Civil Liberties

Trigger Warnings a Threat to Academic Freedom, Says AAUP


Moby Dick
Wikimedia Commons

The American Association of University Professors came out strongly against trigger warnings in the classroom, calling them "a current threat to academic freedom."

The AAUP's statement firmly denounces mandatory use of trigger warnings. Administrators must not require teachers to "warn" students about potentially objectionable material, the organization wrote:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.  It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and… it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention.  Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.  Although all faculty are affected by potential charges of this kind, non-tenured and contingent faculty are particularly at risk.  In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, "chilly climate" for critical thinking in the classroom.

The statement clarifies that professors may freely choose to account for their students' sensibilities if they wish, but should not feel required to do so. Even so, voluntary use of trigger warnings may prove "counterproductive to the educational experience," according to the AAUP:

There are reasons, however, for concern that even voluntary use of trigger warnings included on syllabi may be counterproductive to the educational experience.   Such trigger warnings conflate exceptional individual experience of trauma with the anticipation of trauma for an entire group, and assume that individuals will respond negatively to certain content.  A trigger warning might lead a student to simply not read an assignment or it might elicit a response from students they otherwise would not have had, focusing them on one aspect of a text and thus precluding other reactions.

The full statement is a praiseworthy defense of academic freedom and unrestricted speech in higher education. Kudos to the AAUP for standing up for its members' rights.

Hat tip: The Huffington Post