The Cambridge trigger warnings coverage is a masterpiece of misreporting
They’ve completely misunderstood what trigger warnings do
You may have caught some of these fantastically condescending headlines over the past ten days: "Cambridge students warned Shakespeare plays may distress them", "Cambridge University students given 'trigger warnings' in case Shakespeare upsets them" – Fox News even hopped across the pond for the privilege of getting on their hobby horse ("slammed over trigger warnings").
But the scornful tone of this coverage (from all sides) and patronising attitude towards 'snowflake' students is only permitted by a colossal, and wilful, misunderstanding of what trigger warnings are and how they function within a university setting.
I'm an English finalist at Cambridge, and I attended a set of trigger-warning-labelled lectures last year (yes, this has been going on for a while, and no, we're not sure why people are only getting angry about it now). I am one of approximately 195 in my year, with a majority – though not dramatic – being women. Run a few statistics, and you'll figure out that the victims of rape in my year can be almost guaranteed to run in the double digits.
Trigger warnings are not about people squirming in their seats a bit because their worldview's been challenged. At Cambridge, that's a given. Triggering is more like a rape victim getting flashbacks to their assault, or a student who has recently dealt with a family suicide becoming deeply emotionally distressed by discussions of how suicide is moralised in a given text.
These experiences can be extremely traumatic, likely rendering you completely unable to participate in the lecture, and the trauma may be heightened by the lecture environment itself (it's difficult to leave a lecture without feeling like everyone is staring at you). I've been triggered by a book exactly once, and I was a shaking, non-productive mess for the rest of the day. Trigger warnings mean we can be prepared for potentially distressing content, and therefore can spend the rest of our day working rather than recovering.
There is no way to bootstraps your way out of PTSD, and dear Mail and Guardian commenters alike: please do find another way to thinly veil the sentiment that traumatised rape victims are just being 'hypersensitive.'
Concerning the 'Shakespeare is distressing to students' angle: Sarah Kane was discussed alongside Shakespeare in the lecture, but was quietly dropped from the coverage. I presume that is because the journalists in question did not wish to elaborate on Sarah Kane's dramaturgy, because the narrative of students cowering away from The Bard is presumably much easier to swallow than explaining her. For those who haven't come across Kane: she's great, go see her work, but not if you're unwilling to see graphic rape, dead babies, or dead babies being eaten.
I'd also like to address that much-bandied-around comment from David Crilly, artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival, that 'If a student of English Literature doesn't know that Titus Andronicus contains scenes of violence they shouldn't be on the course'. Apart from the fact that our admissions process isn't actually a rapid-fire quiz on body counts in Renaissance literature, yes, we do know that Titus Andronicus is violent. However, there are infinite possible ways of discussing Titus Andronicus without using the violence and rape as a focal point, and even if you do, there are methods of discussion that will be more or less likely to trigger a victim of physical or sexual assault. Ian Burrows, a teaching associate and lecturer in the English faculty, explains better than I can the difference between content and discussion in this regard, such as using 'tones of critical detachment'.
Additionally, anyone referring to trigger warnings as censorship has misunderstood both concepts. By definition, academics are not avoiding or barred from discussing sensitive content, or else there would be no trigger-warning lectures.
It seems the most fury has been elicited by this prevailing idea within the coverage – that students can choose to not be exposed to ideas that make them uncomfortable.
And that is, strictly speaking, true! Lectures within the English faculty are uniformly non-compulsory; the syllabus is agreed between you and your supervisors, and the practice within the faculty is to attend the lectures which will be best for your programme of study. Literature is vast, a three-year degree can only cover so much, and we all have specialities (particularly by third year), and so, for instance, I'm not going to any lectures on non-Shakespearean Renaissance literature this year, because they're essentially irrelevant to my examinations and dissertation. (I've paid my dues to Milton, put down the pitchforks.)
So, yes, it is theoretically very much the case that a student can try and avoid any ideologically divergent lectures, though how they'd be able to pick that up from the lecture name 'Tragic Subjects' or 'Greek Tragedy and the Chorus', I'm not sure. And there is nothing in the course that says you are required to attend any sessions on sexual assault, suicide, etc.
However, in practice, what stops students taking lectures is not discomfiture, but irrelevancy, or possibly disliking a particular lecturer's style of delivery. Trigger-warning lectures have at least an equal (and usually higher) attendance level than an average lecture in the faculty. Trigger warnings usually signify an interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking lecture. And the trigger warning itself expands the attendance potential for the lecture, because any potentially distressed students have time to prepare for the lecture and can more confidently attend, rather than being unable to concentrate due to being caught unawares by unexpectedly distressing material.
I've discussed this with multiple other fellow students, who have all found trigger warnings to be personally or generally useful. One stated: 'The trigger warnings won't dissuade lecturers from broaching difficult topics, but will make sure they pay attention to ways to talk about them that take their seriousness into account. I think they're also a useful 'stop and think' signal for students attending the lecture, to make sure that if they ask questions/contribute that they're considering the way they talk about these topics as well.
Given the number of political/journalistic/public sphere jobs (like acting/directing) that Cam students aspire to, this is not a bad skill to learn early on.'
In short: most of the people who would benefit from learning what trigger warnings actually are and do likely won't read this, or won't absorb it. But for those who do – they're genuinely a non-issue. I truly believe anyone who makes them an issue either misunderstands them, misunderstands how the course works, is incapable of imagining Shakespeare as emotionally resonant, or thinks that trauma was invented after 1990.
They don't constrict our education or encourage us into ignorance; they give more of us a chance to experience difficult content lucidly, and encourage us to be aware of how we talk about literature as much as what we talk about.
Which is, incidentally, probably why we can pick up on slanted reporting in the first place.
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