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Wednesday, June 10, 2015


In a much-shared and discussed article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Laura Kipnis criticizes her university's sexual harassment policy, arguing that "these new codes are leaving our students disabled when it comes to the ordinary interpersonal tangles and erotic confusions that pretty much everyone has to deal with at some point in life, because that’s simply part of the human condition."

 Kipnis goes on to mock the idea of trigger warnings.  (Trigger warnings have been the object of quite a bit of scorn lately, perhaps most notably in Jonathan Chait's article in New York Magazine.)  In her piece, Kipnis writes, "what do we expect will become of students, successfully cocooned from uncomfortable feelings, once they leave the sanctuary of academe for the boorish badlands of real life? What becomes of students so committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency, and protected from unequal power arrangements in romantic life? I can’t help asking, because there’s a distressing little fact about the discomfort of vulnerability, which is that it’s pretty much a daily experience in the world, and every sentient being has to learn how to somehow negotiate the consequences and fallout, or go through life flummoxed at every turn."

While Kipnis has certainly given me a lot to think about in terms of how sexual harassment policies might infantilize students, I take issue with her characterization of college students as "cocooned from uncomfortable feelings," particularly as it fails to describe really any of the college students that I work with.  In fact, if by "the boorish badlands of real life" Kipnis means experiences of exploitation, struggle, suffering and/or trauma and oppression, then unfortunately, than my students are all too familiar with "real life."

Too many of my students have had trauma in their lives.  Just a sampling from this past semester: a student in my WST 101 told the class that she was sold for sex by one of her family members.  Several other students in that section discussed their experiences with intimate partner and domestic violence.  In my composition class, one student wrote about his suicide attempt.  In my upper-level literature class, a truly promising student withdrew in order to take care of a sick parent.  Another, a student veteran, nodded knowingly when we, in the context of William Fualkner's novel As I Lay Dying, discussed the terrible stench of a rotting body.

Though these students are in college, they have clearly not been "comfortably cocooned."  And while the population at Northwestern University, where Kipnis teaches, may be more buffered, "cocooned" in part by privileges of  race and class not available to all of my students, I would find it hard to believe that students at Northwestern have not had their share of suffering as well, what with domestic violence, incest and rape statistics what they are.

I haven't used trigger warnings in my classes, although I may start to do so for a couple of reasons.  First, providing a trigger warning might help us attend to our responses to difficult material generally.  That is, you shouldn't be able to read Beloved or watch Very Young Girls or discuss the gang rape of an eleven-year old child without getting upset.  This is upsetting stuff and college students should be made aware that emotional responses can be absolutely appropriate.

And by providing a trigger warning, I can assist students in preparing for whatever emotional reaction they may have.  That is, while we don't want to encourage students to hide from the uncomfortable, we do want them to be able to grapple with material in a way that is healthy for them as well as intellectually fortifying.  A trigger warning doesn't necessarily tell students to turn away, but it does give them a choice.  If a student hasn't had trauma, then the warning would be irrelevant, wouldn't it?  Why not err on the side of sensitivity?

Kipnis is right in her suggestion that in "the boorish badlands of the real world" many people don't care if you've had a tough time, if you've experienced trauma, if you should be handled with care.  This is precisely the point.  The Women's Studies classroom--and hopefully other classrooms at the college and the university--are perhaps one of the few places where we can care, where we can be kind and nurturing to each other, where we can insist on creating a community that acknowledges trauma and allows for vulnerability at the same time that it encourages strength and celebrates resilience.  Providing trigger warnings won't protect our students from pain, but they do provide an acknowledgment that their suffering is valid.  And they demonstrate that the callousness of the "real world" need not infect every aspect of life.  

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