Duke, Berkeley, Columbia, Oh My: What our students are trying to tell us

by Corey Robin on August 29, 2015

My Sunday column in Salon uses the latest campus controversy—the Duke student who refuses to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—as an opportunity to take a second look at what these students with their trigger warnings and sensitivities are trying to tell us:

No one knows the power of literature better than the censor. That’s why he burns books: to fight fire with fire, to stop them from setting the world aflame. Or becomes an editor: Stalin, we now know, excised words from texts with about as much energy and attention as he excised men and women from the world. As Bertolt Brecht archly noted of the East German regime’s efforts to control what he wrote: “Where else in the world can you find a government that shows such interest and pays such attention to artists?”

This week, as I head back to the classroom amid controversy — from Columbia toBerkeley to Duke — over what college students will or will not read, I’m mindful of Brecht’s observation. Could it be that the men and women who most appreciate what we, professors of the humanities and social sciences, have to offer are the students who’ve been vilified as coddled and cosseted, demanding trigger warnings on syllabi or simply refusing to read the books we’ve assigned them because those books make them uncomfortable? Could it be that they, like the censor, are the ones who truly understand the power of the books we teach?

That’s why I’m less bothered than some of my colleagues are by today’s students. I see in their fear a premonition of what a book — and an education — can do. We live in an age, we’re often told, where reading has become rote or has simply disappeared. Half our students don’t do the reading; the other half submit dutiful book reports, barely registering the effect of what they’ve read.

Yet here are students who seem to understand, however faintly and problematically, what the literary critic Alfred Kazin called “the raw hurting power that a book could have over me.” They seem like throwbacks, these students: not to the Midwestern evangelism of Elmer Gantry but to the urban hothouse of the New York Intellectuals, those anxious and oversexed minds of mid-century for whom a Henry James novel or Walt Whitman poem was a holy fire. “Writing Was Everything“: that’s how Kazin titled one of his memoirs. In their refusal to read a book, in their insistence that professors warn them of the trauma it may contain, that is what students are running away from: writing that consumes them, writing that’s everything.

Even so, there’s a greater threat to reading and readers, to education itself, than trigger warnings or students objecting to a text. And that is the downsizing administrator, the economizing politician, who refuses to believe there’s any value in reading a difficult text at all. While the media debates Mr. Grasso’s refusal, I, as chair of my department, anxiously scrutinize our daily enrollment reports, knowing I have to defend courses with 12 students from administrative economizers — simply because the intimacy, attention and focus of a senior seminar doesn’t register as a value to men who can only see value when it is expressed as a number on a spreadsheet. Given the choice of defending a book to an aggrieved student or a course to a phlegmatic accountant, I’ll take the student any day: at least she and I agree that the book in question has power, and the experience of reading it, reality.

In this age of the neoliberal university, these students may be our best allies, for they seem to be among the few who understand that what we do matters. The administrator and the politician, the trustee and the pundit, think that we professors are worse than subversive; we’re useless. These students, by contrast, think we’re dangerous. Rather than dismissing them, maybe we should say: Thank you, we thought no one was listening, we thought no one cared. And then turn around and figure out how to use this as, ahem, a teachable moment — about the radioactivity of books and the fact that radiation has its uses.

Read more here.



Sandwichman 08.30.15 at 1:18 am

Wishful thinking.


LFC 08.30.15 at 2:19 am

knowing I have to defend courses with 12 students from administrative economizers

This is very sad. Those “economizers” should practice their economies on themselves and their administrative confreres.


Bill Snowden 08.30.15 at 2:27 am

@1 Hear, hear. The two faces of philistinism. The student who acknowledges the power of literature but refuses to experience it is not your ally. The trigger-warning mania is not about literature; it serves to forestall discussion of literature. What troubles me most is how infantile the complex is: is it not essentially picky-eater-hood? The child is not typically motivated by an appreciation for the power of flavour, a kind of hyper-refined proto-gourmandisme. He is simply attempting to assert control. The food is more or less adventitious; the pathology lies elsewhere.


Watson Ladd 08.30.15 at 2:42 am

Of course one could argue that censorship is unnecessary in a world where no one cares to read. But this ignores the real threat: that the students who don’t want to read some books have already decided that their conclusions are set in stone, and must be never be challenged. They are more similar to the administrator who decides challenging and shaking ideas is a waste of money then to the student who is determined to learn what her opponents as well as her allies say. The right response is to come out swinging, to defend the marketplace of ideas and critical knowledge.


T 08.30.15 at 2:48 am

Well, Corey, I guess you’ve taught them too well.


,lm 08.30.15 at 3:12 am

Having been out of a school for a little while now, I’ve become convinced that, as far as ethics go, books don’t matter. To the extent it prevents students from experiencing unneeded trama, I am for trigger warnings. In some endeavors, dealing with the unpleasant is necessary–ie medical students should probably not be squeamish about blood. But liberal arts students don’t necessarily need to read graphic accounts of rape. But as a positive program, reading doesn’t work. Making students read race matters won’t make them good people.


Alan White 08.30.15 at 3:31 am

My fear is that this is an attitude of education as a commodity: serve us only what we bring to the table as customers from the menu that we should of course ultimately control. Why press serving us liver as the special du jour when we want the burger and fries?

I just saw BS@3. Synchronicity.

Students are only allies if they are willing to listen to why the liver might be preferred to the B&Fs. But if they see themselves as customers, I tend to think they will complain to management, and no tip for you!


PatrickinIowa 08.30.15 at 3:36 am

It would be one thing if the student had signed up for a class, taught by someone who deeply understands Fun Home and how to lead contentious discussions. His failure to read the book would matter then.

It’s another to refuse to read an optional “One Community, One Book” suggestion that won’t be deeply engaged. What those programs miss, it seems to me that the community creates the book’s experience, not the other way around. If Grasso hadn’t said anything about not reading it, no one would have noticed.

And mandating a (wonderful) book by a gay woman is a whole lot easier than, say, actually reducing the rate of female dropouts in the hard sciences, or the pay gap between male and female faculty, or the economic barriers to higher education. It’s a weak liberal gesture, designed to look good while doing very, very little. Classic neoliberal corporate horseshit.

The real censorship is being done in places like North Carolina where programs are being cut because they create inconvenient knowledge about, for example, poverty http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2015/02/18/uncs-poverty-center-and-other-groups-on-unc-board-of-governors-chopping-block/.

As long as we’re whining about students asking us for a little common courtesy, we’re not looking at the real threats to academic freedom that will kill the university and its mission far more dead.

Our engaged students get that, by the way. Ask them.


T 08.30.15 at 3:59 am

Here’s the AAUP on trigger warnings: http://www.aaup.org/report/trigger-warnings

According to them, it all started in the feminist blogosphere and then migrated to university campuses. It has expanded to “the range of possible trigger topics: “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

I can’t imagine the academy had anything to with this. It was the all powerful blogosphere. Sure it was. Chickens. Roost.


Sandwichman 08.30.15 at 5:20 am

We won’t have to worry about all this once President Trump “fire[s] all the political-correct police.”


bad Jim 08.30.15 at 6:42 am

Teachers don’t issue trigger warnings for material they’re not going to offer. Keeping it off the syllabus is censorship. Trigger warnings are advertising: here’s the hard stuff.


bad Jim 08.30.15 at 7:06 am

Not my idea: here’s Scott Lemieux.


bad Jim 08.30.15 at 7:17 am

Brecht’s lines (Burn me!) brings to mind that Stravinsky protested being labeled degenerate by the Nazis, insisting that he was an aristocrat, and Bartok protested not being so labeled, insisting that he was at least as degenerate as the rest. Or so I’ve heard.


Scott Martens 08.30.15 at 9:05 am

Not that long ago, the last time I was an academic, I told a class of mostly Asian and Middle Eastern students that if they were going to work in natural language processing for smaller and developing world languages, they would often find the only large texts available to work with would be Bibles and Christian missionary literature, and proceeded to give some examples (this is a favourite because it also opens to door to the sociological issues in what qualifies as a language). I said they should therefore be familiar with Christian literature and the basic layout of the Bible.

The only guy who seemed weirded out by it was a German of, as far as I could tell, no religious convictions. Not the Muslims, not the Chinese kids. And his only problem was that he thought I should be inclusive of the Quran, which, I explained to him, was much less likely to be translated into obscure languages than the Bible was for theological reasons.

I wonder if I’d have gotten into trouble in the States for saying the same things? I always assumed a university student was someone expected to be able to cope with things as they are, not as they want them to be.


Metatone 08.30.15 at 9:51 am

Perhaps this goes along with your thought about administrators – I wish I could call a trigger warning when the university inflicts a poor quality neoliberal textbook on the international management class I teach.

I do quite appreciate the idea that at least “trigger warning” students recognise some power to the texts. There’s something to that. My biggest distress about the textbook is that no matter how much I point out problems and flaws, the ones who do read (and that isn’t many) seem to soak it up uncritically.

I wonder if one solution might be to publish trigger warnings on a syllabus – and so if you sign up for the class, you are signing up for the books. Of course the problem there is then you have to construct some vanilla classes in order for some people to graduate. But I can see it appealing to some of the administrators I deal with.

(Of course, class sizes is a different, constant battle…)


ZM 08.30.15 at 10:53 am

Corey Robin: “Yet here are students who seem to understand, however faintly and problematically, what the literary critic Alfred Kazin called “the raw hurting power that a book could have over me.” They seem like throwbacks, these students”

Metatone: “I do quite appreciate the idea that at least “trigger warning” students recognise some power to the texts. There’s something to that.”

I would be a bit cautious with this extrapolation as I think this is a misunderstanding of triggers by people who do not experience that sort of thing.

Being triggered by something in a text is separate from the moral or aesthetic quality of the text or what you call the power of the text in and of itself.

If a text triggers memories of a traumatic event this is outside of the text itself.

If you have experienced a traumatic event things that make you remember it can make you relive the traumatic event. As this is bad for you there are various techniques you can use to try to bring yourself back to the present where you are physically in a safe environment.

I think texts trigger things because they are unmoored from the environment as we comprehend them as only symbols of things and not as the real things they are themselves — by which I mean we usually do not consider the objective physical qualities of a book (i.e. the look of the paper the shapes of the black letters the texture the smell) as much as we consider the meaningfulness in the text of a book.

So I think it is wrong and not a good idea to associate trigger warnings with judgements about the power of texts, as this sort of power stems not so much from the text itself as from the memories of traumatic events which something in the text might trigger.

For instance, after I had a psychotic episode the poetry of John Ashbury was a trigger for me. For some years it made me feel like I was dead and in a strange afterlife when I tried to read it and I threw the book that was the worst for doing this out, over the passage of years this sensation faded although I still do not enjoy his poems as much as I used to.

As you can see, when reading John Ashbury poems triggered in me feelings of being dead this had very little to do with the power of John Ashbery’s poems (although somewhere it says his poems have the logic of dreams, which I guess is a bit like a strange afterlife) as even though he writes good poems his poems in and of themselves should not make someone feel as if they are dead and in a strange afterlife.


Lynne 08.30.15 at 12:24 pm

I’m curious how often the professors here have had students ask to be excused from reading texts. And how often they have had students ask for trigger warnings, and if they do ask, do they have to specify what kind of warning they need? I mean, is this really common now?

Corey, I can see why you might prefer dealing with a student to an administrator, but I doubt it’s the power of the text that is scaring students. As ZM says, it’s more likely the force of their own experience that makes them vulnerable to certain scenes. I’m an old trout, but I still skip certain kinds of scenes in books, and probably always will.

If trigger warnings are now an accepted thing, I agree with the suggestion to make them part of the course description, so if people sign up for the course, they sign up for the book.


AcademicLurker 08.30.15 at 12:50 pm

My impression is that the whole trigger warning phenomenon has passed into the realm of pure clickbait at this time.

Most instructors who’s courses include things like explicit discussions of sexual assault or graphic depictions of violence use some sort of content notice to indicate this and have done so since forever.

All efforts to date to mandate trigger warnings through the administration have failed, and this was the primary concern of professors in the first place: the specter of some associate vice dean for trigger warnings mucking around with people’s syllabi based his or her non-knowledge of the subject matter.

The subject continues to be discussed online simply because it’s now a known troll-magnet. Hence the fact that Salon and the Atlantic have taken to running a “So, how about those trigger warnings?” article once a month like clockwork. I think the subject has become one of those traffic boosting standbys, along with semiannual “Feminism is totally passe these days, amiright?” piece by Phyllis Schlafly.


Watson Ladd 08.30.15 at 12:59 pm

Lynne, let’s actually look at real cases of students complaining about speakers on campus, and see how they frame their complaints. How about the “violence” when a survivor of Charlie Hebdo came to talk at my alma mater? discussed here

What’s happening is a reasonable accommodation is being tied into a much larger framework of removing disagreeable ideas. Students have to expect that they will be made uncomfortable by the ideas of others. And the push for trigger warnings is not about the rare occurrence of PTSD and trying to solve these issues in good faith, but rather the comfort of students, and the attempt to control what can and cannot be said.


James Wimberley 08.30.15 at 1:57 pm

OP: “… the intimacy, attention and focus of a senior seminar doesn’t register as a value to men who can only see value when it is expressed as a number on a spreadsheet.” I was an university administrator once in England, and even in the early 1970s the trade had a fair number of women, at least as many as in the faculty of typical departments. What is the ratio now?
Pettifogging is not a peculiarly male vice.


PatrickinIowa 08.30.15 at 1:58 pm

1. @ Lynne. What I teach touches on death quite a bit. I know from experience what happens to a student when she’s asked to do an exercise that causes her to plunge into uncontrollable grief. Someone asked a question and I said, “Oh, here’s an exercise that illuminates that,” and started it without warning anybody where it would go. When the sobbing started, I realized I had screwed up badly.

It wasn’t her fault; it was mine. And it taught me to be more aware of what they’re bringing into the room with them. I still do the exercise. I try to be more proactive about perparing them for it.

2. @ZM. Exactly.


bianca steele 08.30.15 at 2:17 pm


I suspect there is a huge gap between what complaints people have experienced or heard about from reliable acquaintances, and what they’re reading about in forwarded links. In the past, maybe, they’ve treated feminist complaints about Hemingway, say, in a certain way, and for some reason they think those are the same complaints made for the same kinds of reasons, which someone else is going to dictate a different response to, and maybe that it’s exactly the same kind of response they’ve been avoiding for years. (I personally like Hemingway but obviously a story like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” requires some care–on today’s campus–for example.)


David 08.30.15 at 2:47 pm

I have to agree with Bill Snowden that all of these initiatives are forms of infantilisation. The children concerned (whatever their biological age) have been brought up in a secluded middle-class environment, unthinkable to my generation, where essentially anything that might upset them or challenge their thinking has been carefully excluded. One day this will stop, and they will have to leave home, but in the meantime they can ask to be protected from things that might upset them, including being obliged to examine their own assumptions, which is actually part of the function of any effective teacher.
There’s nothing new about warning people that things they might see could upset them. The original series of Dr Who in the 1960s was preceded by a solemn warning that it might be upsetting to small children, and of course films are, and always have been, graded according to age. But the idea was that you grew up, and things which might once have frightened you would no longer do so. Today, we seem to have abandoned the very concept of maturity in favour of eternal childhood (except, of course for the working class among whom I was born, who encountered reality pretty damn quickly, and still do. But that’s another issue).
I wish this were about the power of literature, but in fact it’s just about power. The Right, much wiser, as usual, uses power to impose not only syllabuses, as some have noted, but also a discourse. Once they can get us talking about the “burden” of taxation or the “cost” of employing people, then they have effectively won. The Left has effectively conceded defeat, and prefers to tear itself to pieces through competitive weakness, which can also be a form of power. I’m so weak, runs the argument, that I need protection from anything that might upset me, therefore I have the power to demand that you do this, and don’t do that.
Great literature is often challenging and disturbing (King Lear anybody?) which is why it has to be taught. Likewise, anachronism is a feature, not a bug. The past is a another country and things were different then. Women in Jane Austen’s time were different from women in the early Iris Murdoch’s time, etc. etc. That’s partly why we study literature.


Dean C. Rowan 08.30.15 at 2:53 pm

Just an aside, but it appears the controversy spurred by the Berkeley student op-ed has nothing to do with trigger warnings, and everything to do with an extrapolation of the “canon wars” to the social sciences. It, too, serves Corey’s point, and it demonstrates how, on occasion, old, boring, worn out disputes from the ’80s and ’90s turn out to have a lot of life left in them.


Plume 08.30.15 at 2:59 pm

I’m pretty conflicted about this whole thing. On the one hand, it’s pretty obvious that all too many conservatives have grossly exaggerated the extent of “PC,” on campus and off. They often take isolated events, radically exaggerate them in size and scope, and try to make them appear to be the norm. 99.9% of the time, it’s the proverbial mountain out of a molehill times a thousand. This also serves another purpose of theirs: To whip up the ludicrous idea that our universities are filled with radical leftists, brainwashing unsuspecting students, forcing “un-American” ideas into their pliant skulls. In reality, our universities strike me as far too mainstream, far too cautious, and far too much in bed with the Establishment. In a word, “conservative.”

That said, even isolated events can have the effect — ironically aided by conservative outrage — of greater influence than they warrant. Repeated media attention, hysterical and otherwise, can have the effect of normalizing these outliers. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all of that. The media can then make a ridiculous story seem less ridiculous through their own repetitive powers.

Not sure of the answer to this, at all, but I really don’t like the idea of students refusing to read great literature due to “micro-aggressions” and whatnot, even if this is rare (and overblown). One possible way to make lemonade in the face of this is to ask students to write essays as to why they think they should be excused. Let them know they don’t have to read the work if they can make a good case for not doing so. That essay would be graded and would replace their work on the book in question. I think, more times than not, the process itself would wake up more than a few that they really don’t have a good reason to avoid new horizons.


Ronan(rf) 08.30.15 at 3:17 pm

I’ve come full circle on trigger warnings*, from general eyerolling scepticism to thinking they could be useful and helpful to some students.
The problem with this conversation (in general) is that it’s (as always) rhetorically so vague that everyone feels the need to cram their favourite hobby horse into the topic.
Afaict the questions are relatively simple. Are there a significant number of students who might be suffering from some sort of trauma. If so, could their trauma be aggravated by the course content. If so, what is the best way to accomodate their situation (taking into consideration that (1) there will be X amount of the perpetually aggrieved who will use the new system to push their agenda, and (2) it is still, at the end of the day, a university, where you cant opt out of your academic obligations)
But if it’s just a call at heart for a more general thoughtfulness for your students ? Yeah, why not ?

* primarily due to the book ‘The body keeps the score’, which is a pretty good intro into the topic of trauma, for the layman.


Ronan(rf) 08.30.15 at 3:18 pm

‘come full circle’ wasnt the phrase I was looking for. But you get the idea.


Lynne 08.30.15 at 3:25 pm

Watson Ladd @ 19, I was wondering, though, how often professors are actually asked to excuse students from reading assigned texts, and how much of this is, as Academic Lurker says, “clickbait” with not a lot of basis in reality.

Bianca, yes, I imagine that is right, so am interested to hear people’s first-hand experience. PatrickinIowa, that consideration seems kind and like, as Academic Lurker says, the kind of reasonable approach that has always existed.

I am suspicious of generalizations about university students being entitled children, but I don’t know, maybe they do speak up and ask for more than we used to. I’m surprised if that is the case, given the generally much-lousier quality of university education (enormous class sizes, online classes instead of in-person classes even when everyone lives in the same city) but am interested to hear from people on the front lines.


T 08.30.15 at 3:38 pm

As noted by the AAUP (link @9), the notions of trigger warnings and microagressions are relatively new in the academy and the publicized controversies are occurring at elite institutions. In my limited sample of students at elite universities, I see those concepts being adopted in student life and student interactions aside from any student/faculty interactions.. I don’t see this going away.


Anarcissie 08.30.15 at 3:41 pm

Administration…. …infantilisation….

Aren’t most people undergoing higher education these days simply going through a mill to get a ticket to a middle-class job and a middle-class life? For which they pay a lot of money and endure a lot of tedium. It seems like a bit much to also ask them to think or endure other forms of distressing mental activity, which are superfluous if not antagonistic to their values and goals.


nnyhav 08.30.15 at 3:50 pm

Aaron Bady on mountains and molehills


Dean C. Rowan 08.30.15 at 3:59 pm

Reviewing the comments, I want to take exception to ZM at 16. First, it is a marvelous observation, one that gives a real world account of the triggering effect while arguing contra Corey that the traditional, humanities-conceived “power” of the assigned text isn’t a strong basis for the effect. Ashbery being one of my favorite writers, I both love and regret that his work can have such an unusual association for at least one reader. But I’m not sure we should be so willing to divorce this effect from the work’s aesthetic quality, nor from “the objective physical qualities of a book.” (Disclosure: I’m a librarian. I routinely view books in terms of their material aspect, as I do online resources, which most definitely have material aspects.) This, I think, is part of Corey’s point, too. Ashbery’s poetry very much depends upon its physical layout. (Ashbery is also a visual artist.) Some of his poems are, for me, far less effective heard than read. More generally, there is research indicating that students prefer to study using print rather than online texts, for various purposes and various reasons, some of which involve aesthetic appreciation.


Shelley 08.30.15 at 4:22 pm

I have mixed feelings. I am more sensitive than most, so I’m kind of amazed at the devastatingly cruel film scenes or book episodes than some teachers assign. I just don’t think the teachers are as hurt by the material as certain students might be.

On the other hand, I think if a student refuses to read something, we should be sure an assign a clever alternate: something that challenges the student in a way that he/she doesn’t want to be challenged.


AcademicLurker 08.30.15 at 4:28 pm

There seem to be 3 distinct issues that are getting mixed up.

1) People with actual PTSD. All of the discussions of this topic unfold as though people have never heard of an office of student services and are unaware that ADA compliance is a thing that exists. There is a standard procedure in place in which the student contacts the person(s) at student services who are responsible for ADA compliance. The student explains what their condition is and what factors might interfere with their ability to participate in class. This information is communicated to the instructor, who works to make some reasonable accommodation for said student.

Precisely because people with real PTSD (as opposed to people appropriating the language of PTSD for whatever purpose) may be triggered by completely idiosyncratic things that are not readily predictable, proactively consulting with the instructor and informing them about your triggers to the extent that you know them is exactly how things should be done.

In the entire 1+ year’s worth of discussion on this topic I have yet to hear anyone explain why it makes sense to replace the system described above with one in which instructors make ill-informed wild guesses about which students might or might not be suffering from PTSD and what things might or might not be triggering for them.

2. Topics that are widely agreed to be upsetting enough that material dealing with might reasonably be expected to be difficult for at least some portion of any given class. Sexual assault and graphic depictions of violence are the real entries in this category, and as I mentioned above, most instructors already use content notices of some sort for these. If there’s an epidemic of instructors holding surprise mandatory screenings of The Accused in class, a) I’ve never heard of it and b) if it’s happening I fully agree, professors should stop doing that. I suspect that this sort if thing is not nearly as large a problem as the sheer volume of trigger warning talk would suggest.

If the subject had been raised as “Content notices about material dealing with sexual assault of graphic depictions of violence can be a big help for students coming to grips with the material. Instructors should be more aware of that.” then the entire subsequent public discussion would have gone differently.

3. Any subject that anyone might conceivably find unpleasant for any reason (the chucklehead in the original article who claimed that The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway should have trigger warnings, for example).

The reason that trigger warning discussions are such a playground for trolls (of both the pro and anti TW variety) is that they all muddle 1, 2 and 3 together in a totally unhelpful way. Although it is ideal for baiting people in comment sections.


Joe 08.30.15 at 4:33 pm

Student controversies and demands for trigger warnings isn’t a breath of fresh air amidst neoliberal university culture as Robin frames it. Rather, it’s a symptom of the neoliberal university itself.

Students are consumers and the customer is always right. The demand for trigger warning is less a genuine fear that they will have an actual traumatic experience, but is rather something akin to: this big mac has special sauce in it, and there are some consumers who may become nauseous from special sauce. We demand it be taken off the menu.

It’s not about the actual content, it’s about students defining and enacting (whether consciously or not) their role in the capitalist university. Sadly it also defines the the teacher’s role (service provider, contingent, can be fired/suspended at any moment by refusing to acquiesce to the consumer).


bianca steele 08.30.15 at 4:51 pm


AL makes a good point. However, “trauma”, as opposed to the more particularly medicalized “PTSD”, is occasionally used as a one size fits all explanation of irrationality, usually other people, whom it’s assumed would otherwise not disagree. This is, in a way, the reverse side of the argument you’re making: not instructors who are trying to treat students’ PTSD regardless of their lack of medical qualifications, but instructors who are assuming students’ objections are rooted in a trauma for which they need psychoanalysis. (My own experience, which colors these thoughts: the Jewish classmate who wouldn’t read Nietzsche, the professor of Early Modern English literature who made it clear that certain points of view, presumably nontraditional ones, would not be welcome in class, the prof who was rumored to flunk all feminists.)

I’m also surprised by the number of people who apparently believe professors’ job is in part to create emotional reactions, of the kind students are describing as traumatic, deliberately. But I haven’t seen this said by any instructor who has claimed it described his or her own classroom practice, so I’m reserving judgment.

As for Mrs. Dalloway, it contains some very questionable theories about mental health, depression, and the causes of suicide, and attempts to get into the head of a successful suicide, as the narrator works through those theories in trying to understand why she empathizes with him. It’s a great novel, but eighteen year olds may not know the appropriate way to read it.


The Temporary Name 08.30.15 at 4:58 pm


“I objected because I think sexuality is becoming more and more commonplace in our culture, and that’s a risk,” said Brian Grasso, an incoming freshman who began a critical conversation about the book on a Facebook page for Duke’s class of 2019. “Universities like Duke which are very pro-sex risk isolating or even discriminating against people with conservative beliefs.”

Incoming freshman demands he not get laid, news at 11. This is the standard censor’s objection and not new to anyone who knows books.


novakant 08.30.15 at 5:02 pm

kids these days …


Plume 08.30.15 at 5:15 pm

The real trick here, of course, is to avoid trauma when reading the bible. That’s done via severely restricting what is read, highlighted, discussed, throughout a religious indoctrin — I mean education.

The bible, of course, has massive amounts of rape, murder, incest, genocide, polygamy, wanton slaughter and very strange rituals which call for the death sentence if not followed. And most of these traumatizing actions are done by the god of the book, or ordered done by he who must be obeyed.

I haven’t read Fun Home, but I highly doubt it’s anywhere near as filled with “sexuality” as the bible, and that Duke student should know better.


Jim Harrison 08.30.15 at 5:15 pm

In John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp one of the protagonist’s stories describes a rape in terrifying detail, and this story is part of what insights a group of radical feminists to murder him. If your students were concerned about the trigger warnings, you might assign the novel as a way of opening up the issue; but I guess you’d have to warn ’em that reading it might be traumatic.


js. 08.30.15 at 5:28 pm

nnyhav @31: Thanks, that Aaron Bady piece is extremely sensible.


Patrick 08.30.15 at 5:30 pm

It would be nice if everyone involved in the debate over issues like Fun Home would just admit that the book was assigned as part of a hoped for acculturation process, and that the trigger warning objection is entirely rooted in the goal of not being subjected to an acculturation process. Either the acculturation process has merit, in which case it can be defended on its own terms, or it doesn’t.

Everyone sits back and wonders why trigger warnings keep being cited in contexts that don’t amount to actual PTSD. Well, that’s why. It’s part of a larger debate about what ideas ought to be considered part of polite society.


LFC 08.30.15 at 5:30 pm

Anarcissie @30
Going to college can have more than one purpose simultaneously. I’m sure a lot of students are worried about job/career after graduation etc. Some of those same students, esp. the fraction who follow a liberal-arts curriculum, might also want to think (to use your verb), read, etc. It’s not an either/or choice, and it’s prob. a mistake to suppose that all students, or 99 percent, are interested only in “ticket-punching” and nothing else.


LFC 08.30.15 at 5:36 pm

PatrickinIowa @8 and, along similar lines, Patrick (the same commenter or a diff. one?) @42 are right. ‘Fun Home’ was not assigned for a course. It was recommended summer reading for all incoming freshmen. That makes a difference in how one views the issues in this particular case. This kid didn’t want to read it over the summer as part of the “shared experience for all students,” “one community” crap. Big fu*king deal. As PatrickinIowa @8 said, if the student hadn’t brought it up on FB, no one wd have known or cared.


anon 08.30.15 at 5:40 pm

Ronan @26,

I wonder about the phrasing here: “Afaict the questions are relatively simple. Are there a significant number of students who might be suffering from some sort of trauma. If so, could their trauma be aggravated by the course content. ”

Shouldn’t the question be formulated more precisely as *are* there a significant number who *are* suffering so in such a way that their trauma *is* being aggravated? And the answer to that question can’t be determined simply by student complaints, since students aren’t mental health professionals competent to self-diagnose.

To me the call for trigger warnings reminds me of conservatives’ call for measures to prevent identity fraud in elections. Yes, there are cases of real fraud, but they never put forward any evidence that they occur often enough to justify special measures, and when we examine the data, they’re extremely rare.

Has anyone checked to find out if real trauma from curricula is anything but rare? Has anyone even pretended to be interested in doing so? As in the case of “electoral fraud,” I think that shows the presented reasons for the measures are in bad faith.


LFC 08.30.15 at 5:43 pm

And the notion (raised by Joe @35 and others) that this is a symptom of students-as-consumers may apply in some contexts but seems to have little application to the ‘Fun Home’ case. This student Grasso wasn’t asking for ‘a trigger warning’. Rather, he objected to its being chosen as the recommended summer reading and said he wouldn’t read it. So what? It was not in the context of a course he was taking, therefore the entitled-student-as-paying-consumer theme does not apply to the ‘Fun Home’ case.


Dean C. Rowan 08.30.15 at 5:58 pm

As long as we’re recommending titles that include provocative (in the narrow sense intended here) passages (Dalloway, Garp), let me add Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Filthy, filthy, filthy, disgusting, blech. Kids, in spite of Roth’s stature among twentieth century American novelists, do NOT read this book. Adults, I think we all need to review it, perhaps twice, to assure that kids to whom it might be mistakenly assigned will not be exposed to the “good” (i.e., “bad”) parts.

I was employed in a public library when Madonna’s “book” of photographs was issued. The question of its addition to public library collections was the focus of a lot of media attention, naturally. Meanwhile, “Sabbath’s Theater” sat undisturbed on the library shelves.


Pat 08.30.15 at 6:47 pm

The world’s least-relevant comment:

Duke, Berkeley, Columbia, Oh My

This was precisely wrong. Columbia Lions, Cal Bears…. come on, the order isn’t very hard to get right. Just because the Duke Confederate Flag Wearing Date Rapists aren’t playing along with the joke (editorial note, I am not a fan of college athletics; I do not actually remember what all of the school mascots are; please do not overreact if I have made a tiny mistake) is no excuse to get sloppy with your own headline.


David 08.30.15 at 7:21 pm

Unlike LFC, I do think these things are all connected if, as I suggested earlier, it’s all really about power. Fundamentally, if western nations are asking students to pay large amounts of money for tuition, then those students are customers, and they have, in their eyes, the right to dictate what they should be taught and how. And it’s not only about literal money changing hands: the teacher at all levels is seen much more today as a humble “facilitator” of learning, an employee who has no particular right to say what should be in the syllabus. What’s confusing is that, since students can’t openly say this, they resort to various intermediate discourses of victimisation and vulnerability, which the Left has thoughtfully constructed in the last generation, and left lying around as weapons for anyone to use. A fundamentalist Christian would adopt rhetoric that was superficially different from, say, someone traumatized by an encounter with an animal, but the objective and the tactics (my weakness is my strength) are the same.


Fuzzy Dunlop 08.30.15 at 7:42 pm

I just can’t wrap my head around the sheer cynicism: suddenly, it’s the cultural conservatives who want MORE graphic sex and violence (or ideally, violent sex) on the curriculum.

I’ve never received suggestions for a trigger warning on an assigned text, but did once have a student approach me wanting to get a book removed from the curriculum b/c of two very graphic scenes (one was of a sexual assault) that were triggering for them. I don’t remember clearly but they may have explicitly stated that a trigger warning or an option for some students to skip those scenes was not a good solution, because the scenes would still be discussed in class (at least one was a pivotal event in the book).

IMO it’s best to think about this situation not in terms of what do students, in general, need to be sheltered from, but in terms of how justified we are in using graphic sexual violence as an aesthetic/narrative/dramatic device (or as educators, in promoting texts that do this).


Ronan(rf) 08.30.15 at 7:50 pm

anon – “I wonder about the phrasing here: “Afaict the questions are relatively simple. Are there a significant number of students who might be suffering from some sort of trauma. If so, could their trauma be aggravated by the course content. “
Shouldn’t the question be formulated more precisely as *are* there a significant number who *are* suffering so….

Im not sure, but I dont think so. The evidence on ‘triggering’ (and trauma in general) will probably remain vague and qualified into the forseeable future, so it’s a political question rather than an empirical one.


Heliopause 08.30.15 at 7:58 pm

1. If a college student had a communicable but treatable disease would our policy be to seek treatment for that student, or segregate that student into a corner of the classroom and avoid coming within several feet?

2. If an employee said, “I have condition X so I must be excused from work duty Y” would it be acceptable to require that employee to produce a note from a physician?

3. What is the evidence that avoidance of “triggers” is efficacious for the afflicted individual?

4. If “triggers” teach us that books are powerful is it also the case that colors, short phrases, smells, single lines from popular songs, snippets of dialogue from TV sitcoms, the face of somebody who looks a little bit like somebody else, and innumerable other mundane things are powerful?


anon 08.30.15 at 8:42 pm


I could see trigger warnings as a case of “err on the side of caution” until the evidence is less vague and more quantifiable. But only IF the only danger is on the side of not using them. ZM @16 seems to present a common version of that assumption: “If you have experienced a traumatic event things that make you remember it can make you relive the traumatic event. As this is bad for you…”

But, and this is a sincere question, since I’m not up on the relevant psychology, is it an established matter that it’s bad for you. More importantly, might the opposite be bad for you?

It appears there may be reasonable disagreement about it. A recent Atlantic article by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests otherwise. (I admit that it’s co-authored by Greg Lukianoff raises some red flags for me) http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/:

“According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided…But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy….

Students who call for trigger warnings may be correct that some of their peers are harboring memories of trauma that could be reactivated by course readings. But they are wrong to try to prevent such reactivations. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation. ”

Another recent article by Harvard psychology professor Richard J. McNally makes a similar point, as well as pointing out that most trauma victims don’t develop PTSD and most rape survivors fully recover within a month: http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/hazards-ahead-problem-trigger-warnings-according-research-81946

I have no idea if these are common or contentious views among pychologists, but that some hold it suggests we shouldn’t assume that erring on the side of caution means adopting trigger warnings.


T 08.30.15 at 8:47 pm

I don’t necessarily see this as a student/faculty issue consistent with a customer/service provider model. There are lots of student/student complaints regarding microaggresion and triggering.


b9n10nt 08.30.15 at 9:28 pm

I thought the Atlantic article was great (“the coddling of the American mind”)

How ’bout:

1). Trigger warnings for traumatic content are regularly given

2). Students who wish to avoid the trigger are granted their wish and given an alternate assignment relating to…

3). …mandatory group or individual counseling with a purpose to re-integrate the psyche to the community if people who can “deal” (and emotionally delineate the symbolic from the real for the purposes of academic work).

My intuition is that generally the most effective community activists helping reduce and ameliorate exogenous traumas are ones who have grown through trauma and not been habitually protected from it.


ZM 08.31.15 at 12:11 am

Dean C. Rowan,

“I want to take exception to ZM at 16. … But I’m not sure we should be so willing to divorce this effect from the work’s aesthetic quality, nor from “the objective physical qualities of a book.” ”

I think the aesthetic of his poetry was one reason it made me feel like I was in a strange afterlife, so there was some interaction between the text and the trauma. I read a lot of Haruki Murakami at the time which I found helpful as it was not a trigger itself but it helped me deal with what my mind was doing.


“ZM @16 seems to present a common version of that assumption: “If you have experienced a traumatic event things that make you remember it can make you relive the traumatic event. As this is bad for you…”
But, and this is a sincere question, since I’m not up on the relevant psychology, is it an established matter that it’s bad for you…. “You should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy…. Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation.””

I kept trying to read John Ashbery every now and again which I guess was a bit like exposure therapy of a sort and I can now read his poetry without the sensation of being dead. However that took years and if I was in the middle of a literature major I would not have been able to study his poems in those early years.

I also did not know enough at the time to classify what I was experiencing with John Ashbery’s poetry as being triggered, and the mental health professionals did not pick up on it either, so I just had to deal with it myself. I guess this is one reason why students might ask generally for trigger warnings for texts that have a higher likelihood of triggering traumatic memories, as students might not be aware themselves they are susceptible to being triggered — now the idea is so popularised it is more likely people have awareness.


Blanche Davidian 08.31.15 at 1:38 am

You’re telling me that an adult student at a university today might not be able to read “The Short Happy Life…” without suffering the psycho-sexual fantods? The story could have been read by anyone in 1936 for the price of a Cosmopolitan magazine. Good lord, the future of the species is more dismal than i had ever imagined.


bianca steele 08.31.15 at 1:51 am


What? No! That’s not what I’m saying at all. I didn’t say any Hemingway novel or story is triggering. I used Hemingway as an example of a writer whom some feminists have objected to in the past.

I’m saying, though, that some older ways of reading and teaching “Francis Macomber” would rightly be considered very inappropriate today. Surely we can object to things today without lumping them in with “triggering.”


Lupita 08.31.15 at 2:26 am

I have had far too many of my students cry in class, refuse to participate, get sweaty palms, try to turn invisible, drop out of class, and get angry. They are obviously suffering from trauma.

I am a math teacher.

Sigma, theta, x… all triggers.


JanieM 08.31.15 at 3:06 am

Lupita, you made me laugh out loud.


weaver 08.31.15 at 3:49 am

*reads that Bady piece*

Jesus, what a pointless yenta-fest the mainstream media is.


Tabasco 08.31.15 at 7:38 am

the intimacy, attention and focus of a senior seminar doesn’t register as a value to men who can only see value when it is expressed as a number on a spreadsheet.

Surely there must some female Philistines among the administrators.


Scott Martens 08.31.15 at 9:28 am

Lupita: Don’t laugh. I had a prof (at Stanford no less!) give a trigger warning in a compsci class that there would be one integral that semester.


Barry 08.31.15 at 11:56 am

That’s hysterical.

I’m a statistician, which is the one most painful class most college grads have had.


Trader Joe 08.31.15 at 11:58 am

Has anyone bothered to read what the Duke kid wrote? Its linked under Duke in the second paragraph of the Salon piece.

This wasn’t a trigger warning issue, it was an objection to form and content. Fun Home is a graphic novel and contains drawings of nudity and masturbation that he finds objectionable and doesn’t prefer to view. He said if it was an ordinary ‘written’ novel (i.e. without the pictures) he was fine with reading it.

I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions about the work, but I think writing a reasonably well reasoned objection (even if you don’t buy all the reasons) is likely to be more effort than 9/10ths of students who actually trouble to read the work will undertake….he at least engaged his brain to a purpose rather than flipping through the text, pulling down the notes on-line and then faking it if ever asked if he read.

I’m with Cory, I’d rather 10x more students like this who take the trouble to care, than any more that just want to be a box moving through the degree mill.


T 08.31.15 at 1:34 pm

Lupita wins. At least for now, it’s primarily the humanities that confront the range of possible trigger topics: “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” And at Stanford, calculus II.


T 08.31.15 at 1:35 pm

Lupita wins. At least for now, it’s primarily the humanities that confront the range of possible trigger topics: “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” And at Stanford, calculus II.


LFC 08.31.15 at 1:49 pm

Trader Joe @65:
“Has anyone bothered to read what the Duke kid wrote? … This wasn’t a trigger warning issue, it was an objection to form and content.”

LFC @46:
“This student Grasso wasn’t asking for ‘a trigger warning’. Rather, he objected to its being chosen as the recommended summer reading and said he wouldn’t read it.”


CJColucci 08.31.15 at 4:15 pm

There is probably some unknown number of students who, because of traumatic events in their lives, might react to certain kinds of material in ways that we ought legitimately to be concerned about. Ways that go beyond the usual reactions to exposure to distressing material. Some kind of warning about the likelihood of encountering such material might be useful and is not illegitimate. But guesswork by English professors about what distressing material might be more than merely unpleasant, and to whom — since the class is likely a bunch of strangers about whom the professor knows next to nothing — is unlikely to be effective. And whatever a bunch of administrators come up with is likely to be worse. I freely admit having no idea what to do about this.


JW Mason 08.31.15 at 4:37 pm

I’m with Sandwichman @1. This is a non-phenomenon. If there were in fact a trend of students refusing to read challenging material, I would likely interpret it as Corey does. But I see no evidence that there is such a trend — not anywhere, and certainly not at CUNY, where we both teach.

“From Columbia to Berkeley to Duke” describes a rather small segment of the higher ed landscape, also. Sort of like one of those breathless trend pieces in the Times that begins “Everywhere in New York, from the East Village to the Upper West Side…”

And even there, this is a made-up trend. Note that the Kazuo and Perret op-ed (the “Berkeley” link ) makes no mention of trigger warnings and contains no suggestion that students should refuse to read anything. It’s really uncharacteristically sloppy of Corey to include it here.


Dean C. Rowan 08.31.15 at 6:54 pm

@JW Mason #70: See my comment above at 24, as well as the couple comments from others mentioning–as did Corey–that the Duke story does not involve trigger warnings. Corey’s point, I take it, is that these various protests from students are indicative of student investment in their reading assignments, contrary to the default assumption that kids nowadays are fragile, entitled little things.


slavdude 08.31.15 at 8:50 pm

Joe @35:

Precisely. That’s the main reason I stopped teaching nearly 10 years ago. I was an instructor at the University of Phoenix (I needed the money), and basically this was the attitude of both students and administration. The neoliberal UOP model seems to be approaching the norm now in (US) academia. Sad.


Sandwichman 09.01.15 at 7:35 am

May I interrupt this discussion of “trigger” warnings with the observation that “trigger” is being used as a metaphor here, which is fine as long as it doesn’t preclude referring to physical triggers such as are attached to a gun. A literal trigger my even be a figurative “trigger.”

I have in mind a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of armed Black students leaving from their occupation of Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall in 1969. Robert Kagan attributed his long march from liberalism to neo-conservatism, as did Allan Bloom, to Black university students exercising their second amendment rights, as Malcolm X put it.

This is where the erosion of Western Civilization standards (which evolved into “political correctness”) complaint got its initial impetus. Of course anyone complaining nowadays about open carry yahoos parading around with submachines guns would be accused of political correctness.

You could say that the formerly “liberal” academics were “triggered” to their neo-con convictions by the sight of actual triggers (in proximity to Black fingers). This brings to mind a passage from Frederick Douglass titled The Reign of Terror in the South. It begins:

We presume that the citizens of Virginia are much like the ‘rest of mankind,’ and under ordinary circumstances have as much nerve as falls to the lot of common humanity. But they have long lived under the shadow of a great terror. Each slaveholder keeps a grim skeleton in his social closet, which may start into life at any moment. The ‘demon of hate’ which his life of wrong and outrage has invoked, haunts him night and day. He listens for the roar of the slumbering fires of the volcano upon whose sides he sleeps, and every sound that hurtles through the air, every footfall behind him, makes him fancy that the avenger is on his truck.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe some of the perceived “issues” that people seem to have serve as a distraction from some HONKING BIG ISSUES that nobody really wants to fucking talk about anyway — like that grim skeleton in our social closet.


kidneystones 09.01.15 at 2:18 pm

” In their refusal to read a book, in their insistence that professors warn them of the trauma it may contain, that is what students are running away from: writing that consumes them, writing that’s everything.”

I agree with the premise of the Corey’s piece and I’m genuinely grateful that he and other heads do defend quality education from the bean-counters. That said, I think we’re generally far behind the students on the information consuming and processing curve. My own students (sometimes) describe some of the ways they crowd-source assignments and tasks using private group social media. These practices, like online learning, and the outsourcing of teaching to adjuncts and to infotainment corporations is likely to persist.

I teach upper-level seminars, research skills and writing, and culture-communication-history. A fair number of my English major students at a very good university confess to having no interest in books whatsoever. It takes a fairly high level of trust to make such an admission and I’m frankly proud they feel free enough to do so. I see no need to judge these students, but I do have to use my imagination in order to design tasks that will meet the department’s requirements. Yet, if 40-50 percent of the English students don’t like books, the others adore reading and are a joy to teach. The explicit nature of some of the material today can be off-putting. I don’t think a first-year student should be forced to read a book she or he finds repellent, shocking, or offensive. Ideally, the student arrives at the university ready for such materials. But given that I/we do so much remedial work anyway, I see no reason not to accommodate this subset, too. In my own experience, I have to be ready to read a book. There are plenty I didn’t like the first time I picked them up and loved when I took a second look later. I can always find alternative readings for students unhappy about content.

I will say that a shocking number of my peers are equally uninterested in reading books, which I see as a greater problem. Reading the right as well as the left so that we know the arguments seems to have fallen completely by the wayside. I’m sure many here recall being forced to understand defend positions we found personally repellent simply because that was part of an education. Defend slavery. We have to know that the arguments are/were so that we can explain them to our students.

We need to provide students of different interests and backgrounds with compelling reasons to register, attend, and participate in classes. Too often, I suspect, we take student participation for granted. We might at least ask why our pearls of wisdom seem to fall upon deaf ears. I do blame computers, btw, for eroding students’ ability to sit, read, and reason through difficult materials. I use them now almost exclusively as AV recording devices for monitoring and improving productive output.

That’s a mouthful.


lemmycaution 09.01.15 at 4:29 pm

–If an employee said, “I have condition X so I must be excused from work duty Y” would it be acceptable to require that employee to produce a note from a physician?–

Honestly, nobody makes you read narratives outside school. In particular, nobody makes you read narratives with stuff that you might find offensive stuff in it. And people take your word for it if you are offended or potentially offended by something. If you and your friends are going to the movies, you can just say “I don’t like horror movies” or “I am offended by Adam Sandler” or whatever and people will accommodate you.

And don’t go to work at a place where they warn you “I hope you are not easily offended”. Not that anybody ever said that to me, but that would be a shitty place to work.


JBL 09.01.15 at 8:58 pm

Pat @48: Shouldn’t that be “Trigger warning: the world’s least-relevant comment” ?


passer-by 09.02.15 at 1:09 pm

Out of genuine curiosity (not being an American academic, I have never been confronted with the issue, ever, as it seems to be a purely US debate): why do all the examples given here concern fictional literature? Is the debate confined to literature classes? Is there something specific with either literature students or fiction that explains that?
My field is Soviet / war history. No fiction I have ever read has come close in horror to what I have been confronted in the primary sources I have dealt with. I cannot even begin to imagine how one would have the discussion on trigger warnings in the classes I have had, both as student and as teacher. How do you teach the Stalinist terror, Nazism, the Holocaust, war violence, without “triggering” students? Even “non-traumatized” students will and should be disturbed by the material and the discussions. A non-trivial proportion of the students will be profoundly disturbed by it. A few will be unable to face them without some extensive outside support, which is usually beyond the skills of the faculty. Same would obviously apply to e.g. any history of slavery class. Does anyone argue that students should not be confronted with those topics? Or that we should somehow strive to make them “comfortable” (and yes, you can, to some extent, blunt the horror, the way it is done when those topics are first introduced to children in schools)?
I would really like to know if / how the topic of triggers and micro-agressions is dealt with in that context. And if the students disturbed by Ovid or Bechdel do not object to, e.g., A Woman in Berlin, I wonder why (and that’s a real question: is it because of the context of the specific classes? is it because they acknowledge the importance of confronting “real” violence but find that the emotional cost to them of those kind of readings outweighs the potential benefit when they’re dealing with “mere” fiction?)


AcademicLurker 09.02.15 at 1:42 pm


My guess is that much of the language and conceptual toolkit of current student activism is a kind of roadshow version of “Theory”. Although Theory is (or was) ubiquitous in the humanities, it was always identified more strongly with literature departments than with anything else.

Also, the question of whether or how to read Ovid or Fun Home or whatever calls back to the old question of the Canon. While the current ruckus isn’t “Canon Wars part II: Canon Harder”, it seems like canonical literature frequently ends up being the preferred field on which to fight out whatever the ideological battles of the day happen to be.


Anarcissie 09.02.15 at 2:02 pm

passer-by 09.02.15 at 1:09 pm @ 77:
‘… Does anyone argue that students should not be confronted with those topics? …’

Which students? Obviously, a student of World War 2 must expect to be so confronted. But most students are not particularly students of World War 2 or anything else. They are earnestly trying to get through a largely incomprehensible mill which their elders have told them is a necessary passage to a middle-class job and life. Some are mentally tough, others are not. To what extent should they all be subjected to horror and terror? Why?


passer-by 09.02.15 at 3:04 pm

Anarcissie @79:
Ok, other context. In Europe, we don’t have colleges and majors, so definitely, the only students who would encounter the topics I mentioned are history students, and I cannot imagine how anyone could defend expurging history of horror and terror, even if a large part of my students do not want to become professional historians (but rather teachers, journalists, librarians, civil servants). It cannot be done even when you teach school children, even though school curricula do usually tend to “soften” them. At the university level, adults who have chosen to study the subject cannot argue for a right to be blind. And willful blindness is what you would need in order to study history without being confronted with horror and terror.
And it’s not “just” the extreme examples of mid-20th century European history, or slavery, or obviously horrible topics. One of the most disturbing classes I had was when teaching a perfectly “harmless” 1st year course on French post-war social and economic history, when a student was assigned a research paper on housing policies in the 60’s-70’s and read about the horrible living conditions in the Paris suburb slums, to discover that his parents had lived in one of the most famous slums of that time upon their arrival in France, which they had never discussed before – a very painful discussion for that student and his family. I had never expected to have a student in tears because of a class on housing policies, never.
In the US context, I guess it’s different; if I understand it correctly, all students, no matter what they actually want to study, are forced to take e.g. history courses. I would obviously not drop A Woman in Berlin on unsuspecting 1st-year math students forced to take a general history course. But you either argue that it is unnecessary for college graduates to learn more of U.S. (or world) history than they did in high school (the European approach), or they will have to deal with the horror and terror of it. Depending on one’s ideological, political, moral and theoretical views, there are different ways of understanding and presenting those, but there are none that would allow for their suppression. Pretending that other people did not suffer because it is painful to you does not make their suffering disappear. Expecting others to share your unwillingness to acknowledge that suffering is both intellectually and morally unconscionable.


Trader Joe 09.02.15 at 3:54 pm

@77 & 80

I think you are correct that the problem is primarily one of fictional literature rather than actual history or other matters of fact or record. In studying history, one can only go so far in selective avoidance of the topics you suggest….or at least if one does ignore them its all but impossible to reach plausible conclusions.

By contrast, in studying literature, its quite possible to pursue that course of study without having to specifically expose oneself to intentionally graphic depictions of rape, sexuality, racism or any of the other fairly common ‘triggers’ that get suggested. While one might argue that pursuing nothing but socially sanitized texts isn’t as rich or rewarding as pursuing those which handle such topics, avoiding such texts doesn’t really invalidate the skills of critically examining literature.

Said differently – you can study lots of literature without having to utilize ‘triggering’ texts whereas its hard to properly teach certain parts history without including them.


TM 09.02.15 at 3:54 pm

I’m curious what conservatives are saying about Grasso: are they defending him as a hero for standing up to “sexuality” (sic!) at college, or are they condemning him as a soldier for the PC police?

For my part, I can only marvel at this student’s PR skill. Really, one can become famous now for writing a vacuous facebook entry about a book one hasn’t read? Some dude complaining that “sexuality” is becoming “commonplace” among young adults keeps the web humming? Wow.


TM 09.02.15 at 4:19 pm

80: There are definitely attempts at purging US history classes at high school and college level of certain material deemed too negative, although the intention is propagandistic rather than concern for students being traumatized.


bob mcmanus 09.02.15 at 4:24 pm

77 et al:Vulnerability, expressed and demonstrated, has recently become a very valuable form of social capital.

Kanye West at VMA: “I just want to be liked.”


bianca steele 09.02.15 at 4:54 pm

I feel it’s worth pointing out that it was not Ovid, the text, that was objected to. It was one teacher’s lecture on Ovid, and the claim was that he walked through the rape scenes in the Metamorphoses, in a class for 18 and 19-year-olds who weren’t literature majors, in a way that felt visceral to a student who had been raped. (She didn’t make a complaint; rather, a group of female class members, not including her, I think, published a petition in the student newspaper.)

I feel it’s also worth pointing out that Jo Walton’s recent book on just that subject was praised very recently in comments on this blog.

But I haven’t seen a single description of what Lynne asked about, above, whether it concerns primary course material (novels in a fiction class) or secondary (novels, films, newspaper stories assigned as supplementary materials in a class on history, science, or math).


passer-by 09.03.15 at 9:57 am

@81: if the protests only concern fiction and not material in history course (I’m taking history both because it’s my field and because it’s probably the one where you are most likely to encounter the kind of trigger inducing material discussed), Corey Robin’s analysis seems overly enthusiastic to me.
To me,it rather suggests that students, whether traumatized by violent experiences or merely uncomfortable with some topics, are quite ready to face, as much as they can, the discomfort or even acute pain that comes from confronting trigger inducing material in many academic settings, but they don’t consider it worth the cost when it comes to fiction.

Basically, they want to reduce fiction to entertainment. They don’t avoid disturbing material because they think it’s terribly dangerous, but because they don’t think it’s worth it.


praisegod barebones 09.03.15 at 11:51 am

‘I feel it’s also worth pointing out that Jo Walton’s recent book on just that subject was praised very recently in comments on this blog.’

I assume that you’re talking about the opening of ‘The Just City’, but I’m not quite sure why that book is relevant to this particular conversation (unless someone’s assigning it to their students, in which case, lucky students, in my view.)


bianca steele 09.03.15 at 1:36 pm


I’m still waiting for a literature or creative writing professor to comment..

Unless, sorry, it’s just that you don’t understand the relationship between “The Just City” and Ovid and you would like someone to explain it?

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