Trigger Warnings, Barriers, and the Purpose of the Classroom

If the University of Chicago intended to provoke wide-ranging discussion and debate by sending a letter to all of its new students denouncing “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” it has certainly succeeded. Of course, this being the Internet, most of the ensuing chatter has been of the slash-and-burn variety, with slogans flying fast and furious: academic freedom! Inclusion! Diversity! Coddled millennials and their helicopter boomer parents! I’m not going to dignify any of the click-bait-y things posted this week in that vein by linking to them. Instead I want to claim that this is a more complex issue than either of the quick partisan responses would suggest, and offer a reframing of the issue in terms of the very point of a classroom in the first place—something that seems, as usual, to get lost amidst the elegant yelling of the dispute.

In order to actually say something intelligent about this issue, we have to get past both the caricatured “freedom of speech” position in which any limit whatsoever on anyone saying anything is taken to be a violation of some natural law, and the equally caricatured “emotional sensitivity” position in which any feeling of discomfort is automatically converted into a violation of basic human dignity. These are caricatures, held—as far as I can tell—by pundits rather than by actual thoughtful educators, because actual educators (teachers and those who support them administratively, which I phrase very carefully so as to exclude those parts of the contemporary university that aren’t concerned with supporting teaching…you know who you are) recognize that producing spaces of learning is hard work involving the ongoing exercise of practical judgment instead of any kind of cheap, ideological sloganeering. One size certainly doesn’t fit all here, and your mileage will definitely vary.

That said: If we want our students to learn things, we have to be attentive to where they start out, where we want them to go, and what we want them to encounter on the way. No actual educator would deny any of that. So where does that leave us?

Any determination about how to structure the space (both physical and intellectual) of the classroom depends on how we treat those three factors, but also on a fourth factor: the purpose of the classroom, the outcome towards which all of our educational labors incline. Certainly classrooms vary along such dimensions as whether they are designed for the efficient transmission of information or for collective deliberation or for team collaboration, but surrounding and underlying all of those (important!) distinctions is one broad purpose that characterizes all classrooms: to enhance the student’s capacity to do something. Learning, to paraphrase John Dewey, is always learning to, which is perhaps most obvious with a “skills” course (a course in how to drive, how to cook on a grill, how to brew beer) but is no less characteristic of “facts” courses (a course about the Second World War, about Michel Foucault, about Latin American cinema) in which the primary capacity enhanced is the ability to command relevant pieces of information about the topic of the course. There are also what we might call “judgment” courses, in which the capacity enhanced involves distinguishing between alternatives and selecting the more elegant or compelling option, a development of one’s moral sensibilities. And of course these three are ideal-types; actually-existing courses are more likely than not some combination of those categories.

But the point is that classrooms of whatever type are still about enhancing student capacities; that is their non-negotiable purpose. To be a student in a classroom is to be working on improving one’s capacity to do. I emphasize this because there is at least one major implication of this root characteristic of all classrooms: students can’t learn, and the classroom can’t fulfill its purpose, if there are barriers that prevent students from participating in the class. I am using “participating” in an almost ridiculously broad sense here, so that “sitting in a lecture hall and watching the performance” would count as participation—I mean “participating in the flow of the class,” not “class participation” in the form that it usually shows up on our syllabi where it means something more active and demonstrative on the part of the student.

What kind of barriers prevent students from participating? In the first instance we might think about barriers of language or format: if the student doesn’t speak the language I am using to conduct the class, or is blind and can’t read the texts I assign, that’s obviously a barrier to the student’s participation in the class. Or if the student is deaf and no interpretive signing or real-time text transcription of the class is provided. Or if the room is on the third floor of the building and there is no elevator, and the student is in a wheelchair, which is less an issue of language and more an issue of access more generally—akin, perhaps, to the situation in which the class is held behind financial walls too steep for the majority of the potential student population to climb? Or the class—or the institution as a whole—is limited to, or closed to, students of a particular ethnicity or gender? In all of these cases the student can’t “get to class,” so to speak, so the classroom isn’t likely to enhance the student’s capacity.

There’s another kind of barrier that prevents students from “getting to class,” though, and that involves serious trauma in the student’s background such that reminders of that trauma cause the student to shut down. This isn’t something the student has control over, any more than a blind student has control over her capacity to read words printed on a page. I have seen this happen in my own classrooms with combat veterans who can’t talk about the experience of the battlefield or who can’t read and contemplate depictions of that experience, or with assault victims for whom discussions or portrayals of violence are like salt poured into still-open wounds. These are barriers just as surely as stairs are to the person in a wheelchair: the student can’t get to class because something is standing in her way, preventing her from being present in the classroom. We are not talking about someone feeling uncomfortable; we are talking about someone being unable to participate in the class, for reasons beyond her control. And that violates the purpose of the classroom.

Indeed, the ideal classroom would be completely barrier-free, so that anyone who wants the opportunity to learn—to enhance their capacity to do the thing that the course is about—can participate. In actuality this never happens; actually-existing classes and classrooms have all kinds of barriers surrounding and penetrating them, from tuition and fees to the number of seats to the length of time when electricity will be provided to the building. But we can distinguish between those barriers to universal participation that are reasonable, and those that are not. “This course is only being taught this semester because we have a visiting professor who is interested in offering it” is a barrier to the student who wants to take the course next semester instead, just like “we only have twenty workstations in this lab” is a barrier to the twenty-first student who wants to enroll in the class, but such logistical considerations can be easily justified in terms of the purpose of the classroom: without that instructor, or without a workstation in the lab, a student wouldn’t learn anything, so the restrictions make sense.

Other barriers, though, don’t make sense in terms of the purpose of the classroom, because they operate to exclude students on grounds that are strictly speaking irrelevant to enhancing their capacities. There is thus no point in preserving them—especially on the grounds of some narrow notion of “equality” that would insist that every student is in fundamental ways the same, responds to situations similarly, and any deviation from an exact equivalence for each student is some kind of “special treatment” that should be avoided.

This reminds me of a rather famous image contrasting equality with equity:

equity vs. equality

(The image comes from this guide, although it has a fascinating history detailed here.)

Certainly the image furthest to the left is not a place conducive to learning, since the shortest figure is unable to see over the fence. The middle image is better in this respect, since each person is receiving the appropriate level of support to allow them to participate (as spectators) in the game…but because it is clear to each person how much support each other person is receiving, there is a way that the result—similar access for all—can look and feels like an artificial product. After all, each person can see how many boxes each other person is standing on. In the third image, however, everyone can participate and no one looks to the other participants as though they are receiving “special treatment,” so no one’s right to be there comes into question. Universal design for learning, we might call this: the elimination from the outset of barriers to learning that might otherwise prevent students from “getting to class.” Because this is a design feature of the overall setting, there is no appearance of any accommodation; there is just free, unobstructed access for everyone. As a result, everyone gets to learn, and no one internalizes a hidden curriculum that says that some people need additional support. The idea here is that everyone is invited in and made welcome, no needless barriers to their participation are erected, and as a result the purpose of a classroom is more effectively realized than it would be in a space that excluded people on irrelevant grounds.

With this conceptual equipment in hand we can return to the University of Chicago’s diatribe, specifically the denunciation of “trigger warnings.” (“Safe spaces” are a more complicated question, which I intend to take up in a sequel to this post.) In my view trigger warnings involve barriers to participating in class, so it’s a design issue as surely as is the provision of captioning on a video clip. But like captioning on a video, the delivery of an explicit “trigger warning” is more like the second image, an accommodation that can be seen as such by others in the class. It would be nice to eliminate the need for the accommodation by simply not showing videos or not introducing material that contains depictions of violent events, but sometimes this is simply not possible: sometimes showing a video is the most appropriate thing to do in class, and sometimes when discussing horrors like colonialism or genocide, a graphic depiction is needed to really pose the issues for students to confront in all of their starkness. So at least for me in my classrooms, I do not deliver specific “trigger warnings” for individual texts, although I do give make general comments about graphic depictions of violence when those are coming up in the reading.

For example: in virtually every course I teach I find some way to work Tzvetan Todorov’s utterly brilliant book The Conquest of America into the syllabus. That book contains several harrowing descriptions of the violence perpetrated against the indigenous inhabitants of the “New World” by conquistadors, and Todorov even dedicates the book to an anonymous Mayan woman devoured by dogs whose death is described in a contemporary chronicle of the conquest. You can’t miss the violence, which is part of Todorov’s point: not recognizing the Other as human has extreme, terrifying consequences. Sanitizing the account—designing the syllabus so as to eliminate or gloss over this violence—would not promote learning, and the whitewashing of history by presenting it as not so bad opens up the downstream possibility of mistaken judgments about the issues involved. I do tell the class up front that there are harrowing descriptions of violent acts in the book, and if that prompts any student to come talk to me privately about that presenting a barrier to participating in class then we work something out. (Then why do I keep assigning the text at all, if alternatives exist? Because for a student without that kind of trauma-fueled response, Todorov’s depictions are shocking instead of debilitating. For a student suffering with trauma, there are other ways to make sure that they confront the shock and horror of the conquest, but they are more time-intensive and in my experience less broadly effective.)

Imagine if any university were to tell blind students that they would not be able to obtain their assigned readings in Braille or have them read aloud. Or if a university were to respond to a student in a wheelchair whose class was being held on the fourth floor of a building without an elevator: that’s tough luck. In the United States this kind of response isn’t legal any longer, thanks to the Americans With Disabilities Act. One could handle questions of trauma through the same paradigm, and insist on cumbersome documentation and visible accommodations—or one could, in accord with the principles of universal design, avoid such barriers except as the teacher deems them educationally necessary, and when they are educationally necessary, signpost appropriately so students have the option of working out an alternative.

This is not about allowing students to opt out of things that make them uncomfortable, the way the issue is sometimes mischaracterized. It is instead about making sure that barriers to participation are eliminated so that learning can take place. No one in any of my classrooms gets to simply opt out of an assignment because they feel like it, and I suspect that the same is true for my colleagues at Chicago—our shared goal is to let learning happen, which has little or nothing to do with (as Parker Palmer once put it) “making sure that everyone ‘has a nice day’.” Learning is not about being comfortable, but it doesn’t have to be about incurring penalties for not being able to circumvent barriers that don’t need to be there in the first place.

  • Law&Arts

    Bravo for supporting Universal Design. However, we must be mindful of the potential damage inflicted upon students with disabilities by excluding or dismissing other approaches.

    Those with PTSD easily qualify under the ADA without a mountain of paperwork. They receive multi-dimensional accommodations tailored to the individual, but not necessarily obvious to fellow classmates or casual observers. Any “Universal Design” that relies exclusively upon a teacher’s avoidance of assumed barriers and signposting of projected triggers is missing the mark.

    Trauma sufferers are already inclined to view self-advocacy as difficult and fruitless. Veterans especially are not keen to identify or be identified as “disabled.” Sending those particular students the erroneous message that the ADA’s documentary requirements are “cumbersome” and that all accommodations gained thereby are visible, will cement their barrier to accessing legal resources.

    UD works in tandem with the ADA; any Universal Design of learning can and ought to include a clear, supportive explanation of the medical, psychological, and legal resources available to students. If we are truly seeking to break down barriers to learning, we should encourage students with disabilities to know their rights and also provide a supportive environment in which students feel entitled to exercise their rights.

    For specific Universal Design elements and other strategies, see

    • ProfPTJ

      Thanks for the engagement! I agree that under the best circumstances, UD and ADA work nicely together. But we don’t always live under the best circumstances, so my general inclination is to emphasize UD as the avoidance of pedagogically unnecessary barriers and to leave the more severe cases to be handled through more official documentation as necessary.

      I would consider it problematic to spend class time going over “the medical, psychological, and legal resources available to students,” except for a cursory reference to the existence of such things elsewhere in campus — the “hidden curriculum” there, in my view, would then look a lot like the second image in the graphic above because it would emphasize the boxes on which students stand. Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that it’s not the role of a university instructor to familiarize students with these resources and to help them navigate the processes of documentation and certification; there are other offices on campus for that, and a referral is the most an instructor ought to do except in extraordinary situations. Professors aren’t therapists or counselors or case workers or any other sort of mental health specialist; we’re specialists in our subjects, and hopefully also in teaching and learning. Fortunately contemporary universities employ people who *are* specialists in those other areas.

      So the more minimal approach to UD I advocate here does indeed work in tandem with efforts elsewhere on campus. But it’s a relationship of complementarity rather than a fusion of goals. As a professor my job is not to support my students or help them to succeed; it is to teach them, which often means giving them *opportunities* to either succeed or fail. That’s different than the role of a case manager or a counselor.

      The special challenge of returned combat veterans is of course especially tricky for the reasons you point out. A good Office of Veteran’s Affairs on campus can do wonders connecting students with resources in ways that actually work for those students.

      • Law&Arts

        PTJ, we agree — an explanation of the available resources need not take up much, if any, class time. One could include a brief note and, e.g., the contact information for campus V.A. and Disability Office in her syllabus. Referrals are all that is needed. It is not a professor’s job to support his students, but demonstrating support for complementary campus resources goes a long way towards students making use of those resources, potentially removing internal barriers to learning. Many educators fail, even, to do that. You are to be credited for your care and insight.

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