Life as an Extreme Sport

Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings – A Joke or A Necessity, or Something Between Extremes?

There’s been a lot of talk lately about trigger warnings for college courses and safe spaces on campus, to the point that The Onion is mocking the idea of someone made uncomfortable by confronting beliefs that are not her own. One of the frequently held up examples is a op-ed that wants to merely facilitate discussion with professors on how to best support students who are triggered by potentially triggering materials—and already I’m sure people are rolling their eyes at the use/over-use of triggered (a compulsion I have, too).
But then I remember Jessica.

Jessica was bubbly and sarcastic and bitchy and going through a bad divorce that made my divorce look like a Disney movie, but it was at the same time and like many things, the broad details of divorcing students trying to navigate the University of Washington was much more important than the finer details of her misery and my relative ease. She was a PhD student at UW; I was an undergrad. We got together for lunch all the time, or dinner, or to just watch the water at Drumheller Fountain. She teased me through my first post-divorce crush, made sure I went out, I took time for myself, I ate. She taught me self-care…

She overdosed in her bathtub and wasn’t found for several days.

The world I had so carefully constructed for myself, one of being a returning (older) student, of being post-divorce, of everything those first eight months of time at UW, crashed around me and shattered. There was the investigation, the funeral, the cleaning of her apartment of everything after her body had been removed.

And the last thing I was capable of, in those few weeks, was academic material on death and transformation.

Oh, I tried. It was a summer course, and I was on an accelerated schedule, and I had to do this. HAD. TO. And it wasn’t even the sort of thing that should have had a warning at all, it was so mild and so I was just going to do it and then didn’t. Then I was sitting on a stone bench in the quad trying to remember how I got outside with all my things because the last thing I remembered was sitting in the classroom.

Clearly it was a fluke. Just tired. Tomorrow would be better.

Except when tomorrow came, I found myself on that same stone bench before class even started, my feet and butt rooted in spot like I’d turned into a tree. There was just no making my body go inside. And my professor, who I’ll leave unnamed for his privacy, bless him. He saw me, and he got the class situated, and then he came to sit outside with me. We sat there and idly chatted about the cherry trees and the blue sky with fluffy clouds and the different shades of green all around us, the recapping of the dome of the building we were in and the irritation of the construction and the lack of air conditioning that summer, all as tears streamed down my face.

After a bit the tears stopped, he got up, patted my shoulder, and told me to come back to class starting the next week, because we’d be on a new chapter then, and I could finish the material I was going to miss later, when I felt capable.

It was a small gesture of kindness—not the first, not the last—from a professor at a major research university. I’m sure some people would think he was coddling me, or that the professor who nicely gave me another assignment so I wouldn’t have to read a book on divorce the week after my divorce papers had been filed was just letting me off easy.

I see it a little differently, though. I see professors who were willing to flex with the need of their students, and who recognized that the education in total was more important than a single individual component of a syllabus or class. I also see an older student (me) who, if hiccup-y and tear-stained, was capable of advocating for herself—sometimes, a “no fucks to give” attitude is useful.

But we’re doing students everywhere a disservice if we think they’re all going to be able to self-advocate over tough subjects. (And trust me, you professors really don’t want every student to be like me. I’m a nightmare as a student and I know it.) Beyond that, they’re college kids, you’re college profs. You have the experience to help people learn how to navigate through rough waters and tough subjects; giving students a heads up that those tough subjects will exist in the course isn’t pandering or softening, it’s creating the sort of space that tells students that you, professor, are aware—and approachable.

This was a lesson I remembered when I started teaching. While I didn’t place a trigger warning on my first syllabus, I did make sure to talk to my students and tell them that some of the things we were going to talk about would be rough. We were talking about torture, death, abortion, personhood, more death—all the fun topics in applied ethics. I had office hours and I had students in those office hours wrestling with the material and their lived experience. Giving them notice? That’s not coddling, that’s being nice.

The Columbia students aren’t asking professors to stop teaching material that will trigger students, or force people to confront awful memories, or however you want to phrase it. They’re just asking their professors have a bit of compassion about the diversity of lives that end up in a classroom, and not force everyone into the same mold, the same model, of approach to material and education. To understand that maybe a raped woman won’t find beauty in text describing rape. That someone who is dealing with divorce paperwork in the evening may not find a book where the main character is getting divorced funny. That someone who was knocking on the door of a dead woman may need to step away from material on death as transformation.

Somewhere along the line, people have swung away from compassion and towards mocking—if you request empathy, you must be weak. If you demand empathy? Hoo-boy! But I just have to wonder at the people who think an appropriate response to “hey, maybe you could be empathetic” is “suck it up, princess.” We’re trying to move away from that negative (and gendered!) response in the sciences-possibly it’s time for the humanities to make that move, too.