…still warning

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So this summer I wrote a post about the use of content warnings. In it I talked about how I teach (indoctrinate?) hard history. I also talked about how and why I felt it was important to give my students content warnings when encountering material in my course that might evoke past trauma. It was my second such post in the just over a year I’ve been writing this blog. Well, here comes post number three.

This past week, Kevin Gannon posted a rebuttal to an article written disparaging the idea of content warnings. With a level of bluntness I could only hope to emulate (and those who know me are cringing right now), Dr. Gannon’s post was entitled “The Data Is In: Performative Hardassery Is Not Good Teaching” and I wanted to stand up and applaud when I read it. I’ll let you read his post in all its glory (language might be NSFW in some places) rather than rehash his takedown of the article that prompted his post.

In the post, however, Dr. Gannon asks whether the research on content warnings asks the right question when attempting to find out whether the warnings are good. The research seems to focus on whether the issuance of warnings cuts down or eliminates the emotional response folks have when confronting challenging material. It seems the research universally says they don’t. My response is “No shit?” I’m guessing these researchers will next attempt to determine whether water is actually wet.

I’ve been a high school classroom teacher for thirty years. There are materials I use that I know so well that I can describe the action on the screen with my eyes closed. I once told my students where to find a character lurking in a background crowd of people in a scene while my back was to the TV. My back was to the TV because that scene still causes a heavy reaction in me that I’d rather my students not witness. So I turn my back or sometimes duck out of the room. Now image the reaction of a student being blindsided by that, or another similar, situation. How, as Dr. Gannon asks, is that good teaching? The question that should probably be asked is whether content warnings help to mitigate reactions so that learning can still happen. Or something of that sort.

As I’ve written, I once was that asshole. I once was the guy being so cool and such a hardass. No more. I try very hard to let my students know in advance that something may be coming their way that could cause a reaction. I do it out of courtesy, sure, but also so that my students can prepare in advance so that learning might still be able to occur. I had fifty or so students this summer. We issued at least a half dozen content warnings. Only one student approached me about an alternate assignment and they ended up not using it.

I have had conversations of this nature with my colleagues at the high school level as well. For some, there is no need because of “performative hardassery” (a phrase I love by the way). For others, it’s a lack of reflection on their pedagogy – they didn’t get content warnings in school, so there’s not any consideration of whether they are needed in their classrooms today. I have to say that I was somewhat taken aback in Khalid and Snyder’s piece that PTSD and trauma were so heavily linked, and that revisiting past trauma can apparently only happen if one has PTSD. I’m not a psychologist, but that seems…wrong?

In the coming weeks, my terrorism class will be examining suicide terrorism. There is a documentary that I use with it that is an interview of failed bombers who were in Israeli custody at the time of the interview. I have a content warning on the page in OneNote (for students who watch it there due to illness or being out for sports or whatever) and I’ll say it in class the meeting before.

Content Warning: discussion of suicide, after effects of a bombing are seen including human remains.

That’s all there is to it. By the way, did you notice I put a content warning into this post about the one Dr. Gannon wrote? I don’t understand why typing and saying something that simple is the beginning of the end of academia and Western civilization. But then, I’m just a dumbass high school teacher…

Additional Links:
Michael Bugeja “Updating the Trigger Warning in Contentious Times” (Inside Higher Ed) – the article that got folks fired up.

Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder “The Data Is In — Trigger Warnings Don’t Work” (The Chronicle of Higher Ed) – the response that led to Dr. Gannon’s post.

Essay Critical of Trigger Warnings Was Misguided” – Dr. Bugeja’s letter to The Chronicle responding to Khalid and Snyder’s article.

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