Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Trigger Happy Academics

A month ago I had never heard the phrase “trigger warning”, but now that I am up to speed, I am ready to issue one myself.  I must alert my readers that it is conceivable that this post could excite stupidity in stupid people.  So if you are stupid, you may wish to quit reading now.

            I doubt that any reader is in the dark as to my allusion, but just in case…One of the moment’s most publicized campus issues—which is rather different from saying most important--is the proposal that professors should preface their course syllabi, or perhaps even their individual lectures, with warnings to students that they may find parts of the course or lecture so disturbing, offensive, or even traumatic, that they may choose to avert their psychic eyes, so to speak.  Sexual violence is repeatedly mentioned as being particularly triggerable, but in general so are, potentially, all episodes of “sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism…and other forms of oppression”.  Oberlin College, which has been something of a barometer of advanced academic sensitivity in recent years, has been teased, perhaps unfairly, for floating a proposed trigger warning policy now hastily recalled for further study.

            It seems a vapid truism that education is likely to be challenging; so maybe a single alert to that effect, carved in marble at the college gate, might be sufficient?  Certainly any literature professor knows that the stuff they read in college can really be disturbing—such stuff, for instance, as the dismemberment of Grendel, the blinding of Gloucester, the harpooning of Moby Dick, or Bill Sykes’s murder of Nancy.  Only a few writers are sensitive enough to give their readers a heads-up.  Chaucer, in introducing the “Miller’s Tale,” a narrative positively reeking of sexual violence, sexism, ageism, geezerism, undergraduatism, Biblicism, dandyism, and flatulentism, gives a trigger warning, and even recommends that the sensitive reader should “turn over the leaf and choose another tale,” one free of oppression and positively oozing with “morality and holiness”.  Of course, the only result, so far as I can tell, is that the Miller’s Tale is the best known part of Chaucer’s oeuvre. 

            God knows, I could have used a few trigger warnings myself with regard to my undergraduate courses, especially as regards ableism.  My college career might have been measurably less stressful if only my math professor, on the opening day of the calculus course, had said quite openly: “Fleming, I have to give you fair warning.  I don’t think you are going to be able to do very well in this course.”

No trigger warning: May 4, 1970

            Serious matters do call for serious discussion, though they don’t always get it in the academy.  On May 4, 1970, incompetent and undisciplined soldiers of the Ohio National Guard shot to death a number of students on the campus of Kent State University.  Protest demonstrations sprang up at colleges and universities throughout the country.  At Princeton there was an emergency faculty meeting so well attended that it had to be relocated from the hallowed Faculty Room of Nassau Hall to one of the largest lecture rooms on campus.   The President and Clerk sat on a spare, raised stage that looked like a set for Waiting for Godot, with the faculty before them in an amphitheatre of rows of fixed chairs in graduated ascent.

            There was only one practical action that our faculty could take, and that hardly a potent one--to pass a resolution about the Kent State shootings.  Almost immediately, however, the greatest minds in Mercer County seized upon an adventitious, peripheral issue and shook it like a ferret.  The undergraduate managers of the campus radio station, WPRB, were at the gates, petitioning to be admitted in order to broadcast the faculty meeting live.  The request was unprecedented, but so also, it seemed to many, were the circumstances that had triggered, so to say, the demand.  Should the faculty’s deliberations, by long tradition held in camera, now be broadcast to the world?

            The question was subjected to a searching debate of Talmudic complexity and Jesuitical subtlety.  There was thrust.  There was parry.  All points of view were carefully considered, especially those having nothing to do with faculty meetings or radio broadcasts.  There were more on the one hands, and on the other hands than one might find in a large colloquy of Hindu deities.  I need hardly add that intellectual scrupulosity is seldom briefly displayed.  The discussion went on, and on, and on.

            At some point the late, great Professor Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the father of the “paradigm shift,” sought and gained the recognition of the chair.  I shall remember what he said to the grave.  Indeed, I believe I can give you his exact words.  “Mr. President,” he said, “I submit that if the next hour of this discussion is as stupid as the first hour, exposing the deliberations of the Princeton faculty to any wider audience whatsoever could inflict irreparable damage on the institution.”  It was actually an hour and twenty-seven minutes, but let that pass.  The faculty voted not to go live.

 Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996)