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One thing that makes it hard to talk seriously about politics with Freddie deBoer is his dogged insistence that none of his antagonists on the left are willing to talk seriously about politics.

Actually, let me rephrase that, because I’m actually not just talking about one thing here, but two — his insistence that his interlocutors are willfully misrepresenting reality, and his insistence that they refuse to address crucial questions raised by their positions. I think of the first as an “everybody insists…” move, and the second as a “nobody will address…” maneuver. I’ve seen him go back to those two wells over and over — everybody’s making obviously false claims, and nobody will grapple with obvious dilemmas.

The last time I tried to engage with deBoer here on the blog, it didn’t go well. But yesterday he wrote a piece on trigger warnings, a subject that I think is really important, so I’m going to give it a whirl again, and this time I’m going to take his “everybody insists” and “nobody will address” claims head on.

I’m not going to insist! I am going to address! We’ll see how it goes.

Everybody Insists #1:

“I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told, with absolute confidence, that “no one is talking about actually regulating content!” Which just is not true … there have always been campus leftists who think that many types of speech that we generally acknowledge as legitimate political expression should be banned. … Stop telling me from the media bubble you live in that these attitudes don’t exist, just because they resemble a conservative stereotype.”

Yes. Those attitudes exist. There are people on the left who want to restrict certain speech. Why won’t we admit it? Well, I just did, and plenty of others have, but yeah, sure, we don’t often shout it from the rooftops.

Why not? Partly because the people who want to actually ban speech aren’t particularly powerful in, nor representative of, the broader left campus movement. Partly, in this instance, because trigger warnings are speech, not speech suppression, so the question doesn’t seem all that germane. And partly because the campus left’s critics are really really eager right now to cast any left criticism of others’ speech as opposition to free speech.

I’ve written about this before, a bunch of times. About how most of Jonathan Chait’s examples of hostility to free speech were actually examples of people engaging in political debate. About how Wendy Kaminer accuses those who call her a bigot of committing acts of censorship. More recently, in the latest high-profile attack on campus PC (an Atlantic magazine cover story) free speech activist Greg Lukianoff said that “a claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a … demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense.”

This is ridiculous. Describing someone’s words as offensive isn’t censorship, or a call for censorship. It’s criticism. And the fact that civil libertarians have become so quick to conflate the two is to my mind an incredibly ominous development.

So yes, there are people on the campus left who want to suppress others’ speech. But no, they’re not representative of the movement, and many of the media’s favorite examples of this supposed trend are fabricated or distorted beyond recognition. So sure, I’ll say what you want me to say, but not without making it absolutely clear that I’m not signing on to a larger fraudulent narrative.

Nobody Will Address #1:

“Next, the relationship between PTSD and trigger warnings. There’s absolutely no clarity on a very basic question: are trigger warnings intended to help those who suffer from PTSD? … When we talk about ‘triggers,’ are we talking about PTSD? I have read thousands and thousands of words on this subject, and I have no idea.”

I was, I believe, the first American professor to share his syllabus trigger warning publicly. I’ve written in support of classroom trigger warnings in Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and The American Historian. I’ve talked about them on NPR, and been interviewed about them a bunch of places. My own syllabus trigger warning has been adopted or adapted by professors at a long and growing list of universities. So while I can’t speak for everyone on this subject, I think it’s fair to say I’m not just some random guy.

So here’s my attempt to provide clarity:

I’m not a mental health professional. I’m not competent to diagnose or treat PTSD, and it’s not my place to do so. But as I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “it’s not just trauma survivors who may be distracted or derailed by shocking or troubling material.”

My own trigger warning has been shaped by my reading on the subject of trauma, and by my conversations with survivors of trauma, but it’s not intended as a clinical intervention and it’s not intended to be used only by PTSD sufferers.

Nobody Will Address #2:

“Nor is there any notion of how to handle cheating and abuse. … What are we supposed to do with students who frivolously claim to have suffered trauma? … What do we do to decide who can fairly claim to have suffered trauma, and access the special dispensation that might come with it?”

My syllabus trigger warning doesn’t provide students who invoke it with any special privileges, so this isn’t really an issue for me — and as I said above, my text has been pretty widely adopted, so it’s not an issue for those professors either.

Speaking more generally, there are three paths a professor can take when asked for an accommodation from a student — offer the same accommodation to everyone, require that the requesting student provide proof of need, or apply their own judgment. I can see any of those approaches working in a trigger warning context.

Everyone Insists #2:

“I have been told directly by people who are in favor of trigger warnings that to attempt to determine if someone really has PTSD, or some other, vaguer form of trauma, is to ‘revictimize’ them. So what are educators and institutions supposed to do? The closest thing I get to a response is ‘no one would  do that.’ No one would do that? Really? No college student would take advantage of a special dispensation you’ve created that inarguably gives them a certain amount of transactional power in their interactions with an instructor?”

Of course there will be students who try to game any system. But for the reasons I laid out above, that fact is irrelevant under some trigger warning schemes, and addressable under others.

Nobody Will Address #3:

“Then there’s the fact that, in the actual medical literature on PTSD, triggers are discussed not as intellectual subjects like rape or war but as sensorial impressions like a sound or a small or a play of light. Or the fact that there’s no extant medical literature that demonstrates that trigger warnings actually have provide demonstrable relief to the people who suffer PTSD. That stuff isn’t even discussed.”

Again, I’m not a clinician. But here’s an article in a psychiatric journal about Second World War veterans’ combat PTSD being triggered by fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the end of the war. There are plenty of others like it. As for the question of whether trigger warnings could provide relief for PTSD sufferers, it’s my understanding — and again, I’m not an expert — that many practitioners recommend controlled, managed exposure to potential triggers as a way of reducing their potency. Controlled exposure to potentially traumatic material is exactly what my own trigger warning is designed to facilitate.

Nobody Will Address #4:

“Finally, there’s the rhetorical condition of the discussion we have. I think this piece from Lindy West emblemizes it:

Maybe we can all get flippant and condescending about trigger warnings after we build a world where more than 3% of rapes lead to conviction, where we don’t shame and blame people for their own victimisation, where men don’t feel entitled to women’s bodies, and where millions of people aren’t moving through life yoked with massive, secret traumas.

This strikes me as a classic example of a common progressive category error: this terrible injustice exists (and it does), so therefore you have to get on board with this heavy-handed policy that cannot possibly actually reduce that injustice. I am totally unclear as to how trigger warnings actually combat any of the problems that West identifies in that paragraph.”

West’s claim isn’t that trigger warnings will combat those problems, but that hostility to trigger warnings — specifically “flippant and condescending” hostility — stems from the same societal sources that they do. As she writes: “It’s almost as though, coded as feminine and largely associated with rape victims, the antipathy toward trigger warnings is about something else entirely.”

What she’s saying is that in order to have a serious conversation of the merits and demerits of trigger warnings, we must first acknowledge that a lot of the antipathy toward them is driven by deeper-rooted misogyny. You can agree with that argument or disagree with it, but don’t claim that she doesn’t make her case.

Nobody Will Address #4:

“How exactly is anyone supposed to have a conversation after a statement like that is made? How are we supposed to sort good from better when the rhetorical cudgels of rape, victim blaming, male entitlement, and secret trauma have been deployed?”

Like this. Like we’re doing right now. You have a conversation. You talk about the issue, instead of (or in addition to) complaining about how we talk about the issue.

Nobody Will Address #5:

“I genuinely believe that there is a meaningful common ground that people can find on this issue. But I have no idea how to find it, when as soon as you raise concerns with the practice, you’re relegated to the role of victim blamer and trauma denier. There’s no way to address this issue constructively under those conditions. None.”

If you want to have a constructive conversation about trigger warnings, Freddie, here we are. If you want to dig in and talk about pedagogy and student vs faculty power and classroom management and PTSD, that’s a conversation that’s happening, and it’s one you’re invited to join. If you want to join, join. If you don’t want to join, don’t. But don’t claim that nobody else is willing, because plenty of us are.

Last year, after quite a bit of discussion with friends and colleagues online, I added a trigger warning (or, as I describe it, a content note) to my syllabus. Here’s what it said:

Course Content Note

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.

I won’t rehash all the conversations that went into that decision — if you’re interested, you can read pieces that I wrote during the process here and here and here. But to summarize quickly, I was interested in giving my students advance notice of material that they might find unsettling, as well as guidance about their rights and responsibilities in my classroom.

I introduced the note for my summer classes last year and have revised it each semester since. Here’s how it looks now, on my upcoming fall syllabi:

Course Content Note

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you suspect that specific material is likely to be emotionally challenging for you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have before the subject comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to course material with the class or with me individually afterwards, I welcome such discussions as an appropriate part of our classwork.

If you ever feel the need to step outside during a class discussion you may always do so without academic penalty. You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually to discuss the situation.

As you can see, most of the text remains from the original version. Beyond various language tweaks, the major changes are these:

First, I added a sentence inviting students to discuss potentially traumatizing material with me before it arises in class. If a student knows that they’re likely to find particular course content challenging, I’d rather have that conversation in advance than leave us both to be surprised in the classroom — far better for us to strategize together before the issue arises than to react to it on the fly.

Second, and more subtly, I re-arranged the material. Where I had originally offered students the option of stepping out of the room before stating my willingness to discuss students’ personal response to potentially traumatic material, I now foreground discussion. The new version of the note centers dialogue — before, during, or after class — as central to the academic project.

I got the content note basically where I want it pretty quickly. There was, though, one element of the project that I wrestled with for a bit longer — how to discuss it in class.

Like most professors, I’m a believer in going over the syllabus point by point at the beginning of the semester. When we arrived at the content note, though, I initially tended to get a little flustered. Everything else we cover that first day — absence policy, grading, office hours — is familiar ground for both me and the students, but this is new territory for all of us. (I’ve asked a couple of times whether students had ever had a trigger warning in class before, and none has yet said yes.)

When I introduced the content note for the first time, I felt like I was bringing the session to a screeching halt. The note is intended as a quiet heads-up for the few students who may need it, but I initially tended to over-explain, leaving the impression that the course was going to be far more fraught than it actually is.

This spring, though, I came up with a more concise and focused way of addressing it. As an illustration of what I have in mind, I tell the class that the death of children may be a topic that comes up in the course, noting that a student who has lost a child or a sibling might respond differently to such material than one who hasn’t. It’s for helping to manage those sorts of situations, I say, that the content note is intended.

This specificity, it turns out, is really helpful. In the abstract, a syllabus trigger warning strikes a lot of students — and a lot of professors, and a lot of observers of higher ed — as weird, intrusive, and unnecessary. But when I introduce it in the context of parental bereavement and the murder of Emmett Till or Charles Darwin’s eulogy for his young daughter, my students tend to listen, nod, ask a couple of small questions, and then move on with me to the next item on the list.

I’ll continue tweaking the note and how I introduce it going forward. At this point, though, I see the experiment as a success.

In the last few days sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, one of the nation’s leading advocates for free higher education, has come under sustained and increasingly preposterous attack for some of her social media posts.

The attacks have focused on two sets of tweets. In one, posted several weeks ago, Goldrick-Rab twice characterized Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who recently slashed budgets and eviscerated faculty governance and tenure the University of Wisconsin system where Goldrick-Rab works, as a fascist. Those tweets were dumb, Goldrick-Rab has apologized for them, and they aren’t likely to be of much lasting interest beyond the fainting-couch brigades of the online right-wing.

It’s the other set of tweets that brought Goldrick-Rab more broad condemnation, condemnation that reflects far more poorly on her antagonists than on her.

The second set of tweets actually predated the ones discussed above — Goldrick-Rab posted them a month and a half ago (though nobody paid them any particular attention until the outrage machine got fired up last week). Here’s what they consisted of:

Back on May 31, a graduating high school senior posted this group photo of himself and some friends celebrating their impending enrollment at the University of Wisconsin:

About a week later, Goldrick-Rab stumbled upon the tweet, and replied with this:

Some of the students responded to her tweet, she responded to some of their responses — tweeting that she thought they should know about the recent events at UW because she assumed they would want “a degree of value” and she didn’t “want students 2 waste their $.”

And that was it. The whole thing amounted to about a dozen tweets over the course of a little over an hour late one Sunday night, with pretty much nobody watching.

When the College Fix reported on the exchange a couple of days ago, though, it referred to the tweets as “shocking new allegations” of what the UW College Republicans called “harassment” that “cross[ed] all boundaries of professionalism and respect.”

That’s overheated enough, but it’s become standard rhetoric in disputes like these. What followed isn’t.

On Thursday, the University Committee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison — the Executive Committee of the university’s Faculty Senate — released a statement declaring that while they “support free speech and diversity of opinion, as has been our tradition,”

Such freedom requires responsible behavior and in this respect we are deeply dismayed with the actions Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has taken toward students and faculty on Twitter in recent weeks to discourage them from coming here. While claiming to stand for academic freedom, she has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations.

This is preposterous. Academic freedom doesn’t “require responsible behavior.” You don’t “damage” it by exercising it in ways others dislike. Academic freedom is precisely the freedom to act in ways that others find irresponsible or obnoxious — that’s what academic freedom is for. That’s what it is.

Goldrick-Rab is an active and an innovative user of social media. Twitter, specifically, is a medium she’s engaged with and curious about, regularly exploring its boundaries and potential by doing stuff like searching for tweets using the word FAFSA and then retweeting what strangers have to say about it. Her use of Twitter is part of her scholarship and part of her activism, and her freedom to use it is essential to her academic freedom. Again, that’s what academic freedom is — the freedom to innovate and explore without fear of reprisal.

At a moment when tenure has just been dramatically weakened at the University of Wisconsin, for an official faculty body to cast a professor’s public speech in her field of study as beyond the pale isn’t just intellectually shoddy, it’s dangerous.

Now, there’s a discussion to be had about whether Goldrick-Rab’s tweets represent a useful model of how to use Twitter for activist ends. My own sense is that entering into strangers’ timelines to buttonhole them about your own causes is rarely all that productive in any context, and if Goldrick-Rab had dragged the encouter out or highlighted it for her ten thousand followers I might have some qualms. But she didn’t — she just tweeted at few people who were talking about her university, talked with them a bit, then left them alone.

And the idea that those students were somehow cowed or intimidated by her tweets is contradicted eloquently by their own responses:

They had the situation entirely in hand. It should have ended there.

Zandria Robinson, an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis, has left her job in the wake of media attention to her tweets on whiteness and the Confederate flag.

Robinson’s Twitter account is now locked, but according to an article in today’s Washington Times she recently tweeted that the Confederate flag is “the ultimate symbol of white heteropatriarchal capitalism,” and that “Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.” She also retweeted a Tweet declaring that”the USA flag stands for the same thing as the confederate flag.”

About an hour ago, the University of Memphis tweeted the following:

Early this month Robinson was criticized by the conservative website Campus Reform for her comments on Facebook directed at those who believe “that students of color will simply get into graduate programs because they are racial or ethnic minorities,” as well as for tweets about whiteness and racism.

I have reached out to the university for clarification of their tweet. I will update when and if I receive a response.

Update | Worth noting that Robinson’s research field is the sociology of race, specifically blackness as it intersects with popular culture. She was employed as an assistant professor at the U of Memphis, where she received her MA, for three years.

Second Update | The original version of this post said that Professor Robinson was “apparently fired” — given the tone and timing of the university’s announcement, that seemed the most likely explanation for their tweet. Now, however, multiple people on Twitter, including a guy who seems to be her husband, are indicating that Robinson left voluntarily and has taken another job.

I put a request for comment into the university president when I first posted, and I will continue to follow up.

Third Update | If, as it increasingly appears, Zandria Robinson quit the U of Memphis for a more congenial job, then today’s tweet from her former employer — and their subsequent silence — was incredibly churlish and vindictive. The tweet was constructed to leave the impression that she was fired, and that she was fired for her social media posts. The effect of that is to hype up her attackers, poison the well at her new job, and ratchet up other scholars’ fears.

And this not merely from her employer of three years, but from her alma mater as well. Way to treat an alum, guys.

July 2 Update | The University of Memphis responded to my request for comment yesterday, confirming what Robinson had already stated through friends — that “Dr. Robinson no longer works at the University of Memphis and has accepted a position at another University.” It provided no reply to my query as to whether she had left voluntarily.

July 3 Update | Rhodes College in Memphis, a small private liberal arts college serving a primarily white student body, has announced that Robinson has taken a position at their institution. Their statement on the hiring described Robinson as “a leading scholar and author in the areas of race, class, gender, culture, and the South” whose public statements “are sometimes provocative, controversial, and debatable.” It lauded her “expertise in…gender studies and social movements,” as well as “her extensive understanding of the complex problems of race in American society, her deep roots in the Memphis area, and many years of successful teaching experience.”

The statement goes on to note that Robinson taught at Rhodes in 2008-09, when she “was well received by students,” and that “throughout her academic career, she has consistently demonstrated a commitment to mentor all students.

It concludes as follows:

“Dr. Robinson has an extensive and impressive body of scholarship that provides clarity and context to the sound bite world of social media. This situation ultimately shines a light on Rhodes as a place where intellectual engagement and the exchange of ideas are among our highest priorities.”

A few years ago, some academics did a study of racial attitudes in small children. They wanted to find out whether generic assurances that everyone’s the same on the inside — the standard white liberal catechism of racial good feeling — actually make a difference in whether kids turn into bigots.

They don’t.

Telling your kid that everyone’s the same, that nobody’s better than anyone else, that everybody’s friends with everybody, accomplishes nothing. You can say that kind of stuff all day and all night — and believe me, white liberal parents do — but if that’s all you do, when a researcher sits your kid down and asks your kid whether black people are as nice or as smart or as pretty or as good as white people, they’re going to get answers that are going to make you cringe.

Because there’s bigotry floating around in the air in our society. Not anywhere near as much as there used to be, but a lot. And your kid is going to pick that up. And if that’s all your kid picks up, it’s going to stick.

So if you’re a white parent who wants your kid to not turn into a casually creepy bigot at the age of six, you need to talk about race. You need to tell your kid about racism. You need to be the first to explain racism to your kid, before that bigotry floating around in the air has a chance to land on them.

You need to say that some horrible people think that black people aren’t as nice, as smart, as pretty, as good as white people. You need to say that those people are horrible, and that they’re wrong. You need to say that people like those people — white people like those people — used to be in charge in a lot of places, but that nice, smart, good people (some, but not all, of them pretty) fought against them in the courts and on the streets and changed the rules so that the horrible people wouldn’t always win.

You need to tell them about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, and you need to tell them about Bill Moore and Viola Liuzzo and Chaney and Schwerner and Goodman. You need to tell them about Frederick Douglass and John Brown and Sojurner Truth and Denmark Vesey.

On our way to Niagara Falls a few summers ago, I took my kids to Harriet Tubman’s house in Auburn NY to learn about the Underground Railroad, and to Frederick Douglass’s grave. Two years later I took them to John Brown’s homestead.

I don’t want my kids to be bigots.

I don’t want my kids to be bigots, and that’s not all. I want my kids to be fighting against the bigots. And I don’t just want them fighting, I want them winning. And so I started arming them for that fight before they were out of preschool. Because that’s what you need to do.

Those of you reading this who are parents, talk to your kids. Those of you who are going to be parents, start thinking now about how you’re going to talk to your kids, when they get here. Those of you who are siblings, talk to your brothers and sisters. Those of you who are children, talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Talk to your teachers. Talk to your professors.

Talk. Talk. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you believe. Tell them what you’ve learned.

Don’t let them walk around not knowing.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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