I asked for a trigger warning on Ovid before it was cool

Discussions about the possibility and role of trigger warnings in higher education always make me a little depressed, because it seems that any mention of the theme instantly devolves into a shouting match between two camps, both terrified that the other will leverage power and privilege to trample on their cherished values, with the result that no one ends up listening to the valid concerns of those who disagree.

Those opposed to any use of trigger warnings in the classroom typecast those who dare request them as "an insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears," members of a generation so coddled from infancy that they can't stand to have their feelings hurt or be forced to grapple with an uncomfortable idea. They point out that the notion of a trigger warning has been diluted by the wide range of content to which it has been applied, and argue that since it's impossible to provide warnings for every possible category of disturbing content, we shouldn't try at all.


Now, to be clear, I appreciate the academic freedom concerns that are raised by some of the more draconian proposed policies about trigger warnings. I don't think that the onus should be placed on instructors to imagine every possible "trigger" in every text they assign out of fear of reprisal should they fail to anticipate a student's distinctive pressure point. I oppose policies that demand or even suggest the censorship of course content, and I don't think that instructors should be compelled or pressured to provide alternative assignments for students who find certain content distressing (with the possible rare exception of students with confirmed diagnoses of PTSD, in which case requests for alternative assignments should be handled as ADA accommodations through a university's disability services office). I believe that an important part of a college education is grappling with ideas and depictions that challenge our comfort zones, and that students should be treated as adults with the capacity to deal with challenging material.

But I don't think any of this requires the disdain and vitriol that I so often see poured out on those students who have the courage to speak out about course content that they, because of their unique background and experiences, find especially difficult to face.

It turns out, I was way ahead of the trend on this issue. I requested a trigger warning on Ovid before I even knew what a trigger warning was.

Fifteen years ago, in an advanced Latin reading class, I was part of a small cohort of students working our way through Ovid's Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love"), basically a first-century Pick-Up Artist's Manual. Somehow, when I was preparing the text in advance of the class meeting, I was so caught up in the nuts and bolts of figuring out the vocabulary and syntax that the message of the text didn't really sink in. It wasn't until we were working through the translation in class and Ovid's description of rape as something the victim desired was meet with awkward silence from my female classmates and nervous giggling from the males that the content really hit me. I was shaken and nauseated by the text and disturbed by the experience of having it left completely unchallenged. I tried to console myself with the idea that the wrongness of that assertion goes without saying, but given the ongoing crisis of sexual assault on university campuses, now I'm not so sure it does.

Now, I was not harmed by the experience of reading that text and witnessing that reaction. I was physically and emotionally disturbed for a little while, but I got over it. But then, I have not experienced sexual assault. Someone I love has, and it was the association of this text with her story that triggered my reaction. 

That evening I sent an email to my instructor, suggesting that when he teaches this text in the future, it might be helpful to offer a disclaimer. I made it clear that I didn't want the text to be censored, I just wanted him to be cognizant of the near-inevitability that sooner or later (and probably sooner than later), he would have a sexual assault victim as a student in his class, and this passage could be difficult for them to read. 

I didn't mean it as a complaint; I didn't blame my instructor for my uncomfortable experience. But I knew he was at the very beginning of his teaching career (he was a graduate instructor, just a year or two older than us students), and I thought it might be helpful for him to be aware of the strong reaction this text could provoke.

I never heard back from him.

I also wrote one other email that night: a thank you note to a professor whose class I had taken three years before. He had made a passing comment condemning and rejecting Aristotle's misogyny in the context of an introductory lecture about Aristotle's philosophy and his tremendous contribution to the history of Western thought. At the time, I had felt like the comment was nice but not really necessary -- of course Aristotle was wrong about women; let's say no more about it. After my experience with Ovid, though, I was grateful for the memory of a man in a position of power and privilege stating in no uncertain terms that a revered author of the classical canon was just plain wrong in his attitude toward women. 

Instructors: it costs us nothing to err on the side of kindness. We can't, and shouldn't try to, issue warnings and disclaimers about every possible thing that might discomfit a student, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't ever give advanced notice when we know (and our students don't) that we're approaching especially difficult material. Often, all a student needs to be able to productively engage with an emotionally challenging text is the opportunity to prepare themself psychologically instead of being caught off guard by something that reminds them of a personal trauma. Remember that not everyone has the luxury of being able to approach texts from a position of detached analysis, and the voices of those who cannot muster such detachment may be an especially valuable part of the education of all our students. So do what you can to offer them a place at the table. 

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