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Professors ponder warnings for dark subjects


– The line about a bull’s-eye on the wrist is what got to one student.

It happened this spring when Deanna Surfus assigned her class two poems to read online.

The poems, both by Andrea Gibson, contained images and themes of sexual abuse and suicide.

Looking back, Surfus, who usually warns her students about the content of some literature she assigns, realized she didn’t even think about doing so for those poems.

Not until afterward, anyway, when a young woman in the class commented how she wished she had been warned before reading Gibson’s “The Nutritionist,” which goes:

To the bulls eye on your wrist

To everyone who has ever wanted to die.

“The times you don’t do it, you feel like you should have,” Surfus said of giving students a heads up about what they’re going to read.

What people are dubbing “trigger warnings” have become a hot topic among those in higher learning circles during the past few months.

The practice of issuing trigger warnings – giving readers a heads up that content may dredge up extreme emotions or negative memories – started on blogs and online publications a few years ago and is trickling into academia.

Students at some liberal arts colleges are requesting or outright demanding such trigger warnings from their professors.

Which has stirred this debate:

Should students be warned of what one Rutgers University student described as “gory, abusive and misogynistic violence” in “The Great Gatsby?”

Is there need for warning labels about the racism in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or the death and sex in “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey?”

The idea of such warnings has caused some to decry them as another sign of society going soft or shielding young minds from uncomfortable, real-world issues.

But some teachers, like Surfus, the English Department chairwoman at Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast, have been doling out similar warnings for years.

And as the term begins to pop up in the national news, trigger warnings are increasingly being discussed among some local professors who may be considering using them more.

Academic freedom

The University of California-Santa Barbara has been a catalyst for the interest in trigger warnings.

The student government formally called for campuswide trigger warnings when a student came up with the idea after watching a film that showed a graphic depiction of rape.

The student, sophomore Bailey Loverin, told the New York Times that while she had not felt threatened by the film – she herself had been a victim of sexual abuse – she suggested that students should have been warned.

The possibility of a campuswide alert system sparked outrage from some professors.

“Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at UC-Santa Barbara.

Other schools soon tackled the subject, with administrators at Oberlin College in Ohio going so far as to circulate a guide asking professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses.

These guides called for professors to be aware of racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism; cissexism, sometimes used interchangeably for transphobia; ableism, or prejudice against people with disabilities; and “other issues of privilege and oppression,” according to the New York Times.

After several professors complained, the guide was removed from a campus website.

‘Where’s the line?’

As news of trigger warnings spread, scores of columns and opinion pieces popped up online or in print either defending or downright poking fun at the idea.

Many professors quoted in news stories throughout the country do not support a blanket rule regarding trigger warnings.

Surfus, who began teaching college courses at IPFW in 2006, doesn’t, either.

Still, she said she typically gives students advance notice that some of the material they read or work with will be dark.

“I generally warn them in a face-to-face class before they read the content or if it’s a difficult discussion,” Surfus said.

“I think it’s fair to give them some expectation, especially if it’s dealing with suicide or dark emotions,” she said.

By giving those warnings, though, Surfus is not removing discussions of such texts or allowing students to bypass work.

“Sometimes they need to feel uncomfortable,” she said. “It can be a good experience.”

Other professors have considered offering more warnings.

At IPFW, instructors in several departments have trigger warnings on their radar, according to John Kaufeld, the school’s chief communications officer.

Professors in the psychology department, where students will certainly have to deal with traumatic emotions, have especially been looking at possible warnings.

“Professors are aware and talking about it,” Kaufeld said. “It’s a complicated question. You don’t want to do anything to harm a student, but then you get to the question of, ‘Where’s the line?’ ”

Most professors will say something in class, Kaufeld said.

That’s what Surfus said she will continue to do at Ivy Tech.

A blanket system wouldn’t work anyway, she theorized, because each student is a different individual.

And you never know what might set a student off, she said.

In her experience, she said, works that satirize religion have gotten some of her students riled up, and she’s had to rein them in by assuring them that the course is designed to look only at how a work is made or what a writer used to convey a point or emotion.

Returning servicemen and servicewomen who’ve seen combat may find some works hard to get through, she said.

And then there are the students who you never suspect will have any problems.

“Sometimes, you have students – you don’t think in any way will there be a trigger warning – then there is,” she said.

“Those stick in your head.”