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“I always feel like somebody’s watching me //
and I have no privacy.”
~Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me“
Thanks to the growth and increased visibility of this blog, we simply have too many posts in line to be published to devote any time to fleeting current events. That’s why you haven’t seen any posts about reactions to the election of a known sexual predator, misogynist, racist, xenophobic bigot. And, for the same reason, I held off writing about that damn Professor Watchlist. But, then I read George Yancy’s New York Times op-ed, “I Am A Dangerous Professor,” and another NYT article on how this list threatens academic freedom. As many scholars – particularly scholars of marginalized backgrounds – know, this list is nothing new; or, maybe it’s just a new, more organized way of continuing to watch us.
That’s right – we were already being watched, damn it.
In case you’ve missed news of this new surveillance effort, let me provide a brief overview. The new Turning Point USA project aims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The organization claims to “fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish.” But, they continue, “students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” These individuals are invited to submit a tip (as though reporting a crime), but the site appears to be revised to focus just on “incidents” of anti-conservative bias and radicalism that make it to news headlines.
I have so many thoughts. Where to begin? Perhaps something more articulate than, “the fuck?”
First, let me continue my point that this isn’t new. Organizations like Turning Point USA and sites like Professor Watchlist are becoming a dime a dozen these days. Two conservative student news sites, SoCawlege.com and CampusReform.com, have been attempting to expose the supposed liberal bias across US college campuses for some time. The latter is a project of the Leadership Institute – another organization that sets out to train the next crop of conservative activists; it has ties with the Heritage Foundation – a hate group disguised as a conservative think tank. I’m sure if I had more time, I would find other troubling links, and probably other well-funded and well-organized conservative organizations set on infiltrating politics and higher education.
On the surface, what seems like concerned students and concern for students is actually a front for a calculated effort to silence, threaten, terrorize, and eliminate seemingly liberal academics. I’ve written about this formula before. Take one conservative white man student reporter who aims to expose “liberal bias and abuses at Texas colleges.” Have him write an article criticizing a Black woman pre-tenure professor at a different university, located in a different state. Then, he can take to Twitter to try to make her “a thing,” stirring up conservative (read: racist and sexist) rage with an appropriate Twitter hashtag thread. If successful, he will have initiated a conservative media assault on the professor, her reputation, her scholarship, her politics, her identities, and her menstrual cycle. And, he will have kick-started an internal process at her university that could ultimately lead to her termination – yes, simply by tweeting the president of her university.
Zandria F. Robinson. Saida Grundy. Steven Salaita. Shannon Gibney. Larycia Hawkins. Anthea Butler. Brittney Cooper. Perhaps others whose names I don’t know because the conservative assault launched against them did not reach national news. But, that’s why we have the watchlist now, right?
A second point that I want to make is that this attack on presumably liberal and radical professors is particularly targeted at those who speak and teach about and do research on Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and sexism, and perhaps other systems of oppression. By extension, that means that scholars of color, women scholars, Muslim scholars, and immigrant scholars are particularly vulnerable to this surveillance. Of course, there is the issue of numbers; marginalized scholars are overrepresented in fields that study oppression and marginalization. But, conservative scrutiny appears to be heightened when you have, for example, a Black woman scholar speaking openly about racism and sexism relative to what her white man colleague would experience.
The external “watching” by conservative activists, working through conservative students, is actually secondary to surveillance that occurs within the academy. Every instructor does their work in public, so to speak, under the gaze of their students, their colleagues, and their administrators. We (including our presumed political leanings) are regularly evaluated by students through course evaluations. Students also take to sites like RateMyProfessor.com, which already offered a form of “watch list” for instructors of color, women instructors, Muslim instructors, LGBTQ instructors, and others assumed to be promoting a radical agenda. Our departmental colleagues and university administration evaluate our teaching, scholarship, grant activity, and service, in turn making decisions about pay-raises, tenure, and promotion. These supposedly meritocratic forms of evaluation severely disadvantage marginalized scholars, especially those who do critical or radical work on oppression. Implicitly, they serve as a way of watching us to ensure that we are conforming to standards that arguably reinforce the status quo in academe and beyond.
The site’s implied goal – I assume to be to create McCarthy-era fear among academics – will likely be achieved for many in the profession. But, a substantial number of us were already living in fear. We have had little reason to assume these racist, sexist, heterosexist, Islamophobic, cissexist, and xenophobic sentiments disguised as anti-intellectualism disguised as anti-liberalism do not exist inside of the Ivory Tower, too. So, they have created another website. Am I in any less danger than I was a month ago? It’s not a new problem, just a new manifestation of the ongoing problem.
Finally, in case it isn’t obvious, what these conservative activists are framing as bias against conservative students is the cry of the dominant group as its privilege is threatened. For example, I can count on a reliable one-third of my introductory sociology students to accuse me of being biased or at least spending too much time on sex and gender, sexuality, and race. These classes of students who are overwhelmingly wealthy, white, cisgender, and heterosexual are not used to critical discussions of racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and sexism. The students complain of feeling uncomfortable. They feel a pinch of discomfort – a mere 75 minutes of not hearing about themselves for a change – and complain of a calculated assault against them and their interests. Conservative activists have successfully advanced a zero-sum game framework for conceiving of diversity and inclusion in higher education; any minor advancement for oppressed students is described as a full-out assault on privileged students. The dismantling of oppressive ideologies in the classroom is deemed discrimination against individual conservative students.
Similarly, there is a not-so-subtle anti-science rhetoric underneath the accusations of the advancement of a radical agenda. Teaching, for example, on race as a social (rather than biological) fact and racism as a fundamental organizing principle of society is characterized as an anti-white agenda. The decades, if not centuries, of critical race scholarship upon which these ideas are founded are dismissed as nothing more than an ideological, or perhaps political, agenda. With this, the battle has moved into an arena wherein laypeople are deciding what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t. This would explain why every one of my lectures on race feels like a defense, often spilling into a plea for my own life. (Black Lives Matter, please believe me my precious 18-year-old white students!)
I have made this point before, but I’ll conclude with it here again: academic institutions are complicit in this surveillance and assaults on individual (marginalized) professors. We have armed students with evaluation instruments in order to participate in our surveillance. But, that’s not enough, so they’ve created websites and rely on word-of-mouth to discredit certain professors deemed too radical. We buckle to alumni and donors’ threats to withhold money if a certain undesirable (read: radical scholar of color) is not terminated immediately. We treat academic freedom policies as a pesky obligation to tolerate what our colleagues do and say, yet still don’t go far enough to protect them from public backlash. We delude ourselves into believing meritocracy is law despite consistent evidence of disparities in tenure, promotion, pay, grants, publications, student evaluations, and admissions. We worship objectivity as the ultimate scientific paradigm, which simply treats privileged scholars’ work as truth and marginalized scholars’ work as “me-search,” opinion, or political agenda.
Yes, I am arguing that we have allowed conservatives to feel empowered enough to up their surveillance efforts. Every time a university took seriously a challenge to one of its faculty members’ work, we gave more and more power to outsiders to dictate what we can do as scholars. And now that the country has elected a racist rapist who leads like a petty toddler with no self-control, I imagine we will only continue to lose the battle against outside surveillance.
Fuck you, and fuck your stupid watch list.
I have been quite open about the traumatizing impact of my graduate training. Here I am, on research leave during my fourth year on the tenure-track, still griping about this soul-crushing chapter in my life. In working through the trauma, and attempting to answer questions that haunt me — Why me? Why is this still affecting me years later? — I have uncovered many layers to the trauma that was grad school. Most recently, I have identified one of the most impactful factors of graduate school that explains its lasting impact: the use of shame to train me.
From my own experience, I would define shame as an intense, prolonged feeling of anguish or angsts over who I am (or who I was or who I fear I may become). I will quote Brené Brown here to state more articulately, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love belonging” (p. 69 of Daring Greatly). It is crucial to distinguish the shame that we feel over who we are from the guilt we feel because of what we have done. You can apologize and, hopefully, be forgiven for doing something wrong, but it feels as though you can never apologize enough or be forgiven for being something wrong.
Graduate training is just as much about teaching graduate students what to do (research and, if you’re lucky, teaching) and even how to think as it is about who to be. My graduate program required a three-semester sequence of “pro sem” (professional seminars) in which we learned about navigating graduate school and academe more generally. Though this is the only explicit training centered heavily or exclusively around professional (rather than intellectual, scholarly, or pedagogical) training, so much of graduate school is professional socialization. Professors are in the business of resocializing their students to become scholars, not simply to do scholarship. Unlike undergraduate education, grad students aren’t simply learning from their professors; they are learning to become (like) their professors.
The attempt to actually socialize grad students is where the problems begin, particularly for students who are radical and/or marginalized. With little training for advising graduate students, many graduate professors default to what their professors taught them; thus, they continue the legacy of creating clones of themselves rather than independent and autonomous scholars. For some, this is intentional, owing to their intellectual arrogance; for others, they don’t know of any other models and do not have the time or interest in finding or devising them. Interestingly, this sounds a lot like parenting; you either do what your parents did or you don’t because you hated the way your parents raised you. Indeed, my main advisor’s approach was to be invasive and overly hands-on in my training (sometimes spilling into unsolicited personal advice) to compensate for the neglectful training he received from his own grad school professors.
Like parents, I found that some grad school professors resorted to attempts to shame me for my decisions, my career goals, my priorities, my health status, my politics, and (at least implicitly) my identities. At the time, I simply assumed my professors just had a bad habit of making passive aggressive comments.
One professor, in an effort to make me feel bad (or shame me) for prioritizing activism, remarked — “what… too much service?” — when I revealed to her that I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I did not bother to justify that service was one of the few outlets I had to keep going in grad school. Rather, I simply said that the pressure to publish (which I started feeling as early as my first semester) was beginning to take a toll.
Another professor snidely responded, “OK, ‘Mister Activism’,” when I proposed a collaborative conference session on the social psychology of sexuality between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association. You would think I proposed a queer kiss-in at the conference to protest the discipline’s legacy of devaluing research on sexuality and LGBTQ communities.
A third interrupted my practice “elevator speech,” to ask — “we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” — after only one sentence of my introduction, that I came to academe by way of activism. Her humor did not indicate exaggeration or fiction; another professor’s public message to me confirmed her assessment of the goal of graduate school: deradicalization.
Short of concerns about limited time, I still do not understand these professors’ deep commitment to eliminating activism from my career as a scholar. I have them to thank for my record of “objective” publications. Activism has never posed a problem to my work as an academic; if anything, it has enhanced it, steering me into research that I actually care about and see myself in.
I suppose their concern is purely philosophical or epistemological (or, really, political). Unlike learning my subfields via classical theoretical pieces, debates in the field, and classical and contemporary empirical pieces, they did not offer evidence of the evils of activism. They took the approach of “trust me on this” or “don’t do activism because I said so.” They did not use the tools of scholarship to train the activism out of me, or to convince me to compartmentalize it. Rather, they resorted, from the start, to the use of shame. And, to a fair degree, they were successful in forcing me to learn to hate, be suspicious of, and feel bad about my activist spirit – the consequences of a fragmented, traumatized self. I am still struggling today to see myself as a legitimate scholar because I cannot help but be a scholar-activist. Shame on me!
I am not alone in being the subject of shame-based “training” in graduate school. For example, I know of others who were, like me, shamed for taking a tenure-track position at a liberal arts school, thereby “wasting” their advisors’ investment in their careers. Professors aren’t relying on scholarly theorizing or findings to convince their students that jobs at Research I universities are the superior career path; rather, Father (or Mother) Knows Best, and you should feel bad for not wanting that life.
I have directly observed or heard about fellow graduate students being shamed for prioritizing their health, family, or personal life in general over their training. I have noticed an awful trend in the academy broadly to shame women who desire to or actually have children. Despite the possibility of balancing school with family life, some professors (or colleagues and administrators) resort to questioning mothers’ commitment to their academic careers. Mothers are left to feel ashamed if, in the end, they are not able to succeed in the academy; of course, they are discouraged from interrogating the motherhood penalty, sexism, lack of family-friendly policies, and excessive demands to publish as barriers to their ability to succeed.
Graduate programs, I believe, are using the unspoken tool of shame to force graduate students to conform to the ideal academic career. It is an incredibly effective strategy, for grad students will adopt the tendency to self-police for years after they earn their PhDs. But, this shame reflects conformity into a certain way to be a scholar — essentially, the detached and unattached (read: “objective”) middle-class white heterosexual cis man without disabilities who can put his career above all else. Shame on you if you dare to be someone else.
I am embarrassed to state this… again.
My graduate training traumatized me. Yes, let me give the obligatory qualifier: I mean “little t” trauma, not “big T” trauma like sexual violence, natural disasters, or war. I continue to work through that special kind of trauma that is not even listed in the DSM — complex trauma. No one has accused me of being overly dramatic, or playing the victim, or being unfairly critical of my grad program — at least not to my face. But, I feel self-conscious about it — not enough to keep it between my therapist and me, obviously, but just enough to downplay something that has plagued my heart, spirit, mind, identity, and career for a few years now.
But, enough about that. I am tired of telling that story, even though I feel compelled to do so again as though I need to convince others how bad grad school was for me. I am tired of hearing myself tell that story. I am sure at least a few others who have heard me talk about it are tired of hearing it, too, though no one has ever said so. But, that’s trauma for you. I have gotten better about recognizing trauma’s impact on others’ lives; they tell the same story, less for informing others, and more for validating their own hurt (though it’s never enough to heal deep wounds).
Though I no longer have meaningful ties to my graduate program or any of my graduate school professors, their influence has lingered in my life. The little voice that tells me what I should be doing with my career was deeply implanted into my head. Even as I intentionally and actively pursue opportunities that defy the expectations of a normative career typical of professors at Research I universities, my efforts often involve negotiation with the should voice. I have found myself justifying why doing something other than should makes sense for me and/or my career. I sometimes compromise with should by doing what it demands to compensate for doing things it cautions against. (“Yes, I’m running this blog, but I’ve got two papers under review!”) On occasion, I have apologized for doing things that should says I shouldn’t be doing. Half-joking, yet half-serious, I have complained to my partner, “why couldn’t I just be a normative, elitist, apolitical and ‘objective’ status-obsessed researcher?”
I don’t know that I believe in destiny or fate, for I have never given it much thought. But, working through the trauma of grad school has helped me to see the inevitability of some events in my life. I gave grad school a good try. But, structurally and culturally, it was bound to traumatize me, even if I totally caved to the pressures to forgo research on my own communities and advocacy with those communities. I knew too little as an undergraduate student to be able to assess the extent to which a given graduate program would support me in developing a career as a scholar-activist. I can no longer blame myself for the choices and compromises that I made, the parts of my soul I sold for job prospects, or for the things I did or didn’t say. This Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist could never come out of a program like the one I attended with both a job and full sanity — I had to pick one or the other.
But, I graduated three years ago. I am now halfway to tenure at the University of Richmond, and many (all?) of the signs point to a smooth, favorable tenure decision. I have found in UR a place that supports my career as a scholar-activist. I no longer have contact with my grad school. I am long overdue for cutting grad school’s influence in my career and my life.
The primary reason for moving on — forgiving them and forgiving myself — is that I landed exactly where I said that I would. I intended to end up at a liberal arts college so that I could teach and do research, but leave myself ample time for advocacy and community service. Though with a regrettable detour (i.e., grad school’s push away from marginal research), I am doing research on my communities. Grad school was nothing more than the means to this desired end. That’s all getting the degree should be for anyone, no matter their background or career goals.
And, though I was naïve about what graduate training in mainstream sociology entailed, I was completely honest about who I was when I entered the program. In my personal statement, I noted my experience with activism as an undergrad, and that this work influenced my scholarship. And, I even stated a desire to make the academy more inclusive and hospitable for marginalized folks like myself. To quote the phenomenal Maya Angelou, “[w]hen someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” I showed the program who I was and who I wanted to become — it was their opportunity to embrace or waste to support me in developing that self-defined career.
I am done apologizing for who I am and the career that I have designed for myself. I will never be a traditional academic, no matter how hard I try. It was never in the cards for me. I am sure I am not alone in being seduced into the highly-valued Research I career path, but it just doesn’t suit me. That is fine for those who are genuinely interested in such a career — no shade to those people.
There is more than one way to be a successful academic. I have finally found mine.
I am keenly aware of the ways in which I am “conditionally accepted” in academia as a fat Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual-activist. Conformity — intellectually, politically, and physically — is rewarded; non-conformity is punished. As an eager, yet naïve college senior, I was already aware of some of the more obvious hierarchies in the academy. I knew well enough to apply to PhD programs in sociology because that degree would allow me to later join the ranks of gender studies scholars, but the reverse was not possible. What seemed a mere matter of practicality proved to be the first of a series of decisions to “soul out” in academe. But, at what cost?
In their preface of their foundational book, All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull and Barbara Smith wrote the following:
Our credibility as autonomous beings and thinkers in the white-male-run intellectual establishment is constantly in question and rises and falls in direct proportion to the degree to which we continue to act and think like our Black female selves, rejecting the modes of bankrupt white-male Western thought. Intellectual ‘passing’ is a dangerously limiting solution for Black women, a non-solution that makes us invisible women. It will also not give us the emotional and psychological clarity we need to do the feminist research in Black women’s studies that will transform our own and our sisters’ lives [emphasis added] (p. xxiv).
They go on to call for creating spaces and networks for Black women in the academy, and to reject “objective” scholarship as “an example of the reification of white-male thought” (p. xxv).
“Intellectual ‘passing’?” When I read this passage, I felt Hull and Smith had called me out directly. Though they wrote this preface in 1979 for the book, which was published in 1982, they named a trap that I (and other marginalized scholars) still fall into in 2016. I know that I am “conditionally accepted” at best, so to minimize the disadvantages I face, I have often made decisions to downplay what makes me differ from my politically-moderate, “objective,” middle-class, white, heterosexual, cisgender, men colleagues.
The most obvious is my decision to wear ill-fitting men’s suits to work, though I have publicly griped about it and am out as a fat queer non-binary person. I reasoned that I could at least get into the door if I looked the part (of a professor), and then would challenge the hell out of my colleagues and students. Less obvious is the way in which I frame my scholarship to be more palpable to the mainstream of my discipline, relying on quantitative methods and fairly uncritical theoretical perspectives.
Damn, if Hull and Smith aren’t right! The decision to act and look like the dominant group, with the conscious and sometimes unconscious attempt to avoid discrimination and violence, is the very definition of passing. The qualifier of “intellectual” is necessary here to highlight that I am not attempting to be perceived as a white heterosexual cis man; rather, I have been attempting to pass as one intellectually. My actions and appearance have served to make it difficult for colleagues and students to discern how I differ from the dominant group as a scholar and teacher. That is, as a matter of earning tenure and keeping my job, and thus my survival and livelihood more generally, but also — at least I told myself — “so they never see you coming,” as my mother would say.
I am confident that this strategy works for some marginalized scholars. Respectability politics would have fallen out of favor if they did not at least offer the promise of acceptance by dominant or mainstream society. But, I have countered my efforts to pass intellectually by speaking so openly about intending to do so, and being out and open as unapologetically different from the mainstream. You cannot start a blog that is critical of mainstream academe and expect to convince others that you are “Good As You” or even just like you. The joke has been on me since all in the Land of Oz can easily see the drag queen behind the curtain.
I am inclined to I agree with Hull and Smith that “intellectual ‘passing’ is a dangerously limiting solution” for any marginalized scholar. For me, traumatized by my graduate training, I found that there was no limit to the pressure to conform. Where and on what to publish became where to work, which entailed “advice” about how seriously to prioritize my relationship and to remind search committees that I am Black (yet downplay how I differ from whites). I conceded in forgoing the joint PhD in gender studies, then the graduate minor in gender or sexuality studies, then the qualifying exam on gender, sexuality, or race/class/gender, then the dissertation on transgender health. Now in my fourth year on the tenure-track, I am finally returning to sexualities research that I was steered away from in my first two years of graduate school. But, I still frequently have days where I no longer recognize the scholar and activist I have become.
In my classes, I have increasingly felt that I am failing my marginalized students — especially the queer people of color and women of color — in standing before the classroom behind the mask of conformity. I have been sending them the message that I am only allowed to teach at this wealthy HWCU (historically white college or university) because I look, act, and think very much like their other, privileged professors. I am able to keep this job to the extent that I continue to conform, year after year. What good is my presence if I contribute only to cosmetic diversity, while leaving intact moderate-to-conservative ideology and curricula that uphold the status quo?
Collectively, we marginalized scholars who pass intellectually do nothing to disrupt the academic structures and cultures that marginalize us. We continue to get jobs on their terms, earn tenure on their terms, get promoted on their terms, publish in their journals, apply for their grants, and so forth. We are complicit in our own marginalization, signaling to our privileged colleagues that their way is, indeed, the superior way to be a scholar — in fact, it is the only way to be a scholar. We are complicit in the practices in higher education that reinforce the status quo.
I cannot afford to pass any longer. I tried, and still ended up traumatized, medicated, and dissatisfied with my scholarship. I passed so long I no longer recognize who I am. I know the risks are real — you do not have to remind me that people have to eat! But, we cannot afford to have another generation of conforming marginalized scholars, so that future embattled intellectual-activists read things we write today in 40 years wondering why nothing has changed.
Please don’t be fooled by the surprisingly firm assertion made in this post’s title. I prefer to pose it as a question because I do not actually know for certain. You see, I decided to stay out of the debates over the use of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms since first reading an argument against them. I know too little about the experience of being emotionally or physiologically triggered, as my training is not in psychology and I have very little personal experience with sexual violence; so, I have remained silent on the issue, assuming it was a fad to discuss it in academic circles that would ultimately pass. (Aren’t there more pressing matters, like access to college, diversity, sexual violence on campuses, making curricula accessible, etc.?)
Trigger Warnings Are A Threat To Academic Freedom???
I am making an exception to my self-imposed silence about trigger warnings today. Alice Dreger’s Aeon essay, “Without tenure, professors become terrified sheep,” caught my eye, with an obvious, yet bold claim in her title, and an associated picture of a University of Wisconsin building — subtly pointing to state’s decision to do away with tenure in the traditional sense. Dreger makes important points, most significantly that academic freedom goes out the door when faculty lose job security — something of urgent concern, considering the adjunctification of the academy. But, she mentioned examples of threats to academic freedom that not only surprised me, but also greatly concern me:
Meanwhile, on the left, identity-politics activists are using devices like ‘safe spaces’ and ‘trigger warnings’ to shut down speech they believe to be offensive and dangerous. In my campus visits around the US – aimed at emboldening the students, faculty, and administrators to push for academic freedom – I’ve been told time and time again about staff being reported by left-leaning students for teaching ‘uncomfortable’ ideas that have been taught for generations.
For example, one faculty member at a prestigious liberal arts college told me about a colleague who was reported for teaching the ancient Greek tale Leda and the Swan. The alleged discriminatory offence? Not first warning students that the story includes a symbolic rape. Others at public universities described being reported for stumbling over students’ preferred pronouns. Some historic women’s colleges have given up trying to produce The Vagina Monologues because of complaints that the 1996 play doesn’t reflect the breadth of transgender experiences. (It doesn’t; it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.)
I want to note that these examples seem out of line with Dreger’s argument about tenure. Are tenured faculty freed from the pressures to create safe spaces for oppressed students? From offering preemptive warnings that some content covered in their courses may be triggering? Are tenured faculty no longer expected to make efforts to include transgender students in campus events, as well as their classes and curricula?
One could infer from these comments that Dreger’s version of tenure grants faculty freedom to practice discrimination, or at least to ignore oppressed student groups’ demands for equality, inclusion, and safety. And, tenured faculty can stop being concerned about the well-being of survivors of sexual violence — as though there was an institutional mandate to care while they were pre-tenure. It’s problematic to conceptualize these examples as mere politics (i.e., left-leaning versus right-leaning students); survivors demanding a safe classroom environment and trans students demanding inclusion is not the stuff of political games — it’s about their survival and well-being.
Faculty Are Clueless
I will grant Dreger and others who have taken the time to publicly oppose trigger warnings this. The responsibility falls on faculty to appropriately warn students of potentially triggering material. And, the responsibility to articulate the need for such a warning falls on students. Thus, I understand the concern about how far we should go to offer trigger warnings.
On a few occasions, I have had a student approach me to express concern about material that was triggering for them. “Will the [research methods] textbook keep using examples of research on domestic violence?” “Can we avoid talking about suicide today? Today is the anniversary of my friend’s death.” Initially, I was annoyed by these students’ comments, as they came just moments before class started; textbooks were already assigned, lectures were already prepped. Besides the last-minute nature of the concerns, I wondered whether the students’ triggered reactions were enough to change my classes to accommodate them; indeed, I felt the implied or actual requests that I change my classes in a major way were imposing, if not inappropriate. What I offered instead was that the students could continue to advocate for themselves — they could drop the class (since there were no alternative textbooks, and coming up with alternative material seemed too demanding of my time) or skip the classes they felt would be triggering.
In hindsight, offering for them to just leave feels insensitive; but, my limited teaching training left me with no other appropriate courses of action. Rather than leaving it to faculty to decide whether and how to use trigger warnings, an ideal approach would be to teach graduate students how to handle these issues. To me, accommodating the needs of survivors of sexual violence and other traumatic events fits within the broader initiative to make classrooms accessible. Colleges and universities might expand their sexual violence prevention work and disability services to include resources for survivors to avoid or at least cope with triggering classroom material. These offices, as well as teaching and learning centers and professional development centers could offer training for faculty to support survivors of sexual violence, and other students who have experienced trauma. That is, one way to ease the burden on students to speak up for themselves (risking some ill-informed faculty member of dismissing them as overly sensitive), and the burden on faculty to devise proper warnings for triggering material, is to make it an institutional effort. (And, by that, I don’t mean an institution-wide ban on trigger warnings, and a letter to students to toughen up.)
Opposition To Trigger Warnings Is A Defense Of The Status Quo
But, I want to return to my title’s claim — that the opposition to trigger warnings reinforces the status quo in higher education. I believe the rise of trigger warnings reflects success of survivors and their allies to call attention to the ways in which college classrooms may be a part of the problem of rape culture in higher education. And, like Dreger’s dismissal of students’ demand for the use of correct pronouns, those in the mainstream — or specifically members of the dominant group — often react to change with anger. They dismiss the demands for change by saying things like Vagina Monologues need not include transgender people (not even trans women) because “it wasn’t written for that purpose any more than The Federalist Papers were.” In this case, trans people have no right to demand inclusion because it has always been that way. They resort to mocking the group demanding change — how silly these trans people, demanding that we use pronouns in an inclusive way. I suspect that is what we are seeing in the opposition against trigger warnings; there is a knee-jerk reaction to defend the way it has always been, to ignore that a sizeable minority of students have been raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed, or experienced other forms of violence. Generation after generation of students has been reading [X “classic” text that includes triggering material], so why should we eliminate it or assign it with a warning now?
I would argue that the opposition to trigger warnings is part of a larger trend of belittling college students, particularly their political efforts. The flip side of concerns about entitlement and helicopter parenting is critiques of students who challenge the status quo on their campuses. We now have the term “crybullies,” dismissing contemporary forms of protest as a mere demand to protect one’s feelings and presumably fragile ego. The following cartoon perfectly captures this patronizing sentiment:
The supposed consequences of these “crybullies” — that logic, reason, actual education, and academic freedom go up in flames — is captured in this more damning cartoon:
Wow. The underlying logic is that women, queer students, students of color, and others who have demanded safety, protection, and inclusion are the equivalent of overly sensitive babies — pampered babies, if you see the noticeably tan child holding the social justice sword and “racist!!” rattle. Clearly, these groups have no right to challenge the status quo because, well, these must not be serious problems.
Some of this strikes me as the tired “us vs. them” generational divide — in this case, a war waged against millennials by… well… every other generation. These babies are pierced, tattooed, and have colored hair. Eventually they’ll grow up and have real concerns! Maybe I haven’t resorted to this kind of finger wagging because, by some accounts, I am a millennial myself. I’m pierced and tattooed and have carried the sword of social justice and demanded safe spaces and leaned into my “special slowflake” identity. But, I haven’t chosen a side because it’s played out. The hippies pictured in the first cartoon were criticized in their day, too. Their political demands were mocked and criticized by older generations. Suddenly, their demands for peace and love seem reasonable compared to demands for safety from violence and triggering material, and for inclusion and equal treatment.
Can we pause for a moment on the trigger warning debates? Even well-intentioned liberal professors who have taken issue with these warnings are merely echoing the larger conservative opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to identify and eliminate microaggressions, to demands for justice survivors of sexual violence, to demands for safe spaces for queer students, to recognition of and access to facilities for trans students, and so on.
At this moment, we — as faculty — have a choice. We can choose to be dinosaurs and old-farts who mock students who are advocating for themselves, who are following the tradition of protest on college campuses for greater inclusion. Or, we can actually listen to what the students are saying, we can find ways to support them and navigate around (and dismantle) institutional constraints. Too few of us understand trauma to adequately decide how to support traumatized students; so, we should be figuring out how to support them rather than dismissing or mocking their concerns.
- “A Quick Lesson On What Trigger Warnings Actually Do” at HuffingtonPost
- “What, Why, When, Where, and How?: 5 Common Questions About Trigger Warnings Answered” at Everyday Feminism
- “Warning: This course may cause emotional distress” at the American Psychological Association
- “10 Things Psychologists Want You To Know About Trigger Warnings” at Buzzfeed
- “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D. Pricelet
- “Here Are 6 Reasons Why Trigger Warnings Aren’t Bullshit” at The Stranger