Campus Free Speech

I'm a Professor Who Doesn't Use Trigger Warnings. Here's Why.

I don't want to tell students how to interpret a text before they have even read it.

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Apes
Planet of the Apes / APJAC Productions/ 20th Century Fox

On the first day of class, I tell my students that when we're discussing literature, they should never take my word for it. I'm not going to stand at the board listing facts for them to copy and regurgitate on a midterm—I'm not Cliff's Notes. I want them to read, think, and bring their own understanding of the text to class discussions. If we disagree about the meaning or purpose of something we read and want to persuade people that ours is a valid interpretation, the only evidence that matters is the work itself.

My degrees and academic title are not bludgeons of truth. Yes, I've spent a lot more time doing this than my students have. I've read the work before, thought about it for longer. I will be able to point to details and angles they might not have considered, but they should never accept my interpretation because I said so.

I believe this egalitarian or nonauthoritarian view of literature, which recognizes only the text as authority—an authority that all readers can access—and treats students like full adults intellectually, is incompatible with the recent trend of providing specific trigger or content warnings before students read potentially offensive material.

The benefits of letting students experience literature for themselves in this way were demonstrated during a recent class discussion. My students had read Planet of the Apes (also known as Monkey Planet), the 1963 novel by French author Pierre Boulle that inspired the movies. A suspenseful satire, it's an easy, fun read despite some disturbing content. The only introductory note I provided to my students was that they might look for connections between the book and Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, which we read the week before. I conducted class as I often do, asking students to point out scenes, sentences, or details they wanted to discuss and letting the conversation go where it may. A student volunteered. She had found the behavior of the book's protagonist-narrator, Ulysse, toward the female love interest, Nova, to be "very disturbing." She directed us to this scene:

"I had had to resort to force to keep her quiet. After receiving a few thundering slaps across her beautiful face, she had eventually calmed down. I had allowed myself to indulge in this brutal behavior almost without thinking; afterward I felt sorry, but she appeared not to hold it against me."

My student quoted not only the slapping, but also Ulysse's "sometimes […] unreasoning desire to terrify Nova by brandishing the flashlight," which he recognizes as cruel but does anyway. He even mentions that the recently acquired flashlight has made him "the absolute master at home" in the cage they share. These details support the student's view that Ulysse's behavior towards Nova is domestic violence.

I didn't ask whether my student should have found the scene disturbing. Should has nothing to do with it. She found it disturbing. I accepted that. My student had read carefully, reached her own conclusion, and could support that conclusion by pointing to examples in the text. Other students had not reacted the same way, but to the degree that the text is consistent with her interpretation, that doesn't matter. I see this as empowering for the student. She knew that she alone had seen this in the reading and brought it to the class for discussion.

If I'd provided a warning that the text contained domestic violence, lots of students would have seen it only because I told them it was there. My authority would have been imposed on not only the discussion, but the initial reading. Instead, a peer had presented the idea to them. The student who had read carefully, and found something that struck her as important, might have been denied the opportunity to experience the book for herself and share it with others if I told her and everyone else what to think before they read.

Another reason I avoid content warnings—as our class discussion subsequently explored—is it's not entirely clear that "domestic violence," as we understand that term, quite fits the context of the story. In the novel, unlike the movie, the humans are completely naked. They are not merely a primitive tribe, but live like animals at the civilizational and intellectual level of apes. Nova bares her teeth at the books Ulysse is reading with his flashlight, before he shines it on her. That she is frightened of a flashlight and books is only one of many indications in the novel that humans are little more than beasts, like Gulliver's unreasoning Yahoos. Nova is consistently described in terms appropriate for a wild animal (while also being described as a "marvelous beauty"). She is not portrayed as a frail victim. In one scene, she strangles an innocent chimpanzee to death with her bare hands; in another, she climbs a tree like an ape.

The slapping scene might be considered in the context of the story of a man who travels to a faraway planet and discovers it's ruled by apes. After Ulysse convinces the chimpanzee-scientist Zira that he is not a wild animal like all the other humans on the planet, Nova acts aggressively, screaming and throwing straw in Zira's face whenever she approaches, jeopardizing Ulysse's chances of being released from an animal's cage. Readers can decide for themselves if this justifies violence. In any case, the humans on the planet are not considered people. They are hunted like game and experimented on like apes. This is not to say that we cannot see the scene as a kind of domestic violence and disturbing. (When a man slaps a woman to calm her "hysteria" in a book or movie, we might acknowledge that trope's long history, which our class discussion did, pointing to its mockery in the movie Airplane!)

I happen to find the entire relationship between Ulysse and Nova to be disturbing. For a time, his disdain for humans faintly echoes Gulliver's disdain for Yahoos, but she is not remotely odious like they are. Nova is a beast, but he is attracted to her incomparable beauty. He feels affection for her and superiority over her, is kind to her and cruel. In a moment he recognizes as absurd, he is pressured into having intercourse with her while apes stand around, watching closely and taking notes and chuckling (first he performs a love display, dancing like a bird around his mate).

We might want to leave room for students to reach their own conclusions about the nature of this relationship in such a bizarre world. If I had labeled the novel with a content warning for domestic violence, maybe I would have closed the door to that room before anyone had taken a good look inside. As a teacher encouraging students to read and think for themselves, I'm obligated not to. I'm also obligated to foster a welcoming environment in my courses that's conducive to learning and the exchange of ideas.

On the first day of class, along with telling students they should never take my word for it, I let them know what they can expect in my course—what we'll be reading, the approach I take to the material, and what I expect from them. I talk generally about the works we'll be covering, such as broad themes the texts might share. I make some of the same points that I make in this essay about why I won't be telling them many details about the works before we read. (In the future, I can just have them read this essay, unless the class is scheduled to look at Planet of the Apes.)

I probably tell them we'll be reading some disturbing material, but that's true for almost all literature worth discussing. Students who have particular concerns about course content are always free to research the readings or talk to me to help decide if my course is right for them. It's my experience that most of today's students are not nearly as fragile or hypersensitive as the debate over content warnings might imply, and very few of them would bother pausing the bloody mayhem and disturbing sex they're viewing in Game of Thrones to research whether or not an assigned literary work in a course is offensive. Still, they have that option.

Most importantly, in all of our interactions and class discussions, I strive for an openness to different perspectives that I believe makes students comfortable talking honestly about whatever material we're studying, including what they find disturbing or see differently from other members of the class. This method has worked pretty well in my 16 years of teaching thousands of students.

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  1. SJWs want to overturn all the teachings of the Enlightenment and all the way back to Confucius within a single generation, and they are getting it done, in the West, anyway.

    You seem like a good teacher. But now you’ve stuck your head above the parapet, and they’re going to try to get you. Good luck.

    1. Come now, the author, an experienced educator, is surely aware that it starts with a little trigger-speech, then a little micro-aggression, then some of the baser instincts reveal themselves even in the classroom?and before you know it they’re trolling the net and mocking distinguished academic department chairmen with illegally deadpan “satirical” hoaxes. Would the professor dare to defend the outrageous “First Amendment dissent” of a single, isolated, liberal judge in America’s leading criminal “satire” case? See the documentation at:

      http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. very few of them would bother pausing the bloody mayhem and disturbing sex they’re viewing in Game of Thrones to research whether or not an assigned literary work in a course is offensive.

    OTOH, how many Black men get lynched in GoT?

    1. I can’t think of any “black” people in Westeros or Essos. Lots of Euro and Middle Eastern facsimiles, sure. No Asians, either, or pre-Columbians.

      And if you are attempting to race-to-the-bottom, being lynched is far from the worst thing an angry mob can do to you. You can probably turn on the television to see some other examples.

      1. Not even the Unsullied?

        1. Unsullied are multiracial, enslaved people from every ethnic group.

      2. Dothraki are clearly influenced by Turkic peoples, so Asian.

        Summer Islanders are ASOIAF’s black people, though they are not found on Westeros nor Essos.

        I think some of the people on Sothyros might be Asian inspired as well, though not much is written about that place.

      3. The people of Summer Isles are black. Don’t you remember Salladhor Saan?

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  5. That’s great, but personally, I learned stuff when I got my degrees. So I can speak as an authority on it. This is because I studied a real subject, not liberal arts.

    1. Well good for you! I’m sure lots of people benefit from your authority every day!

      1. you’re welcome, by the way.

    2. I learned technical stuff, and wouldn’t want to major in literature – but I could appreciate a course like he described as an elective. It’s important to be able to understand what’s been written, conceive opinions, and communicate those ideas in an attempt to sway others to your position.

  6. This all sounds perfectly reasonable. What website is this, again?

  7. Treat people like adults, they act like adults!

    Treat people like children…

    1. They grow up to be democrats?

      1. Not sure you could say they actually “grow up”, but yes.

  8. this egalitarian or nonauthoritarian view of literature, which recognizes only the text as authority

    ?

    I always thought the po-mo, ‘egalitarian’ view of literature is that texts are just phenomena, and that it (or the author) are largely irrelevant to its deconstruction, which is a process that is individual and social and constantly changing…and that the ‘egalitarian-ness’ comes from that very stripping of that textual authority, as well as the authority of any previous generation’s understanding. “everything is always new”.

    By contrast, the old-school, ‘Authoritarian’ view was thatThe Book is Final, and the effort is to try and understand what is in the book entirely on its own terms, which involves trying to understand the author’s ‘intent’ and historical context and yadda yadda yadda.

    disclosure: Its possible i was really high and confused all that.

    1. Yeah – it’s hard to see how any study of authors can be all that “anti-authoritarian,” since even in the most radical deconstructive views, the text still has ultimate “authority.”

      Where deconstruction undoes itself is that by denying all authority other than that of the interpreter, it becomes absolutely authoritarian in practice – i.e. this text means what the professor says it means, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

      This guys sounds like he’s combining a New Critical, “objectivist” approach but without the fetishizing of the author’s intentions. In other words, he sounds like he’s taking the anti-authoritarianism of deconstruction and combining it with the empiricism of New Criticism without worrying about lining up with an existing critical methodology.

      In other words, his career is doomed.

  9. Yeah, that’s all well and good until some student gets a case of the ass with you because they didn’t like their grade. Then, they simply complain that you violated their feelz by not providing them with a safe space. Next, you are explaining to your coworkers at Chili’s about how you used to be a professor.

  10. Professor, I hope you have tenure as you are sure to be a target given the sorry state of most universities today. Drexel has a FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) yellow light rating for speech and Title IX policies.

  11. If I’d provided a warning that the text contained domestic violence, lots of students would have seen it only because I told them it was there. My authority would have been imposed on not only the discussion, but the initial reading.

    Feature, not a bug. They need to fire this man immediately.

  12. That’s all nice and good, but an explanation of why one teacher *doesn’t* use trigger warnings should not be used as an argument that another teacher *shouldn’t*.

    Which is, of course, the problem. People that complain about trigger warnings existing are objecting to adults making decisions they don’t agree with.

    This literature professor wants students to be largely ignorant of what they’re about to read. Other professors have different concerns.

    1. People that complain about trigger warnings existing are objecting to adults making decisions they don’t agree with.

      Not at all.

      People who complain about trigger warnings object to the idea that instructors should be expected to try and identify everything/anything in materials which *might* upset someone.

      Every book has something which “could” offend someone. Everything in *day to day life* exposes people to things that *could* offend someone. Do people need repeated warnings before leaving their bubble of home?

      “”Moby Dick Contains Epidodes of Unkindness towards Animals””. OH BUT WAIT he forgot the racism against Queequeg!? FAIL …

      So they now have Racism warnings, but OH BUT WAIT Ahab is an ungenerous depiction of a cripple? ABLEIST PHOBIA FAIL

      Where does it end? There’s no end to the possible areas of ‘things that people claim sensitivity to’

      it ends up becoming a means by which *certain classes of people* demand special treatment by instructors because they perceive themselves to be perpetual victims.

      Ergo, no one complains when Odysseus slaughters his wife’s suitors; but they will freak the fuck out when he then insists that serving women who have been disloyal to Penelope must die.

      Its just a means by which the so-called “victim classes” assert their heightened importance in a classroom.

      and its completely fucking useless for the purposes of teaching an entire class about literature.

      1. “Where does it end?”
        Wherever the teacher decides to end it. Whether that’s not using “trigger warnings” at all, or including a detailed color-coded syllabus in an e-mail before the first day of class, it’s up to them.

        Attacking trigger warnings for existing is no more sensible then demanding every teacher use them.

    2. Wait.

      A long time ago, on a small college light years away from today’s campuses, but just as SJW oriented as today’s universities, we were “forced” to read things like Maya Angelou and Eldridge Clever to prove our chops in 1970’s liberal thought. All in the Eng Lit classes that we took as electives in our science majors.

      There were no such things as “trigger warnings” and yet, I don’t even remember anyone criticizing Mr. Clever’s call to rape white women as reparation for past black suffering. We just glossed over that sort of thing and raised our clenched fists in defiance to the white majority.

      I think the saying of my youth that “all was fair in love and war” was in play.

  13. On the first day of class, I tell my students that when we’re discussing literature, they should never take my word for it.

    Huh, college students get the same guidance as kids who watch Reading Rainbow.

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  15. I like it. If an author wanted a trigger warning, he would put it on page 1.

    1. I’m writing a novel. I mention it while conversing on writer’s blogs. One if these days I’ll probably pay an editor to review . Before hand I will state, “This contains graphic scenes of teenage sex. If that disturbs you, then just stop here.” as I know that might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

  16. If we disagree about the meaning or purpose of something we read and want to persuade people that ours is a valid interpretation, the only evidence that matters is the work itself.

    So you’re saying you’re not a Constitutional law expert.

  17. we might acknowledge that trope’s long history, which our class discussion did, pointing to its mockery in the movie Airplane!

    Don’t you need way more trigger warnings for that movie?

    1. Surely you can’t be serious

      1. Surely you can’t be serious

        Fine. If nobody else will pick up the gauntlet, *I* will:

        “I am serious. And stop calling me Shirley.”

  18. Prof. Stein is a windbag progressive, who is trying to explain in exhausting ways why he is deviating from the progdom reservation. By doing so, he gives tacit justification for trigger warning and that is his pathetic failing.

    The very concept of trigger warnings is farcical, where thinking creatures shy away from things which may cause them mental discomfort. Life is discomfort….get over it.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I have never been described as a progressive before. (A windbag, definitely.) I think most would consider me libertarian. Anyway, many of my colleagues are probably progressive and many (that I know of) basically share my view on this.

      1. Yes, many of them are progressive, and it’s still a great place to pick up a degree. (MSEE, ’96)

      2. Perhaps libertarian in political thought, but how can anyone other than a progressive give legitimacy to the concept of “trigger warnings”. You argue against them in practice, but by doing so admit they are worthy of discussion. This is absurd. Any thinking being, particularly in the halls of higher education, should simply mock the concept. I can shorten the article for you.
        “I’m a professor who doesn’t use trigger warnings. The very concept is the antithesis of learning and mental growth. It is not worthy of further discussion.”

    2. I think you just hit that nail on the head.

      We have four small dogs in our household. When we let them outside, they enthusiastically run around checking the perimeter for interesting things to get into. Thinks like small varmints, particularly skunks and, lacking anything warm blooded, will focus on sticks, stones, etc. They have a “trigger warning” system in place. If one notices a neighbor walking by or, hears a loud sound, they raise their head and bark in that direct. – A trigger warning- because the other three will immediately begin barking in unison and often join the barking leader and look, sniff and listen to see what the trigger warning is all about.

      The bottom line is, today’s college students are really just a pack of playful puppies looking to their professors to tell them when to bark. They’ll be great at towing the party line in the future. Bark on command and all that. ;-(

  19. I used to teach college undergraduates. After all these years, I still like to read about approaches to classroom teaching similar to mine (I taught politics rather than literature).

    One thing that would strengthen this article would be to say clearly at the start, the species for Nova and Ulysse. Not having read Monkey Planet, I found myself trying to figure this question out throughout the article.

    Good article on teaching and literature!

  20. Interesting so many commenters say your career is doomed. The free-speech climate at colleges can’t be that bad yet, but it does vary a lot from campus to campus.

    1. Interesting so many commenters say your career is doomed.

      I counted “one”

      1. I counted “one”

        4-ish –
        – The Iconoclast
        – Curt (‘… you violated their feelz by not providing them with a safe space. Next, you are explaining to your coworkers at Chili’s about how you used to be a professor.’),
        – Father of Two (‘…you are sure to be a target…’)
        – Square = Circle (‘Feature, not a bug. They need to fire this man immediately.’)

        I read those all as predictions of doom

        1. I sit corrected

          1. Go to the box, and feel shame.

  21. I mostly came here to say thank you for the good article; I’m out of school for 9 years at this point so missed the trigger warning hysteria as far as I remember. It’s good not everyone in university has gone insane with protecting the feewings of special snowfwakes

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  23. That we’ve reached a point where a good professor has to explain *why* he doesn’t give *content warnings* that really shouldn’t be an issue is quite telling of the (dark) times we’re witnessing.

    I read this as one man leading lost souls and minds out of a forest to rediscover their intellectualism.

    Hope he keeps it up and doesn’t get razed by some crazed SJW.

  24. I was more a math science type of guy. My interest in English was grammar and spelling. These were things that were pretty absolute, in my mind. I could diagram a sentence with ease. But, interpreting literature was hard for me to do, since I found it very difficult to read with my borderline Asperger’s and dyslexia. What I did read I retained like a steel trap. But, it was slow going. Those disabilities led to late nights studying during my stint in medical school. But, I did argue once about the interpretation of a poem, When the teacher disagreed with me, I told her I expected that! Funny thing, she was one of my first patients, when I moved back to my small town to practice medicine!

  25. What’s with the picture of Michelle Obama? How is that “triggering?” Oh, wait…

  26. Anyway, I commend your teaching prowess. I attended a medical school that was a goal oriented program. Many discussions were lively. But, in the end the science was empirical and easily processed my brain. Sadly, after two years of graduate school, (before medial school), I was educated to the level that most of the physicians that I worked around, never attained. I worked with (or against!) them, I was told, “You act like you know more than us!” Sadly, free thinking and added education seemed to go against the establishment involved in the medical profession. I would have been pretty darned stupid to not have learned more than the one year internship FP-s! I participated in a five year residency and two more years in getting training in Pain Management. In the end, I as a poor politician. Which, we all know, is the most important part of taking care of sick people!

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  31. RE: I’m a Professor Who Doesn’t Use Trigger Warnings. Here’s Why.
    I don’t want to tell students how to interpret a text before they have even read it.

    Could it be:

    1. You’re brave and smart enough to stand up to political correctness?

    2. You allow your students to think for themselves?

    3. You don’t give two shits and flying fuck about the hyper-sensitive sissies in your class?

    4. You have some sense.

    5. All of the above.

    You pick.

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  39. Is there domestic violence (past present and future) in society? Why would it not be portrayed in literature?
    How many thousands of movies depict violence? Should every movie start with a trigger warning? I don’t see you tender little thirteenth-graders complaining about overly-violent movies.
    No, my Special little snowflakes, one of the opportunities higher education presents to you is to prepare you for the real world without being thrown into the deep end of the pool right-off. If you insist on being coddled, your school has failed you and you will find yourself floundering in the deep end just as soon as you leave the tender womb of campus.

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