President Cheryl A. Marshall
Crafton Hills College
Office of the President
11711 Sand Canyon Road
Yucaipa, California 92399
By electronic mail: cmarshal@craftonhills.edu

Dear President Marshall,

We are aware of the complaint from one of your students, 20-year-old Tara Shultz, who sought the removal of four books[1] assigned in a course on graphic novels. While we applaud your decision to retain the books, we are troubled by reports that the college is considering Shultz’s other demand: That this course, and perhaps others, carry some kind of warning about the content she finds objectionable.

Shultz objected specifically to violent and sexual content, saying that she “expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.” She reportedly felt that her tuition money was being “wasted on something that is pornographic and contains pedophilia and contains rape jokes and murder and absolutely horrible, graphic violence.”

These are highly acclaimed works of indisputable educational value. Indeed, the college would be remiss in failing to include some or all of these works in such a course. Their selection does credit to the college and the instructor.

While we are not aware of the precise language of any proposed warning (referred to in press reports as a “disclaimer”), we are concerned about all such warnings because we believe they pose a significant threat to the methods and goals of higher education.

The American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has considered the issue of trigger warnings at some length and concluded that they are inimical to the academic setting. (The full statement, issued in August 2014, can be accessed at http://www.aaup.org/report/trigger-warnings)

BY ELECTRONIC MAIL

Trigger warnings threaten not just academic freedom, but also the quality of education students receive:

–           A great deal of valuable educational material contains content that students might find upsetting or objectionable. For example, a now-tabled proposal at Oberlin College identified “racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more” as potentially triggering content, and used Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a critically acclaimed novel about colonialism set in Nigeria read by students around the world, as an example of the kind of book that should be removed from curricula if it “does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”

–          Trigger warnings take content out of context and focus attention on certain select elements of a text. The result leads to a distorted reading of texts. For example, as the Statement notes, if “The House of Mirth or Anna Karenina carried a warning about suicide, students might overlook the other questions about wealth, love, deception, and existential anxiety that are what those books are actually about.”

–          Fear of causing offense or distress will inhibit not only the choice of material assigned by instructors – books like Things Fall Apart – but will also chill classroom discussion by students, who may “fear to raise questions that might make others ‘uncomfortable.’”

–      Suppressing, avoiding, or discouraging engagement with sensitive content is contrary to the core mission of higher education, which is supposed to challenge students’ beliefs, make them question preconceptions and received wisdom, and teach intellectual rigor. By definition it requires students to tolerate some discomfort; any effort to avoid that will inevitably come at the expense of their education.[2]

Even a “voluntary” warning issued in response to this complaint would be ill-advised. Acceding to one student’s request for warnings will invariably invite other objections to the same content in other courses, or to other kinds of content, as well as create an expectation that the college will also accede to their requests. What may appear as a “voluntary” accommodation by one instructor to address the demands of one student could quickly become the expected norm for many other courses.

Many instructors describe their classes in significant detail, so that students have a clear idea of the course of study and specific assignments. This is simply good pedagogy. Any student who has questions or concerns about course content, or who objects to or disputes the value of assigned texts, can always raise issues with the instructor. In our experience, most instructors are willing, even eager, to address concerns of individual students in order to enhance the student’s educational experience.

There is no question that students who have a diagnosed medical or psychiatric condition should be accommodated appropriately, and schools should have procedures in place for this purpose. In contrast, students who seek exemptions and exceptions to course requirements for other reasons are normally required to bring their requests directly to the professor, who has the discretion to grant or deny them. These are necessarily handled on an individual basis – a student who is chronically late turning in required work may not be granted an extension, while one who has just experienced a death in the family would. This provides a useful guideline for dealing with requests like Tara Shultz’s.

We strongly urge the college not to set a dangerous precedent by adopting a general warning or disclaimer for this or any other course, but to leave the question of students’ sensitivities and preferences to be addressed on a case by case basis in discussions between individual students and faculty. This approach would defer to the professional judgment of the faculty with regard to the selection of educational materials, recognize the collective interest of the entire community in academic freedom, and respect the agency of adult students who are, after all, getting an education to help prepare for life in a world that doesn’t come with warnings.

Sincerely,

Joan Bertin
Executive Director
National Coalition Against Censorship

Henry Reichman
First Vice-President
Chair, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure
American Association of University Professors

Charles Brownstein
Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Millie Davis
Senior Developer
Affiliate Groups and Public Outreach
National Council of Teachers of English

Chris Finan
President
American Booksellers for Free Expression

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Ph.D.
Director, Free Expression Programs
PEN American Center

Judy Platt
Director
Free Expression Advocacy
Association of American Publishers

 

[1] The books targeted are Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan.

[2] The concerns expressed in the AAUP statement have been echoed by many professors who believe that trigger warnings negatively affect academic freedom and classroom dynamics. http://chronicle.com/article/Many-Instructors-Embrace/230915/