A point I’ve often made in response to sky-is-falling critics of classroom trigger warnings is that there’s no substantial movement afoot to make them mandatory. Where trigger warnings have been adopted, it’s been voluntarily by professors.
Indeed, even activists who’ve pushed for their use haven’t typically attempted to have them made a requirement. Last year’s notorious Columbia University op-ed on the subject merely “proposed that [the university’s Center for the Core Curriculum] issue a letter to faculty about potential trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students,” while 2014’s Oberlin College document on the subject—since withdrawn—was explicitly framed as advisory rather than directive. (A student government resolution passed at UC Santa Barbara in February 2014 did call for mandatory trigger warnings, but it had no formal authority and was essentially ignored by the university.)
Today, however, FIRE reports that “there are several colleges and universities that, as part of their sexual misconduct policies and procedures, require professors to use trigger warnings in the classroom,” citing a passage from Drexel University’s sexual misconduct policy—replicated in the policies of at least four other colleges—that reads as follows:
“[i]t is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning and accommodation regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used.”
This is closer to a mandate than anything I’ve seen or heard of before, and as policy it definitely takes the trigger warning debate in a new direction, but it’s not quite as clear as FIRE suggests that it amounts to a mandate.
For starters, the FIRE extract leaves out important context for the quote. Here’s the full text of the relevant passage:
Examples of behavior that might be considered sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct include, but are not limited to:
[. . .]
Non-academic display or circulation of written materials or pictures degrading to an individual(s) or gender group (It is expected that instructors will offer appropriate warning and accommodation regarding the introduction of explicit and triggering materials used.).
Note that the list that this entry appears on is a list of actions that “might be considered” misconduct rather than a list of prohibited acts. Note also that the non-use of trigger warnings does not appear as a main entry on the list but as a parenthetical.
In context, then, the statement about trigger warnings is an aside about “expected” behavior rather than a formal directive. And while one could certainly read “expect” as a veiled mandate, other instances of the word in the same document clearly refer to behavior that is hoped-for but not compelled. Consider the following examples:
“Not every individual will be prepared to make a report to the University or to law enforcement, and individuals are not expected or required to pursue a specific course of action.”
“The University expects all community members to take reasonable and prudent actions to prevent or stop an act of sexual harassment or misconduct. Taking action may include direct intervention, calling law enforcement, or seeking assistance from a person in authority. Community members who choose to exercise this positive moral obligation will be supported by the University and protected from retaliation.”
In the first of these quotes the word “expected” is explicitly distinguished from “required,” and in the second an expectation is characterized as reflecting a moral obligation rather than an institutional requirement.
Is it possible that a professor at Drexel (or one of these other colleges) could be disciplined for, say, screening hardcore porn in a classroom setting without warning? Definitely. But that would be possible even in the absence of this policy. Given that, it’s not immediately obvious to me how much of a change this represents.
As I said above, these policies certainly strike me as a significant development in the national debate over trigger warnings. To my knowledge, they’re the only formal, college-wide policies in the country to even recommend the use of trigger warnings in the classroom. And the fact that they’ve flown under the radar until now suggests that there may well be more—and perhaps more explicit—policies in place that haven’t yet attracted notice. I’ll be following up on this, both in respect to the five campuses that have adopted this policy and more generally.
In the absence of more information about how this language is being interpreted and implemented, to describe them as explicit mandates strikes me as unwarranted. If I were an anti-trigger-warning professor on one of these campuses, though? I’d certainly be asking my administration some pointed questions.