This past week several articles have circulated the internet regarding “trigger warnings.” The most prevalent is Jennifer Medina’s piece, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm, which appeared in the New York Times. Not soon after that article ran, a response came in David L. Ulin’s post A Warning about Trigger Warning, which appeared on the LA Times website.
This issue interests me because I am an educator but also because I have a lot of students who have suffered a variety of traumatic incidents and they often write about those incidents in my class. When we begin to delve into the genre of creative nonfiction, typically the floodgates open and I receive essays and memoirs that concern but are not limited to sexual abuse, domestic violence, post traumatic stress syndrome, drug abuse and homelessness. More often than not, my class is the first time they have disclosed any of these traumas in any kind of detail, and while it usually appears first in the written word, it will usually become (if the student chooses to) more of a public event when the piece of writing moves into the workshop space.
The reason I find this to be an interesting piece of the argument is that most of the blog posts and articles that I’ve read have put trigger warnings in the context of literature texts that would appear on a syllabus. The most common examples I’ve seen are The Great Gatsby (issues of violence; alcoholism; misogyny) and The Merchant of Venice (anti-semitism). However, no one is talking about this issue as it pertains to writing courses (or at least I have yet to see anyone talk about it) and I think it brings up some interesting questions.
For example, should my veteran student from Afghanistan be asked to put a trigger warning on his personal essay about sniper shooting? Should my female student be asked to include a warning at the beginning of a poem she wrote about a sexual assault? Should my other student be asked to include a warning at the beginning of a short story that graphically details a character struggling with addiction? Also, should I ask these students to put trigger warnings on their work so I will be prepared to read this material?
It is true that my syllabus for my creative writing courses contains some reading that could be “triggers.” The first story that pops to mind is Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace, but there are others. I don’t put warnings on my syllabus. I never have. I don’t ask students to put warnings on their work. I always begin the semester by emphasizing to students that there will be work that they will read that they will not like (for whatever reason) but a just because they have a negative response to it, doesn’t mean that they can’t learn or take something valuable away from that piece of writing.
I would also say that if a student is brave enough to share a deeply traumatizing event with a class through a piece of writing, they should be encouraged and applauded for their courage. At the same time, we as members of the classroom community, have the duty to read and respond thoughtfully about the work they have put out into the public space.
I agree with Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Oberlin College, who was quoted in Medina’s article as saying ““I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’ ” This is insensitive and more to the point, it doesn’t solve the problem. There are students entering our educational institutions that have experienced extreme trauma, and we have to figure out how to best serve them in the classroom. However, I wonder if placing warning labels over literature and possibly other student writing is giving them enough intellectual credit.
My students are often troubled by Wallace’s portrayal of the family in Incarnations of Burned Children, but while they acknowledge that the story is disturbing, they also understand why it is important not only because of its content but also because of its structure and style. They also begin to learn that being disturbed and uncomfortable can lead to greater learning and avoiding these pieces of writing because they have been “warned” may do more harm than good. I would even go further to say that many times when a student finds a piece of work that breaks into their own personal trauma, they often find an ally. Not an obstacle. They find a poem or an essay or a short story that speaks to their struggle, and in that way they begin to find their own voice and in that voice, sometimes they begin to heal.