Content Alerts and Trigger Warnings in Soc of Sex

Content alert: Brief listing of the course content of my sociology of sex course, which includes readings on sexual violence
At the start of this semester, debates about trigger warnings spread over social media, inflamed by a letter that the University of Chicago sent to incoming students declaring that

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Now, there is a lot to unpack even in this brief excerpt from the letter, but that became very hard to do because, as one of my colleagues said in frustration, “Posting about trigger warnings is like putting a big sign on your facebook page that says ‘POST STUPID, UNIFORMED NONSENSE ON MY THREAD PLEASE.'” Most of that nonsense relied on stereotypes of students as “special snowflakes” who melt at the first sign of stress. The tone of those opposing–and, really, mocking–trigger warnings was of old people scoffing at young ones and remembering how, in their day, they not only walked a mile to campus through two feet of snow, but they did it without worrying that if they victim-blamed rape victims or used a racial or homophobic slur, they wouldn’t get called out for it. It’s just like Clint Eastwood said, they gripe, “We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff.” Back in their day, these things weren’t called racist or homophobic or sexist. You could say things like “pussy generation” and not worry about it because, of course, women weren’t in the college classroom.
safe-space-john-wayne-750

 Above, a meme from Right Wing News. The image is of John Wayne wearing a cowboy hate. The words say “Oh, you are looking for a ‘Safe Space?’ Learn how to handle a gun and you can make any space safe.” Memes such as this, which invoke anti-Millennial tropes, are common on rightwing and conservative websites. 

But I want to focus narrowly on trigger warnings–or, rather, content alerts–and the success I have had after teaching several hundred students over many sections of sociology of sexuality over the last four years.
As you can imagine, soc of sex is a really popular course. Arkansas, where I teach, does not have mandatory sex ed in high schools, and some of my students have learned all they know about sex from porn and Siri. Not surprisingly, Arkansas has such a high rate of teen pregnancy, including among college-going women, that the state has given us a mandate (unfunded) to address the issue of unplanned pregnancy on campus. So the class has practical importance in the lives of students; each semester, several share that they wish it was a required course–or at least that we ran more sections of it so that the dozens of students I turn away each semester could take it too.
It’s also a tough class to teach. Like race and class, sex and sexuality affect all of us, even those of us who identify as asexual. Sex has to do with our bodies, our wills, our desires, our place in our social world. It has to do with violence and crime and pain, with our laws, with our national identities, with our families of origins and the families that we make, if we choose to do so. And we have such vastly different experiences, values, and ideals that it can be difficult to talk across lines of difference. Arkansas State, in particular, is a diverse place, with about 25% of the population comprised of students of color  and a significant nontraditional population and a number of students who are active duty or veterans. Nearly half are Pell grant eligible, a marker of low income. No wonder than 54% of college students say that they are concerned about saying something offensive.
I think that concern is good. I want my students to take responsibility for their words. I want them to think before they speak. I want them to consider their audience. I want them to be rhetorically aware as well as compassionate to those with whom they are speaking. I want them to try on the perspective of others, as much as they can. I want them to talk more hesitantly about what they are sure of and ask sincere questions and listen more deeply to others. In the end, they don’t have to agree with or even respect the opinion of others. Not all opinions are respectable. But they do have to try to understand. In anthropological terms, they are striving for the emic perspective, understanding someone’s position according to its internal elements. Whatever their politics or post-college goals are, they benefit from the analytic ability to think from another’s point-of-view.
I also want them to give others space to think, explore, and change their minds. This means we have to forbear with each other, to help learners revise stupid questions into smart ones, to teach them better words and smarter ways of thinking.We also need to be patient as they grow in their thinking–sometimes making U-turns but sometimes just slight corrections. We have to trust that, over the long haul, they’ll get there. This class may be the first step in a long journey.

Content alerts, like trigger warnings, are one way to help students in that journey.

A content alert simply notifies students about what we will be doing in class. A content alert works well in any class because it is not focused on victimization but on making the syllabus transparent; it works to support learning for everyone, whether they have experienced trauma or not. The more transparent a syllabus is–that is, the more clearly students can see what they are going to be learning and how they will be engaging and the more careful a professor is about making those goals clear within the setting of the course, connecting them to what we’ve already done and showing how what we are doing will connect to what we will do–the better students learn. They can see how it all “fits together.” This helps both disorganized and hyper-vigilant students. It’s a good practice whether you are teaching calc or geography or soc of sex.

It works like this: I put every thing on the syllabus, all up front. All assignment are available on the first day of class for students to preview online. In sociology of sex, this means I provide a link to each film we will watch and book we will read so students can check them out–even watch trailers or read reviews. When course content contains material that I expect might be upsetting, I make that clear to them upfront. And I stress that I EXPECT them to be upset. We are reading about topics that SHOULD upset decent people. Being upset is actually one of the signs that you care. As one student wrote in an anonymous course evaluation:

I hated this at the beginning of the class but it turns out that I like that the assignment choices are controversial and often horrifying. The readings and assignments were hard to complete without being emotional in some way but I get now, that that’s the point. I feel like Dr. Barrett-Fox put a lot of thought into the course outline and materials and sneakily caused even an introvert like me want to speak out against abuse of any kind and help when and where I can. I also like that the course was offered online. I don’t think I could have sat thru a class on some of these topics without being very emotional.

As this student indicated, in sociology of sex, students have a lot of choices. This spring, they will choose seven books to read and 14 films to watch from a much longer list (nearly 30 books and films). Each book and film on our list of choices has been vetted by me, and I can provide guidance in helping students select what they will read and watch. A pre-nursing student may want to focus on sex and the body and so chooses books on the sociology of the pill, on forensic nursing care for rape victims, on sexual assault on college campus, on reproductive technologies, on gender reassignment surgeries, on female genital mutilation, and on abortion. A pre-law student may want to focus on sex and the law and so picks books on the history of the legal battle over contraception, anti-abortion picketing, the global sex trafficking market, pornography, gay rights, and religious protest of gay rights. Future teachers may focus their readings on child sexual abuse, adolescent sexual development, homophobia in high schools, and teen pregnancy. By the end, everyone will have read something that addresses each of the major themes of the course (bodies/health/medicine, race/ethnicity/nation, violence/crime/deviance, religion, gender, queerness, & reproduction/children/youth) while selecting books and films that make sense with their own learning goals. Students take the lead. As one student shared in an anonymous course evaluation this semester:

The professor, Dr. Barrett-Fox, really engages with us and makes the learning material relevant to our lives today. The way she taught made me WANT to do the work and actually pay attention to it. She also gave us options on what assignments we could do and which ones we could skip, which made me feel like I got to contribute to my education somehow.

This also means that they  choose what not to engage. If, for whatever reason, someone can’t read about campus sexual assault, they don’t have to. Can’t handle a film on abortion? You can skip it–without telling me why. Requiring a student tell me that reading about campus sexual assault is impossible right now because she’s recently been assaulted puts me into a position of judging whether her reason is “good enough” to deserve special treatment. (What would that be? An exemption from the assignment? An alternative assignment?) Students who have some of the most important perspectives on difficult topics are able to participate fully in the class this way. One student wrote in a course evaluation:

I like that I was able to tailor the course around sensitive topics that could have been triggering for me while still engaging me in the course materials.

If, instead of a transparent, choice-filled syllabus, I required students who needed extra support as they approached personally traumatic material to justify their need for extra help, I would–as a mandatory reporter–then have to share that information with the Title IX coordinator on campus, which the student might not want to do.

Course design shouldn’t put students into a position of having to share their deepest trauma, at the risk of having it shared more broadly.

A flexible but transparent syllabus, with clear goals, avoids all of that while allowing students to take responsibility for their own learning. That’s exactly what content alerts (and trigger warnings) do: they allow students time to prepare to do their best work and make their best contribution to the class.

And they work really well. Dozens of students have expressed appreciation for the set up of this course because it respects them. They have embraced long, difficult books that I was sure that few of them would voluntarily read. (A solid 20% of this semester’s class said that The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution was their favorite read this semester. Jonathan Eig’s book is almost 400 pages long.) They have made connections between readings and films that I could not have anticipated. And no two students followed the exact same path, so I was able to discover interesting combinations of texts and films based on their choices.

soc-of-sex-booksThe choices my students will face in soc of sex this spring. For a complete list, email me at rbarrettfox@astate.edu to ask for the syllabus. 

But, best of all, because our class stresses curiosity, compassionate listening, and trying on other’s perspectives, students engage deeply with each other. This semester, more than 20% of the class identified our class discussion board conversations as the course’s biggest strength. These are the most difficult part of the course for me because they are the area where I have least control. They are also the area where students can best show me that they are learning, as they take the initiative to ask each other great questions, share vulnerably and respectfully, and make connections across course content. In short, discussion boards don’t work unless you have students who are really excellent. I am fortunate that I did this semester. (It’s not always guaranteed!) But I also know that setting high, clear expectations–which are communicated via a transparent syllabus–helps students excel.

I’m obnoxiously proud of my students this semester. They did a fantastic job of making this class work for them. Nearly a dozen have written me emails detailing the ways that the class has helped them personally–including helping them better understand their own victimization, helping them improve their relationships with family members, helping them open their hearts to  oppressed people, and helping them take action to make a more just world. I look forward to hearing more from them as they go out into the world–as social workers, criminal investigators, therapists, pastors, journalists, and as parents, friends, family members, and neighbors.

PS: Check out Cody Moore, one of my students, a journalism major,  reporting on a campus effort to combat rape culture.

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A closing thought on trigger warnings: As professors, we may not know what will trigger trauma in a student, and, truly, it is none of our business. Graphic course content about racism or sexism or violence are obvious sources of pain for students, but so are all kinds of things we can’t anticipate (and they may not be able to anticipate, either): a shirt of a particular color, a name, a smell. In fact, those odd triggers are one way we cope with trauma. We may not remember the traumatic event itself at all. We leave the scene of our assault even as it happens and instead hear only the basketball game on in the dorm room next door or the music floating down from the choir’s practice room; we focus not on the man beating us but on the logo on his t-shirt or his facial hair. So we must never belittle the student who can’t stand the sound of a basketball game or a Christmas carol or the sight of the Ralph Lauren polo pony or a goatee.

Because we can’t know, we also can’t remove every trigger from our classroom. But when we build a syllabus that respects student, we also build a relationship with students that allows them to share their needs with us, whether that is asking for trigger warnings specific to their needs (something very, very rarely done) or asking for the time and space to manage their trauma. And if someone needs a trigger warning–a heads up that we’re going to be listening to Christmas carols in class–they are better able to ask if they know that I care about them. And then they are better able to learn.

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If you would like to see my sociology of sex syllabus, please email me at rbarrettfox@astate.edu.

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Below are some selected comments that students shared in response to this semester’s sociology of sex class, either via email or in anonymous course evaluations.

 The thing I think should be taught every semester is the Jeanette Cleary Act data information.  I never knew this existed before taking this class and there are probably others who are unfamiliar with how to find this data.

One of my favorite books is The Birth of the Pill. I randomly selected my 8 books, this being one, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the hard work that has been put into making the birth control pill. This alone was useful to me because it made me realize and to learn to not take birth control for granted. I always forgot to take my pill, but after reading this book, surprisingly and weirdly, I managed to become better at taking them. 

 When I found out I would have to read eight books for this course, I’m not going to lie, I was very scared and even considered dropping the course, but I’m glad I didn’t. I have learned so much this semester. I often catch myself talking about something we read or watched in conversation with my friends; this is so surprising to me because I normally only talk about classes related to major…

This course has empowered me as an individual, as a woman, and I am so thankful that I was able to take it.

I grew up in a small town, with a population of around 1,300. If [a family member who came out as bisexual during our course] would have told me about her sexuality before I began college, I do not think that I would have given her as much support as I do now…. I am thankful for this course, because it has expanded my knowledge and helped me better understand and support [family member] and other LGBT people close to me.

I… feel more prepared to support my future children in being whoever they want to be.

I think you should have the book We Believe You taught again in future semesters. Rape is definitely a relevant campus issue. It seems to plague all college campuses, but so many people are quick to dismiss it or blame the victim. Just this semester, Arkansas State has seen three alleged rapes and it has caused so many accusations and rumors to fly.

 I took this class out of necessity and because it honestly looked extremely interesting. I was very eager to take it so I could learn more about the subject as a whole. I love how not only did I learn a lot, I got to see my peers learn along with me. Not only that, but I got to watch people’s opinions change, along with my own, about certain subjects throughout the semester. It helped a lot of people, including myself, delve deeper into this subject and understand so much better. For example, I did not realize how much slang I use that I shouldn’t…. I don’t realize just how hurtful my words can be on complete accident. I caught myself choosing a different word in place of them, and taking them out of my vocabulary completely. Sometimes you get caught up in the slang you and your friends use, and you forget that they are actually pretty hurtful to a lot of people even when you do not mean for them to be. 

Something that I respect that you have done with this course is providing us with options on what we read. I am not going to lie, I picked subjects that I was uncomfortable with in a way that I wanted to be more informed about because I was not proud of their existence – sex trafficking was the major one. There were times that I would be reading the content and I would get so mad – almost nauseous. I thank you for that. I thank you for the fact that you push your students into being aware of what is going on in the world around them all while respecting the world they have come from.

[This class] has increased my desire to read into the current events and the amount of literature that is out there. Also, even if the information that I have learned in this course doesn’t directly help me in my future career I know that it will be useful to me as a human being. I want to be a person that can be open and respectful to peoples backgrounds and beliefs. The information that I have learned through this course will help me be that person.

I will use this class as a reminder that I should remember to listen to the other side even if I do not agree.

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