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Trauma warnings move from Internet to Ivory Tower

By Lisa Leff

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 10:12 a.m. MDT

Filmmaker and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who teaches in the women’s and LGBT studies program at Temple University, poses for a photograph Friday, April 25, 2014, in Philadelphia. Students on college campuses across the country are increasingly asking their professors to provide "trigger warnings" for classes that cover content that might be upsetting to individuals who have been sexually assaulted, touched by suicide, survived war or experienced other traumatic situations.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — It seemed like a modest proposal, or so thought Bailey Loverin, a literature major at the University of California, Santa Barbara: What if professors were prodded to give students a written or oral heads-up before covering graphic material that could cause flashbacks in those who had been sexually assaulted, survived war or suffered other traumas?

The idea proved popular with Loverin's classmates. Student government leaders at UCSB endorsed it. Faculty at other schools, editorial writers and online pundits had a different reaction, calling it "silly," ''antithetical to college life" and reflective of "a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm."

"What I have heard from a lot of people who don't fully understand the issue is, 'Life is life. You are going to get your feelings hurt and you should just suck it up and meet it head-on,'" Loverin, 19, said. "But a girl just raped a month ago and sitting in a classroom for the first time again isn't ready to face that head-on."

The uproar over her "Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings" has called public attention to the use on college campuses of "trigger warnings," a grassroots phenomenon that had spread quietly from the Internet to the Ivory Tower.

This year, the University of Michigan, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Oberlin in Ohio, Rutgers in New Jersey, Scripps in California and Wellesley in Massachusetts all have fielded requests from students seeking more thoughtful treatment of potentially troubling readings, films, lectures and works of art.

Trigger warnings are advisories often written in bold type and affixed to a post, tweet, YouTube video or increasingly, a class syllabus. Long a feature of feminist web sites and originally used to warn rape and abuse survivors, they are designed to give people who might be negatively affected a chance to opt out.

The topics students are asking to be cautioned about cover a broad swath of human suffering.

At Michigan, speakers at an English Department event on bias said trigger warnings were needed for racially offensive book passages. The UCSB student resolution suggests they are appropriate for portrayals and discussions involving "rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic depictions of gore."

"Classrooms have always been spaces where difficult, traumatic stuff got dealt with," said Angus Johnston, an associate professor at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, N.Y., and historian of student activism. "What's different now is, partly as a result of this new ethos in the online world of trigger warnings, you are seeing people being willing to assert themselves and say, 'My emotional well-being does matter."

Laurie Essig, an associate professor at Vermont's Middlebury College, first heard about trigger warnings in the college context five years ago, following a discussion about eating disorders in her Sociology of Gender course. To illustrate her points, Essig showed pictures of fashion models and images taken from pro-anorexia web sites. Two students took her to task, telling Essig, 'Oh, you should have given a trigger warning for people with eating disorders, they can't see images like that."

While she has colleagues who do provide trigger warnings, Essig finds them "ridiculous" and refuses to do so.

"I'm treating college students like the adults they are, and institutions increasingly treat college students like medicalized children," she said.

Filmmaker and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a rape survivor who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she is careful to tell students on the first day of class and in her syllabus that "we are getting ready to delve into some really difficult, painful information here," such as sexual violence and police brutality.

Simmons also gives them lists of resources for emotional support and has arranged private viewings for students who are afraid to watch a film in class. But she worries that trigger warnings, a term she does not use, could stifle free speech, if taken too far.

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