Trigger warnings, advisories professors give to students to apprise them of potentially disturbing material, have become the subject of much mockery. Critics say college students should confront tough content head-on, not be permitted to avoid it. But Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, believes trigger warnings are really about making sure students are prepared to have difficult discussions -- and she doesn't see students skipping class because of them. She talks with Brooke about why they're a useful pedagogical tool.
Okeke argues that trigger warnings can help students find their voice in a classroom. That’s why Cornell Philosophy Prof Kate Manne uses them.
KATE MANNE: A trigger warning is, for me, as simple as a one- sentence heads-up in an email to students, saying, this week's reading contains maybe a graphic description of a sexual assault or a description of active military combat, something along those lines. And I should add, I teach Feminist Philosophy, so a lot of the material that I cover is on misogyny and topics like mass rapes during genocide. So a lot of people who teach wouldn't have any reason to use them, allowing students to have the relevant sensitivities to prepare themselves for those sorts of discussion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You expect in a class of 200 there might be some traumatized people in there. Maybe they shouldn't be taking that class.
KATE MANNE: The current evidence suggests that perhaps as many as one in five students will be sexually assaulted while on campus, so we would be potentially ruling out a lot of people from discussions of sexual assault who might have the most reason to engage in them, if they didn't feel comfortable coming into class ready to confront these harrowing topics. People have real bodies, real memories, real histories. People don’t come into the university necessarily shiny and new. Not everyone is able to dive into every topic with complete equanimity, but that doesn't mean we can't talk about it. We have to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you haven't noticed people skipping out from your classes with a note from their doctor?
KATE MANNE: No, that just hasn't come up. The key really is to think about trigger warnings as preparation for people to engage rationally, calmly and fully with the material. They’re not designed to foster avoidance. The people who I happen to know in my classes have had the relevant traumatic experiences, sometimes recently, will often thank me, not just for providing trigger warnings but for bringing up subjects that they want discussed because they've been there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm. Obviously, you've heard the opponents of trigger warnings suggest that this is just more coddling for a generation that's already been coddled practically into paralysis.
KATE MANNE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I just wonder whether, by saying, take care over this section you're going to do, you’re putting redlines and exclamation points and you just give a reason for students to be censorious.
KATE MANNE: Mm, I mean, the reason I give trigger warnings is I'm teaching material that traditionally people have been protected from in the academy. There is very little discussion, say, of misogyny and sexual assault in Philosophy until feminist philosophers began to introduce those topics. So it's not obvious to me that this is really about coddling, so much as that’s an expression of resentment to extending basic consideration and kindness to people when, in fact, new and more challenging topics are under discussion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The weird thing is that the banner of academic freedom has been picked up by both sides of this discussion.
KATE MANNE: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What I see is the creation of an environment where it is the professors that are being curtailed in their speech.
KATE MANNE: Yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people who historically have been very privileged are feeling unfree because members of historically subordinated groups are freer to morally criticize their statements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Professors want to be safe too.
KATE MANNE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I think there is a fair amount of wanting to be coddled from moral criticisms that hurt. But that’s what we have to learn to do. We have to learn to sometimes think, you know what, I put that badly, I feel ashamed. Now I have to pick my head up, apologize and keep teaching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you see a scenario in which trigger warnings could narrow academic freedom?
KATE MANNE: Yeah. I mean, I think we have to be very careful about the possibility of trigger warnings becoming mandatory and it being top-down on the part of the administration. That would clearly infringe on academic freedom, and I would be the first to be up in arms about it. What I am in favor of is student-led, bottom-up requests for trigger warnings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You want the kids to run the university?
KATE MANNE: [LAUGHS] I want my students personally to be comfortable challenging me, and I think that's hard. I know how hard it is to challenge authority figures of any kind, and I do want students to be able, in a respectful, civil way, to say, actually, that was a really problematic way to approach this material, because that's what it means to have an egalitarian approach to education.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is that automatically a good thing?
KATE MANNE: There are certainly differences in expertise. I'm not saying that I don't have intellectual authority in lots of ways in the classroom, because that's why I’m there. But there’s a difference between intellectual authority and moral authority. And, in some ways, students of mine who are not white, say, will have moral and political authority with respect to issues of race, and I should be listening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kate, thank you very much.
KATE MANNE: Thank you so much for having me on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kate Manne teaches Philosophy at Cornell.