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The New Republic has a story out mocking and condemning what it describes as a trend toward the use of mandatory “trigger warnings” in college classes.

I don’t have time for a full post on this subject right now, but as I said on Twitter a few moments ago, while I’ve never given a trigger warning by that name, I do make a point of mentioning to  my students at the start of the semester the fact that my courses sometimes address horrific and difficult subjects. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I prepare my students for traumatic material in class, and about how I present that material. Classrooms can be traumatizing environments, and it’s appropriate for professors to consider how to ameliorate that possibility.

After I logged off of Twitter, I got to thinking about whether it would be appropriate for me to address the subject of potentially traumatic subjects in the syllabus, and what an attempt to do so might look like. Here’s what I came up with:

“At times during this semester we may be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing. If you ever feel the need to step outside before or 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. 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.”

That’s just a very early first draft. I don’t know for sure that I’m going to incorporate this into syllabi going forward, but it’s a whack at the problem at least.

I’m interested to know what y’all think, and to see other examples, if you know of any.

Update | Having mulled it a bit, I believe I will include language along these general lines in future syllabi. This is no longer a hypothetical, in other words—it’s something I’m going to do. Again, I’d very much welcome reactions and suggestions.

Second Update | On Twitter, @AgentStarrk asks whether students who stepped out of a class under such circumstances would be responsible for the material they missed. It’s a good question, and the answer is yes, the same as if they were absent for any other reason. The “without academic penalty” phrasing is ambiguous, though—I’ll have to tweak it a bit.

Campus activists who bantered about raping the president of the University of Ottawa student union are threatening to sue her after their comments were distributed to others in the campus community.

Early last month, Student Federation of the University of Ottawa president Anne-Marie Roy received screenshots of a chat that took place among several of her political opponents. In the chat, which took place during the most recent campus elections, five male students joke about orally and anally raping Roy in the student union offices, call her a “shit-eater,” and exchange other scatological and sexual taunts at her expense.

Roy went on to win the election.

As a blogger at The Belle Jar put it,

“This is the type of thing that’s said about women in positions of power – not a critique of their policies, but a threat of sexual violence. Not a comment on how they do their job, but graphic fantasies about how they should be sexually degraded. Nothing about their intelligence or capability, just a string of jokes about how riddled with venereal disease they are. This is misogyny, pure and simple. This is slut-shaming. This is rape culture.”

The students, two of whom sit on the Student Federation board with Roy, have not denied the veracity of the screenshots. Although the five initially sent Roy a letter of apology, three — Bart Tremblay, Alexandre Giroux and Michel Fournier-Simard — have said that they are contemplating legal action in response to the distribution of the images. A motion to condemn the students that was brought forward at last week’s meeting of the Federation board was tabled after Roy was served with what one student newspaper called “a cease and desist letter…telling her to not distribute the content of the emails.”

The screenshots were made public after the meeting, and a Facebook page demanding the five students’ resignation from their campus positions currently has nearly two hundred members.

Update | I wrote last year about the need for student organizations  to develop robust policies on sexual harassment. While it’s not clear that this incident, which involved a private conversation, would be covered under such a policy, the importance of creating them is always worth reiterating.

March 2 Update | The four men who were elected representatives in the student federation or its clubs have resigned their positions. In a statement released today Anne-Marie Roy said that as far as she is aware, the three who had threatened to sue are still contemplating legal action. You can read Roy’s lengthy and compelling statement here.

March 4 Update | The students have apparently dropped their threat of legal action against Roy. Meanwhile, the university’s entire hockey team has been suspended in the wake of reports that team members participated in a group sexual assault of a woman last month.

Some of you may have witnessed the ugliness that ensued yesterday after labor reporter Mike Elk posted — and then deleted — a pro- “due process” tweet that juxtaposed Woody Allen and Emmett Till.

I’m not interested in constructing a blow-by-blow account of what happened next — it’s pretty much all still there on Twitter, if you care to look. But this morning Elk sent me and a few other people a long letter about what happened, and asked me to reply. Part of my response was private, but I don’t think there’s any reason to treat the rest of it as a privileged communication.

I’m posting the excerpt that follows not to embarrass Elk further (I hope it won’t, and I don’t think it will), but because these kinds of social media blowups follow a pretty predictable pattern, and I think it’s in everyone’s interest to nip them in the bud while there’s still time. So read it if you like, and if any of it seems like it might be of use in the future, bookmark it somewhere you’ll be able to find it.

Mike,

You keep returning to the fact that you apologized for your initial comments about Till, but you haven’t acknowledged the fact that many people felt — as I did, and do — that those apologies misrepresented the criticism you received. You don’t have to agree with your critics, but if your apology is based on an understanding of your behavior that they disagree with, and that they’ve told you they disagree with, it’s not unfair or churlish or dishonest for them to discount that apology. It’s merely a reflection of the fact that the gulf between you has not yet been mended.

You’re angry and frustrated that the arguments you were trying to make about child abuse and the benefit of the doubt have gotten lost in the firestorm. But they got lost because of what you said — not just your initial deleted tweet, but the dozens (hundreds?) you posted subsequently. After the initial tweet people were tweeting at you for most of an hour trying to get you to acknowledge it and apologize for it. Initially you ignored them. Then you acknowledged the error but ignored the calls for an apology. Then you argued about what you’d said and what it meant. Then you apologized, and then you started lashing out at the people who didn’t accept your apology.

You should have walked away. You should have let yourself calm down. You should have taken some time to think and reflect and talk privately to people you respected. People urged you to do all that, but you didn’t. And so things got worse. And that’s on you.

This didn’t need to turn into a huge crisis, and many of the people you’re blaming now tried to head the crisis off. You’ve never acknowledged that.

To suggest that people who are angry at you are posturing for followers and preening for the public? That’s ugly, and it’s not cool. You created this mess. Don’t blame other people if they’re splashing in the mud.

You say you tried really hard to achieve racial reconciliation. If there was a moment when you asked any of your critics what they thought you should do and then engaged generously with their response, I didn’t see it. Reconciliation comes when people are reconciled to each other. It’s the result of dialogue, not mea culpas.

And frankly, as a fellow white guy, I think it’s pretty gross that you’re suggesting that you’re being picked on because you’re a white guy. 

People don’t know your past, and they’re not under any obligation to know your past. What they saw yesterday was what you did yesterday. What they saw today was what you did today. And overwhelmingly, almost universally, they thought you screwed up. THAT’S why you’re getting hassled. Not because you’re a white guy. Not because you struck a spark. But because you’ve spent the last 24 hours spraying gasoline all over the place.

I don’t think you’re a racist. I’m not even sure I think you said anything that was racist — and those are, of course, two very different things. But remember that link I sent you yesterday? I don’t know if you read it, but in it I said that there are some things about which no decent American has the right to remain ignorant.

Your tweet about Allen and Till was ignorant.

It was ignorant because you confused Till with other cases. It was ignorant because you thought he’d been accused of rape. It was ignorant because you conflated the legal concept of due process with the interpersonal concept of the benefit of the doubt. But it was ignorant for other reasons too.

It was ignorant because it was grossly disproportionate. It was ignorant because it was appropriative. It was ignorant because it was clumsy. It was ignorant because anyone who knows anything about anything should have predicted it would have been greeted with justified outrage.

And because of all that, because people TOLD you all that and because you didn’t listen when they spoke, your apologies didn’t ameliorate the original insult, they compounded it. 

And you still haven’t addressed that. Not really.

I have a new piece up this morning at RH Reality Check, my first for that site. It’s a response to Amanda Marcotte’s essay earlier this week in which she endorsed jailing recalcitrant DV victims to coerce their testimony—here’s a snippet:

“In her article, Marcotte frames the prosecution of domestic violence as a zero-sum game, in which solicitude for the rights and concerns of the victim must be weighed against the state’s interest in punishing perpetrators. In reality, the opposite is true: The project of holding rapists and abusers accountable for their crimes is advanced, not impeded, by respect for victims.”

Go read the whole thing, if you like.

I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition earlier, and they were talking about Michael Sam. Sam, if you haven’t heard, is a defensive end for the University of Missouri’s football team, and yesterday he came out publicly as gay. He’s widely expected to be drafted by the National Football League this spring, and likely to become the first openly gay male player in any of the country’s big three professional sports leagues as a result.

In discussing Sam’s prospects, John Branch of the New York Times told co-host Renee Montagne that his announcement, coming as it did before Sam has secured an NFL contract, was made “potentially at the risk of his professional career.”

“You kind of wonder today,” Montagne replied, “with anti-discrimination laws and whatnot, if he would be hurt.”

There are a couple of problems with what Montagne said. First, of course, there’s the fact that proving discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in this context would be incredibly difficult. If no team chooses to offer him a slot, who does he sue? All of them? And with what evidence?

But even if we set that aside, there’s a bigger problem: The United States has no federal law protecting gay people from discrimination in employment, and more than half of the NFL’s teams — eighteen out of thirty-two — play in places where there are no state laws banning such discrimination either.

Only twenty-one American states ban anti-gay workplace discrimination, and only ten of those — California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and Wisconsin — have professional football teams. If Sam plays anywhere else, he won’t be protected under state law from discrimination on the basis of his sexual orientation.

Sam came out to his teammates and coaches last year. When he did, he was protected against retaliatory discrimination by the University of Missouri’s non-discrimination policy. But while Missouri has two NFL teams, and  a state law banning anti-gay discrimination in state employment, it has no private-sector anti-discrimination law. It’s completely legal for the Chiefs or the Rams to fire a player for coming out.

Or say Sam wanted to play in Texas, where he was born and grew up. The Houston Texans play just an hour’s drive from his hometown of Galveston, and the Dallas Cowboys aren’t too much farther. But anti-gay discrimination is completely legal according to Texas state law.

Now, some municipalities and counties do have laws barring such discrimination, and the NFL has corporate policies restricting it as well. But if Sam winds up getting drafted by any NFL team other than the 49ers, Bears, Bills, Broncos, Chargers, Giants, Jets, Packers, Patriots, Raiders, Ravens, Seahawks, Vikings, or that Washington team with the racist name, he’d be well advised to do some digging into local ordinances.

And in fact, Sam’s lack of legal protection may have played a part in his decision to come out when he did. By making the announcement before the draft, Sam has has made sure that he won’t be drafted by a team that’s not okay with an out gay man. In so doing, he may have traded a higher slot in the draft — and a considerable amount of money — for the job security and peace of mind that our nation’s laws don’t currently offer him.

As for the rest of us, we should get to work on banning anti-discrimination nationally, and we should stop acting like such laws already exist.

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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