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Why are colleges considering putting warning labels on classic books?


"Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression"

There's a movement sweeping across college campuses according to the New York Times that should give anyone interested in the classics of Western canon, and potentially academic freedom itself, pause: students have been advocating for so-called "trigger warnings" to be placed on college reading materials.

What are "trigger warnings?" The Times describes them as:

"explicit alerts that the material they [students] are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in victims of rape or in war veterans...The term “trigger warning” has its genesis on the Internet. Feminist blogs and forums have used the term for more than a decade to signal that readers, particularly victims of sexual abuse, might want to avoid certain articles or pictures online."

To give a sense as to how such warnings would be applied, the Times cited a draft guide from Oberlin College that would have required professors to put warnings in their syllabi:

Oberlin College has been leading the charge for incorporating trigger warnings into college syllabi. Oberlin College has been leading the charge for incorporating trigger warnings into college syllabi.

"The guide said they [professors] should flag anything that might "disrupt a student’s learning" and "cause trauma," including anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).

"Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression," the guide said. "Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand." For example, it said, while "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe — a novel set in colonial-era Nigeria — is a "triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read," it could 'trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.'"

At Oberlin these guidelines were met with substantial criticism, but faculty, students and other interested parties are expected to meet next fall to assemble an agreed upon comprehensive guide.

According to the Times, similar pushes have been made at institutions including U.C. Santa Barbara, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan and George Washington University.

The practical effect would have wide-ranging ramifications for even classic books:

"Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s "Mrs. Dalloway" (addresses suicide)."

As the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, David Marshall of U.C. Santa Barbara stated in a campus newspaper article:

"thousands of years of art and literature have been provocative and disturbing," and these works are important because they advance our understanding of social ills.

"Think of 'Oedipus Rex,' which contains scenes of violence, patricide, incest, and death. In addition, there are many works of art, film, and literature that contain disturbing images in order to prevent social ills, such as violence against women," Marshall said in an email. "Finally, I would note that our university adheres to the principles of academic freedom."

The author of the Times article begins her piece with provocative questions addressing many other prominent titles that might require "trigger warnings" should such a policy be implemented:

"Should students about to read “The Great Gatsby” be forewarned about “a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence,” as one Rutgers student proposed? Would any book that addresses racism — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Things Fall Apart” — have to be preceded by a note of caution? Do sexual images from Greek mythology need to come with a viewer-beware label?"

As the debate rages at Oberlin College, the Times quotes two professors who represent opposing sides of the argument well:

"Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the [aforementioned] guide was meant to provide suggestions, not to dictate to professors...Ms. Raimondo said providing students with warnings would simply be “responsible pedagogical practice."

"I quite object to the argument of 'Kids today need to toughen up,'" she said. "That absolutely misses the reality that we’re dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously."

On the other hand,

"Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin and a major critic of trigger warnings at Oberlin, said such a policy would have a chilling effect on faculty members, particularly those without the job security of tenure.

"If I were a junior faculty member looking at this while putting my syllabus together, I’d be terrified," Mr. Blecher said. "Any student who felt triggered by something that happened in class could file a complaint with the various procedures and judicial boards, and create a very tortuous process for anyone."

Be sure to read the whole thing here.

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