensitive topics. This early conversation may have been the reason Chang has never been asked to give a trigger warning and has allowed for conservative students to voice their feelings of having a minority voice on campus.

“I have had a few students who have expressed more conservative political views than the majority on campus, and what they struggle with more than specific class content is the isolation that comes from being the ‘political minority’ in a group,” Chang said.

“In that way, their struggle is similar to the difficulties that students of color feel when they are the only one in a classroom of 20 white students, or the struggles that transgender students feel when they are the only one,” she continued. “What is different however, is that in all cases in recent memory, the conservative students have been white, and so for them, I suspect that some of the pain of that feeling of being in the minority, is that they are not used to experiencing the loss of power that comes from being the minority. In most cases, their whiteness and their class privilege have allowed them to choose to be surrounded by other conservative students, and then they come here and discover that they are no longer in the majority in the classroom, or on campus, and that is a destabilizing experience that a trigger warning cannot solve.”

From the account of the professors at The New School, it seems that trigger warnings are more of a tool used for professors to ease their students into discussions rather than liberal students using it as a form of censorship.

Still, there have been no cases of conservative student genuinely asking for trigger warnings on political grounds.


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