09/07/2015 10:57 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2016

Warning: My Class Is One Big Trigger

We've been hearing a lot these days about trigger warnings as a phenomenon in American higher education, that teachers are being expected to warn their students if assigned material might upset them. Respected social scientists have argued that trigger warnings pose a serious problem with modern academic culture by impeding students' growth and exaggerating their sensitivities. There have been several high-profile incidents involving the withdrawal of speaking invitations and some professors have complained that they feel constrained in what they can teach.

I must have missed that memo. Anyway, it doesn't describe the university I know. I've seen no evidence that education has been stifled. And if instructors are giving more such warnings, so what? If this practice had the dire consequences that critics of American higher education sometimes claim the typical course catalog would be a lot smaller than it is.

Here, for example, are some of the topics and cases I will cover in my bioethics class this fall: Male impotence; physicians who have sex with their patients; a severely burned young man's request to die; a female college student who was killed by a mentally ill suitor; a young woman with cancer whose doctor helps her end her life; post-traumatic stress disorder; genetically transmitted disease; exploitive human experiments and gender identity. And that's only a partial list.

I've taught this course at the University of Pennsylvania since 2008. Every time I offer it student demand exceeds the formal registration limit, as it has this fall. (I can't take all the credit for the course's popularity. The issues are compelling and I do show a lot of illustrative film clips, though some of them are disturbing, too.) Long before all the trigger talk started I've been giving two warnings the first day of class: first, that in our discussions someone might feel compelled to mention their own medical problem or that of a member their family but that I can't guarantee confidentiality; second, that they might find a film depicting a disfigured patient disturbing. I regard these warnings as a courtesy, not correctness.

But otherwise the beat goes on. Jewish students learn about the vicious concentration camp experiments that inspired modern research codes; African-American students sit through lectures about the syphilis study; feminists hear me talk about fertility clinics that cater to parents who want a male child; gay men read about being excluded from giving blood because of HIV fears; students on medication for hyperactivity disorder have to think about the way some of their peers use the same drugs to enhance their performance. If campuses truly are permeated by political correctness put me down as an equal opportunity offender.

In spite of the intensity of the subject matter, I've found that when my undergrads get annoyed at me it's usually because I'm late getting my slides up on the course website, not because I've broached emotionally difficult material. They seem to understand that there's no other way for me to teach this course. Nor are people in their late teens and early twenties necessarily taken aback by what us oldsters might expect. Once while teaching a late afternoon class on ethical issues in gravely ill newborns a young man complained to me that he almost lost his lunch during a film of a baby being delivered. There was no complaint of emotional scarring but it did make me doubt the wisdom of his plan to study medicine.

Granted, my experience might not be representative, and perhaps my students are self-selected for their interest in contemplating complex and even painful issues. Yet I can't help but think that in the ordinary course of college life, in tens of thousands of classrooms and courses around the country, there's a whole lot of sensitive material being presented, discussed and reflected upon. I find that young people want to be challenged, not coddled. That is all to the good. From my perspective in front of my class, the demise of open discourse at the university is not yet upon us.