Friday, April 18, 2014

Trigger warnings and why they matter

Trigger warning: references to sexual assault, violence, and PTSD. 

I've been following some of the online articles recently about trigger warnings for course content, especially in light of the currently tabled trigger warning policy at Oberlin College and UC Santa Barbara. (Sidenote: I absolutely agree that the Oberlin faculty should have been consulted more fully before a policy was established.) And now I'm frustrated by some of the objections being commonly raised. Academic freedom? Infantilization of students? Not every trigger can be predicted? Or, as one article points out, "There is no trigger warning for living your life."  (Also, you may be interested in reading Roxane Gay's complex and very personal AND POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING essay "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion" BUT make sure you read it all the way to the end.)

While I have plenty of responses in my head to each of those objections, I'll just share my own experiences of using trigger warnings in my courses. Two experiences stand out in particular. 

1) In my English II and 20th-century Literature by Women courses, I've regularly included Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." If you've read it, you know that there's a scene that not only implies sexual assault but that takes readers through the cajoling and intimidation that lead up to that assault. It's a powerful and frequently anthologized story, and it's great for discussing literary concepts like symbolism, character development, epiphany, and exposition, as well as discussing women's roles in society. BUT, it has significant potential to trigger survivors of sexual assault and abuse. So I use a trigger warning (written in the Course Calendar and verbal in the class meeting prior to the day it will be discussed), and I include an optional reading for anyone who chooses not to read it because of the potential trigger. I've had several students, sadly too many, thank me individually afterward for providing that trigger warning, usually because they had similar experiences. In one case, a student came up to me after everyone else left and said that she really appreciated the warning ahead of time and the opportunity to choose. She explained that she'd been through therapy, and she'd come to grips with what had happened to her. So she chose to read the Oates story anyway--but she was able to brace herself for it, not blindsided by it. And she was able to appreciate how well the story conveyed the experience. It's not my place as an instructor to force students to "face their trauma," especially in a literature class, which is not a therapy session. It's not my place as an instructor to re-traumatize students by making them re-live their own horrors so I can teach them literary concepts. 

2) Similarly, I regularly teach Tim O'Brien's short story "The Things They Carried," which is also frequently anthologized separate from the book with the same title. I also frequently have students who are former military veterans, too many of whom are suffering PTSD. O'Brien's short story has significant potential to trigger vets. One semester, I had such a student who specifically asked me to provide him with warnings if any potentially triggering readings were to come up. So I gave a warning when assigning the O'Brien story. As with the previous anecdote, this student likewise thanked me for the warning and likewise read the story. In fact, it was perhaps the single most deeply affecting reading for him that semester. But, again, he was able to brace himself. He was able to decide what he was ready for. And both his own reading and his contributions in class discussion were powerful and ultimately positive because he was prepared for it in advance. 

I realize many of the objections to trigger warnings are due to the extension of such warnings to more nebulous things (more of the "-isms" like racism, sexism, ableism, etc.). Personally, I'd rather err on the side of warning students of some potentially traumatizing content elements than not. No, we can't know what might trigger a student. No, we can't protect them from their lives. But, for instance, even TV shows include notes of what can be potentially problematic (violence, language, etc.) And that's primarily for entertainment, for voluntary experiences, rather than a compulsory experience like so much college course material is. Someone who is, for instance, triggered by having someone behind them can actively take steps to minimize those occasions, even if they can't avoid such occasions entirely--they can choose to go through therapy to address such triggering. They have agency over their psychological health. It takes so little for me to give a brief warning, a brief heads up, in class and in writing--why should I as their instructor not offer them that level of agency in my courses? 

For these students I've described, and for many others like them, I will continue to use trigger warnings and to offer alternate assignments in my courses. These students are bright and thoughtful and dedicated, and they get to decide for themselves. Sure, I could just remove such stories from these courses, but they can clearly be powerful for students, even students who could be triggered. They can perhaps be especially effective for students who've shared similar experiences, as long as they can go into these works with their eyes open. I certainly don't want to re-traumatize these students myself in the name of academia when so many other potential triggers already exist for them in everyday life. I do trigger warnings for them.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

In memoriam - Christine Eldin

Dear Chris:

I didn't really know you very well. There were probably periods of time when we communicated daily, but in the way of bloggers and online acquaintances, I still didn't *know* you. Nonetheless, I always found your contributions and comments on other blogs thoughtful and entertaining. I knew you loved your children. I knew you were funny and prolific and talented and generous and supportive. It was always a pleasure interacting with you and reading your work. I admired you. You were a friend to so many bloggers/writers in our diverse yet somehow intimate community, and I felt you were a friend to me.

It is tragedy piled upon tragedy that so much of your blogging is gone, even though you had your (very important) reasons.

We lost touch around 2009, when I basically dropped off the face of the blogosphere (for personal reasons that were positive and beneficial but...). I regret not working to maintain contact. I regret letting you and so many others slip away, brushed aside by other priorities. I regret doing it so easily. I still thought of you often, wished you well. But wishing doesn't make it so.  

In your memory, I've made a donation to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

And I think of Robert Frost's "For Once, Then Something." 

You will be missed. Whatever anguish and despair you suffered, I cannot truly know. But I remember you. And you mattered.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

I'm not dead...

Hubby and I went to see the film ARGO today.  First, I was amazed at how long it's been since we saw a grown-up film (I said "grown-up," not "adult." Keep your mind out of the gutter!).  We've seen a plethora of kid-friendly movies, but that's not at all the same thing.  I would recommend ARGO.  It was competently done and seemed very true to the period (late 70s-early 80s).  It also, I think, seemed realistic about the politics of the situation.  I was so young during the actual hostage crisis that I remember very little of it, except for the fact that it was nightly news. 

Second, the Kid has been very interested in using clay, Legos, and my camera to make little stop-motion videos.  They're rough, as you might expect, but I'm impressed by his creativity.

And now, back to grading...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lascaux Flash Fiction contest - deadline Sept 22

If you follow my blog, odds are good that you already follow the Lascaux Review as well.  (If you don't, you should!) In case you don't, I highly recommend you check out their Lascaux Flash Fiction contest, open now.

Here is my entry, entitled "Splinter."  Please do feel free to go read and comment--and read and comment on other wonderful entries.

I opted to submit it as a guest entry rather than as a contest entry because, frankly, I just don't need the stress right now. :)  I loved participating in the Clarity of Night flash fiction contests, and Lascaux reminds me strongly of them--but I didn't want the mental weight of wondering how my entry "measures up."  I just wanted the pleasure of reading and being read. 

You, however, should certainly enter the contest.  Submit flash of up to 250 words, inspired by the photo prompt.  There's a $250 prize, and they just recently announced that the winner will also receive an 8x10 print of the fabulous photo prompt. The deadline for submission is Sept 22.  So go! Now!  And good luck to you!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

And then we came to...another beginning

Beginnings are always filled with such promise, such unbridled potential!  A birth, a new relationship, a new job...all these new developments carry such hope and (I certainly hope) joy.  No, they don't always work out, but, at the beginning, we don't know that yet.  :)

As I face the birthing of a new academic year, with all its usual upheaval, I love the sense of anticipation and potential that comes with preparing to meet my set of students.  Every class has its own personality. Every class has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own characters and conflicts, its own reactions to the work we do.  I can't want to see what happens next.

AND I'd like to draw attention to another new beginning:  The Lascaux Review will be running its first-ever annual flash fiction contest at

I'm excited to see the entries, although I haven't decided whether I'll enter yet (and, even if I write something, I'm considering submitting it as a guest writer, not for competition).

The contest involves a visual prompt. Entries are 250 words max. You can find all the details at the link.  Oh, and did I mention there's a cash prize?  Yup. Go click and find out more! 

Here's to new beginnings!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Evolution...or "Where the Hell...

In the midst of grading, meetings, writing, and, you know, life (yes, I hear it's academics, "summer" doesn't mean what might think it means), I just wanted to take a moment to share the joy that is the "Where the Hell is Matt" series.  I've posted one of the videos before, but there's a new one! And while I prefer the music from the 2008 version, there's much to appreciate in each of them. What's equally fascinating to me is how we witness an evolution in the series.

The early ones (2005 and 2006) - - are just Matt in various international locales doing a distinctively quirky dance.  I wasn't familiar with the videos back then, and, frankly, my initial reaction whenever I see them is: "Are you kidding me?? I could do that! Please, somebody pay for me to spend my days traveling the world just to dance--not even particularly well!"  (Okay, so I have a mean streak. I'm well aware of that.  And I'm not even a big fan of traveling.)

I didn't encounter these videos until after the 2008 version was released. The addition of group participation (starting at around 50 seconds into the video) transformed the concept entirely.  Now I wasn't just watching some (presumably) privileged guy dancing around in places I wouldn't in a million years get to visit myself.  Instead, I saw the joy of having people of different cultures, languages, traditions, regions, etc., all having a blast doing the same silly dance.  The video became more about them--and their unadulterated, unchoreographed enjoyment and enthusiasm--than it was about this Matt guy.

Watch the 2008 and then watch the 2012 version. They're both wonderful in their own ways.

The 2012 version is different in some key ways.  There's more of a sense of learning--Matt learning from other participants and teaching them as well.  That's because there's more choreography.  He isn't doing the "Matt" dance...he's doing their dances, and then they're all doing parts of a massive, spliced, choreographed "flash mob" kind of thing.  The crowds have gotten bigger too (AND it turns out one part was filmed where I grew up--phooey!).  My own personal preferences aside (I do love the sense of spontaneous fun from 2008), the changes over time are wonderful.  As a global exercise or outreach or whatever it is (well, advertising, for one thing), the bottom line to me is that it's just soooo damn cool to see so many people in so many different "worlds" dancing happily see appreciation for their cultures...and to see so many people participating. 

For someone who makes her living with words, I have to admit that 1) these videos feel to me like they accomplish an awful lot without words and 2) I don't have the words to express how awesome I think this series is.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What I've Learned from Teaching

Here are a few random observations on what I've learned from teaching...there are are more, but these were at the forefront of my mind today...perhaps because they tie together several different projects I'm working on.

1. Clarity - With a Myers-Briggs personality type of INFJ, I tend to think broadly and abstractly. I tend to seek out new and improved ways of doing things rather than following traditional or standard methods. So one of the things I have to be mindful of is how to communicate broad, abstract ideas or processes in concrete, understandable ways.  My course syllabus averages 13 pages and includes a Table of Contents.  My essay assignments are generally 3 pages long and include "Do's and Don'ts." If what I'm saying in class (or to any audience) isn't clear, it's pretty easy to tell: the glazed eyes (which can also just be a sign that I've been talking too much and need to switch to more engaging activities, like having them write!), the furrowed brow, the whispered questions from one student to another asking for clarification.  And I find that this more overt attention to clarity--Am I making my points clear?--translates into what I do outside the classroom.  It's not enough to say what I want to's also my responsibility to confirm that my audience gets what I'm trying to say.  Clarity doesn't equal simplicity...complex thoughts and ideas and processes can still be presented in ways that make them clear to others.

2. Structure - Both in a pragmatic sense and in a creative writing sense, teaching structure has made me much more keenly attuned to the way communication is structured, the way plot is structured, the way we establish points; raise expectations; and then develop, defend, and deliver on those expectations.  We could jump willy-nilly into situations guided by instinct and impulse (and I'm sure I still do), but I have a greater appreciation for how strongly attention to structure can foster more effective communication.  The five-act structure in drama (also sometimes known as Freytag's Pyramid), for instance, is a classical skeleton for any story.  Even non-fiction uses that basic structure to build audience interest.  It's also the basic setup for business letters: exposition, complication, climax (why you should hire me), resolution, and denouement.  I didn't fully appreciate the five-act structure until I started teaching I see it everywhere (and sometimes my students do too).  And structure goes hand in hand with clarity.

3. Empathy - I remember what it was like to be a first-year college student.  And yet some of my students don't have the naive ego I had.  I was a Honors students with a full scholarship to a prestigious university; I "knew" what I was doing.  Right. During my first year, I basically embarassed myself as the dunce of the Honors interdisciplinary program that was the special first-year experience of my Honors cohort.  I knew how to regurgitate what I read, but as a first-year college student, I didn't really know how to do close readings of classical texts.  Plato was Plato...what he said must be do you analyze that? The Epic of Gilgamesh...yes, it described the flood that's also referenced in the Bible...okay, what am I supposed to do (aka, write critically) about that?  In some ways, my teaching is directly shaped by and echoes the expectations that were laid upon me then, although I tend to use a "bunny slope" version with more contemporary and accessible (and short) readings for my students to work with.  Critical thinking skills are vitally important...and I believe ultimately enable students to be better learners and better self-teachers in all I emphasize skills like analysis, evaluation, and argumentation...BUT I really do remember what it's like to think "What the heck does this professor want from me?  What is he/she asking me to do?  I have no idea what this means!"  And I like to think that, while I maintain high standards and great expectations of my students, I also do whatever I can to help students get past that "I have no idea what you want from me" phase of critical thinking. 

Abrupt ending. Expect a totally unrelated topic next week.