Thursday, June 02, 2016


Dual Enrollment and Trigger Warnings

In a meeting yesterday, a colleague connected some dots I hadn’t connected before.

Do the issues around trigger warnings change when some or many of the students in the class are of high school age?

Trigger warnings are labels that some professors put on material that they believe may be uncommonly likely to generate trauma responses among students.  For example, a student who is a survivor of sexual abuse might react more strongly to a depiction of rape than would a student who hadn’t been abused.  

It’s a difficult area for a host of reasons.  Yes, some triggers are more predictable than others, but it’s impossible to know in advance how any given student will react to any given material.  Some triggers are relatively random.  And some material is impossible to discuss in any sort of intelligent way without raising sensitive issues.  Take the adultery and murder out of Hamlet, and the play doesn’t make much sense.  History classes often address wars and their consequences, including genocide and systematic sexual assault; there are better and worse ways to present that, but simply excluding it for fear of setting people off would be getting the story wrong.  When I taught American Government, race would come up in the context of, say, party identification or redistricting.  Race sets some people off, but it’s part of the story.  Leave it out, and you get the story wrong.  Besides, take too heavy a hand with warnings, and you start to venture into academic freedom territory.

Dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and early college high school programs are growing quickly.  They come in different flavors, but the common element among them is students of high school age taking college classes.  Which means that classes designed for adults may have 15 or 16 year olds in them.  Some of those 15 or 16 year olds may have been home schooled, and/or come from families with very strong conservative religious backgrounds.

When dual enrollment and sensitive content meet, questions about trigger warnings become a little more complicated.

This is where I tend to lean towards a more general “adult content” warning to both prospective students and their parents, when they’re considering enrolling in college.  Let them know upfront that they may encounter subjects or approaches that they wouldn’t have in high school, and accepting that is a price of admission.  Rather than labeling individual courses -- which could give a false impression of “safety” anyplace the label didn’t appear -- better to flag the issue globally first.  

High school curricula are designed to be age-appropriate.  (Whether they succeed at that is another question, but irrelevant here.)  College curricula assume that students are adults.  Nothing gets through the curriculum approval process simply to be shocking, or as a stunt; the faculty, to their credit, take content seriously.  And while faculty are expected to be professional in their treatment of sensitive issues, and not to abuse their authority in the classroom, they do -- and should -- have freedom to raise and examine sensitive issues relevant to their subject matter.  

In the age of the internet, it’s silly to assume that most teenagers’ first encounter with sensitive material is in a college classroom.  To the extent that college classes can help give context and skills to situate that material in a deeper understanding, I see a real benefit.  

But explaining that to an angry parent can be a real challenge.  When it comes to concrete examples and their own kids, arguments from principle don’t always work.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a college take a particularly smart or surefooted approach to trigger warnings (and the like) in the context of dual enrollment?

"Take the adultery and murder out of Hamlet, and the play doesn’t make much sense." Trigger warnings don't ask you to take murder out of Hamlet. They ask you to make sure students in the class are aware that Hamlet has murder and adultery in it. Think of them as specific "adult content" warnings. Rather than just put the label on it, treat student's as adults, and give them the information they actually need to know what specific content that may be objectionable will be in the class. Give them the power to decide for themselves. Don't just say "there may be adult things"; that doesn't give people useful information to decide if they should take the class---espcially if you include it in all your courses, not just one that may have such content.
Fortunately, I teach physics. ;-)

That said, I mentioned a few examples from my own experience in a recent comment.

Because my classes are on campus, I am more aware of the difference between a 16 year old young lady and a 27 year old combat veteran. Dealing with adult topics in a class that consists entirely of HS students would be different than dealing with them in a class of traditional age college students plus some actual adults. (And probably not as valuable.) There aren't quite as many combat vets as there were a few years ago, but I would keep that in mind as well.

Also, in my experience, it is mostly the home school kids who take classes on campus, and the ones I see are only taking math and science. They take everything else at home until perhaps their senior year. They might start college algebra as a HS sophomore, but not get to humanities until the graduate from HS.

But one other difference is that, where I live, there are many religious schools, including some good ones (unless you want to learn biology). Home school kids tend to be ones who just don't want the drama of our local schools with no particular ideology.
To clarify, my concern is that it would be easy for a HS student to say something that would trigger a combat vet, no matter what the prof does. They likely only know about the worst part of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts from what is in a history book and have no memory of the events on 9-11.
I've taught Intro to Literature to a number of high school students who are taking regular college classes. I give a warning on the syllabus and verbally on the first day that we will be reading, discussing, and writing about literature that will contain adult content and potentially offensive information. About a week ahead, I alert them to readings that might be particularly graphic; for example, Ralph Ellison's "A Party Down at the Square" is a graphic account of a lynching--it's supposed to be disturbing, but I always alert my students to that selection. Only once, though, has a student asked to opt out of something. We were scheduled to watch Othello (which has an NC-17 rating) and a student requested that she be allowed to miss class for those periods. She said she had no problem reading the play, but she felt the film might be too adult (it does have nudity). I excused her from class, and thanked her for alerting me. Some poems discuss rape, and I've had a few students thank me for the warning. We can't anticipate everything, but I try to prepare my students so that they are not so shocked or traumatized that they cannot objectively explore the material.

I don't have an answer to this, and it may just be a function of "when." When I was in HS (1961-65, we read both "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Oxbow Incident" in 6th semester English. (I took that class, for reasons that I don't entirely remember in summer school, in 1963. I was 15.) We read (and saw a move version of) Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in 4th semester English. That's two works with a significant focus on adultery and one on lynching. (And I taught economics, so...) For those of you who teach lit courses at institutions where "trigger warnings" are a part of your lives...would you alert any or all of those? (We've already had a reference to Hamlet. What about the Oedipus plays, which I read in senior English, or other Greek plays I could mention.) In all of this, my question is, would you think it necessary to provide trigger warnings in a college lit course?
I'm with you, Matt. A blanket warning that placing a high school student into a college class means that you are opting into a dove that assumes you are an adult and can handle adult-level learning is the way to go. If parents want to censor what their kids see, that's the parent's obligation.

Trigger warnings are a separate issue, IMO. But to the extent the school has adopted them, I can see some utility for using them to help inform parents of dual enrollees.
Another option that I have seen involves a general warning about adult subject matter, but also putting responsibility on students: "If you know or suspect that some subjects might trigger a serious or overwhelming emotional response that might interfere with your participation in the class, you are encouraged to speak with the instructor in complete privacy." I've had some military vets who have said they were not ready to read literature focusing on war, for example. I can understand that. Students have a responsibility as well to inform instructors about medical or other issues that might be a problem. Psychological and emotional issues, like medical issues, can be better addressed if faculty are warned. One student told me he had a medical condition, and how to help him in an emergency.
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