COLLEGE
09/09/2014 07:53 pm ET

AAUP Condemns Trigger Warnings As A 'Threat To Academic Freedom'

The American Association of University Professors, one of the nation's leading college faculty groups, announced this week it formally opposes the use of "trigger warnings" in classrooms and on class syllabi.

In a lengthy statement outlining the AAUP's position, the group called trigger warnings -- whether mandatory or voluntary -- a "threat to academic freedom." The use of them by faculty in a classroom setting could skew the choice of course materials and teaching methods, AAUP said, and would prove "counterproductive to the educational experience."

Trigger warnings have existed for decades in some form, but grew in popularity online from the days of LiveJournal a decade ago to today's Tumblr and Twitter age of the Internet. As the Associated Press noted in April, the trigger warnings have now made their way into classrooms at some of the most prestigious colleges in the country, sparking a debate about what limit, if any, should be placed on their use.

AAUP took a swipe at Oberlin College in Ohio for issuing a guidance of topics like "heterosexism, cissexism, [and] ableism," that professors may want to use caution when discussing for fear of "triggering" students. AAUP stated:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and—as the Oberlin list demonstrates—it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students. Although all faculty are affected by potential charges of this kind, non-tenured and contingent faculty are particularly at risk. In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, “chilly climate” for critical thinking in the classroom.

AAUP went on to discuss the cons of trigger warnings, noting one about suicide ahead of literature like "The House of Mirth" or "Anna Karenina" could prevent students from overlooking "the other questions about wealth, love, deception, and existential anxiety that are what those books are actually about."

The AAUP, mind you, is not oblivious to the intense focus on campus sexual violence taking place over the past couple of years, and the unprecedented federal crackdown on colleges mishandling cases.

The group writes trigger warnings are not going to fix things around that issue:

It is probably not coincidental that the call for trigger warnings comes at a time of increased attention to campus violence, especially to sexual assault that is often associated with the widespread abuse of alcohol. Trigger warnings are a way of displacing the problem, however, locating its solution in the classroom rather than in administrative attention to social behaviors that permit sexual violence to take place. Trigger warnings will not solve this problem, but only misdirect attention from it and, in the process, threaten the academic freedom of teachers and students whose classrooms should be open to difficult discussions, whatever form they take.

CONVERSATIONS