I can still recall the conversation. A friend wanted to tell me big news.
He exclaimed, “A college has made a ‘safe space’ for students!”
At the time, it was extra odd; why would young adults need protection from ideas?
These days, it seems the culture’s converted.
And an instructor at Iowa State University believes we’re again in need of change.
There are already “trigger warnings” in school.
But due to our suffering state, Liberal Arts and Sciences Professor Michael Bugeja asserts it’s time to make more.
Writing for Inside Higher Ed, the professor opens thusly:
I know what you’re thinking: We’ve covered trigger warnings for more than a decade, and you don’t need a refresher. Some of us use or refuse to use them, and you can find reasons to do either.
But there’s deepening demand, as pegged by the professor:
[T]imes have changed. Although reporting levels remain low, one in four undergraduate female students and one in 15 undergraduate male students have been raped through physical force, incapacitation or violence, according to some estimates.
Moreover, according to reporting in Inside Higher Ed, Black students continuously experience racism, coping with emotional trauma, increased anxiety and poor mental health outcomes.
On top of that, consider COVID-19 and its worsening of mental health.
Recent statistics show an estimated 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness. Worse, 73 percent of students with mental health conditions have experienced a mental health crisis while on campus.
Additional stressors: a return to in-person and “blended” classes this fall; it’s unclear to what exactly the term refers.
Is meeting face-to-face set to spark anxiety?
Michael reckons yes.
To hear him tell it, warnings have waned:
[T]oday’s multimedia classes differ significantly from those a decade ago when the issue of trigger warnings…erupted on college campuses. Gone are clickers, overhead projectors and whiteboards; they’ve been replaced by YouTube videos, machine learning and virtual and augmented reality.
The problem: They too intensely resemble reality:
In other words, we’re recreating a facsimile of reality with the potential to trigger flashbacks without warnings.
The professor nods to conventional topics where warnings are warranted:
And he’s “all in.”
Professors who use or respect the use of trigger warnings typically are on alert about risks of discussing distressing content or reiterating racial slurs. They approach those conversations with sensitivity and decorum. Others who do not have been suspended or fired.
Michael believes teachers should be “held to rigorous standards apart from course content.”
He points out that many oppose trigger warnings, and research has even suggested they make no difference.
[R]eports and studies conducted years ago fail to consider the audiovisual and multimedia nature of today’s engaged classroom. We show a lot more than PowerPoints. As noted earlier, we employ video, audio and multimedia platforms that recreate and, at times, reactivate intense experiences.
He nestles in the nitty gritty:
[I]n my media ethics class, we discuss how bystanders with mobile phones are changing attitudes about race with on-the-scene videos of discrimination and brutality. Those videos have had more impact in society than many news reports. Students also explore timelines of Black deaths at hands of law enforcement, like one the BBC recently published.
“Should we show accompanying YouTube videos without warnings,” the academic asks, “knowing students of color regularly experience racism and perhaps as many as a quarter of the students in every class have personal survivor memories of sexual misconduct?”
Previously cited demurrals about trigger warnings have one flaw: They indirectly affirm the professor’s viewpoint rather than the student’s.
In the spring of 2021, Michael played his “trigger word game” with students to determine a Top 10 Triggers list.
Concerning sensitive subjects, he conducts class with courtesy:
Trigger warnings respect the student’s viewpoint. Study guides allow students to opt out of a session while still being responsible for material. Free speech and civil discourse are encouraged. Content of lectures in syllabi puts everyone on notice that sensitive topics will be discussed on a particular day and in a particular manner, helping to maintain classroom climate.
And as for warnings, students have asked for more:
I adopted this standard during pandemic Zoom sessions. I had always used trigger warnings on my websites and in-class lectures and videos. But several students asked me to do more, providing detailed schedules, study guides and advance emails about content.
Therefore, he’s revamped his course.
Will a rethinking result in graduates better groomed for the world?
Only time will tell.
Back to anxiety, if I had to guess: If you tell someone what they’re about to hear, see, or learn may obliterate them, you’re not lessening it. You’re doing the reverse.
Moreover, you’re telling them they aren’t likely to handle other things awaiting — in school and in life.
You’re making them more anxious, not only in that moment, but in others ahead.
Then again, I’m no professor.
And it’s a very new day.
As for safe spaces, Michael’s for ’em:
Measuring distress in a clinical experiment is one thing; encouraging discussion about distressing topics over an entire semester is another. Warning an incoming class about the absence of intellectual safe spaces is one thing; providing those spaces is another. Concerns about threats to academic freedom is one thing; exercising freedom responsibly is another.
Stay safe, everyone.
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