Professors’ Group: “Trigger Warnings” Threaten Academic Freedom

Arguing that preemptive messages warning of potentially offensive material are "infantilizing and anti-intellectual," the American Association of University Professors has taken a tough stance against trigger warnings, an online phenomenon that's starting to take hold in academia.

It’s a trend that got its start on blogs, and it’s starting to influence education at the college level.

The “trigger warning” is a note attached to content that could be shocking or bring up emotional trauma for the reader. That might be fine online, but in the classroom?

Some see trigger warnings as an affront to free speech. It’s that issue that’s leading the American Association of University Professors to denounce their use in the classroom.

“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the association said in a policy statement.

Already, the issue has become a contentious one in the academic realm. This April at Oberlin College, faculty members successfully fought a now-tabled proposal to allow trigger warnings to be placed on potentially offensive material taught in the classroom, as well as a recommendation that professors “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”

However, in Massachusetts, students at Wellesley College started a petition in February asking administrators to remove a statue of a sleepwalking man dressed in underwear—part of a new museum exhibit—from its outdoor spot at the center of campus. Their concern was that the “highly lifelike” work of art could be upsetting to some at the women’s college, triggering trauma of sexual assault. The statue wasn’t removed from campus due to the protests, but it was vandalized in May.

In cases like these, AAUP argues, controversial topics like sex, racism, violence, and capitalism are “likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether” in the classroom due to student complaints. The association says it can’t happen.

“Not the Appropriate Venue”

The debate comes at a time when issues that are causing the rise in trigger warnings—particularly the subject of sexual assault on campus—are front-page stories. That subject is one that the White House has taken on, releasing a report on the issue last month.

AAUP says that while it appreciates the serious personal issues involved, trigger warnings aren’t the solution.

“The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD, which is a medical condition that requires serious medical treatment,” the statement continues. “Trigger warnings are an inadequate and diversionary response. Medical research suggests that triggers for individuals can be unpredictable, dependent on networks of association.”

AAUP’s statement recommends that administrators instead focus on “social behaviors that permit sexual violence to take place.”

The association’s statement generally received praise, with publications such as Reason.com and the editorial board of the University of Pennsylvania’s student paper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, supporting AAUP’s stance.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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