The triggering town: some thoughts on pedagogy, warnings, and experience.

Sitting in my backyard on the first warm day of the year, I’m reading my first-year college students’ last papers: personal reflections on Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” and its application to education as they want to continue to experience it. Emphasis on experience. One after another, they return to Plato’s central image: a prisoner is released from his underground cave where shadows (manipulated by others) flicker on the wall, and he struggles up into the light that first blinds him then fills him with a radiant excitement.  He knows that as difficult as that struggle has been (and is going to be), he has pushed through into a new kind of seeing, a new layer of self with which to be present to the world. They match this idea with Dante, tunnelling deeper into Hell and confronting ever-graver suffering (noting that Dante, like the prisoner, is still “ascending” because he’s going through the earth to Paradise, even though at times he passes out from the shock and horror of what he sees), and to Frederick Douglass, whose realization of the staggering odds against him at first depresses, then energizes, him to struggle for education by any means necessary. Over and over, students return to a new conviction I’ve seen growing in them all year: college, like life, is about pushing yourself through discomfort toward the growth that waits on the other side, even (or perhaps especially) when facing the light of the world beyond your dark, protected cave is painful.

Coming inside to check email for a bit, I find the latest in an ongoing conversation on creative-writing-pedagogy and college-professor threads: what is the place of “trigger warnings” in college classrooms? As a creative writing teacher, the first thing I think of when I think of “triggers” is Richard Hugo’s classic book on poetry writing, The Triggering Town, in which “triggering” describes the process by which a new insight or image or poem or story might be sparked into life by something in the world around you, roaring up to startle and delight you like a ring-necked pheasant flushed from underfoot. Being “triggered,” in this sense, is being awakened by the world to something beyond yourself: when a sparrow lights beyond the window, the poet John Keats wrote, “I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel.” Keats knew what all creative writing students, and spiritual seekers, and adults in general have to come to know: the beginning of maturity, in any area of your life, is the realization that the world is not a story about you.  That even as you may seek to engage with and alter your world, you will have to accommodate yourself to reality that can be uncomfortable. That reality – for better and worse – is independent of the stories we tell ourselves about it. That – although it can be beautiful, saddening, amazing, traumatic – life is not fundamentally amenable to our own plans for and confident projections about it. Again: reality is not a story about ourselves. From this perspective, to avoid “triggers” is to avoid revelations, discoveries, and changes from the painful to the miraculous. It’s to wrap yourself in cotton, to numb yourself to existence.

As a feminist sympathetic to victims of rape and abuse, however, I know that this is not the only meaning of “trigger,” and I know that this concern for inadvertent re-experiencing of trauma in our classrooms is just one of the many philosophical and cultural realities meeting in college itself. Indeed, college is one of the last big hinge points in this society where adolescence and adulthood meet, and where enduring truths and the search for them, no matter how embattled, are hanging on, struggling with the economic, environmental, and social realities swirling through campus from the surrounding world. College is never only about college; education is never only about education; growing up is never only about growing up. To get below the surface of any text, we start by asking, in my classes, “what is this really about?” So here are some starting answers to the question of what the conversation about “triggers” in college classrooms, all of which feel both transcendent and culturally inflected, is really about: the Platonic/Socratic search for the ultimate “good” beyond illusion; suffering and our responses to it; self-protection; consumerism and our ideas about what purchased “experiences” should or should not contain; our relationship to experience in general.

The world is not a story about you: from the ubiquity of pocket Internet-delivery systems to Google ads that shift their images to angle afresh for your wallet as you browse, just about everything in 21st-century commercial culture is designed to contradict that truth, even as proofs of it are everywhere, offscreen in the world. I think of the stories of meditating Zen monks suddenly smacked upside the head by their teachers to shock them back to the present, out of wandering or digression into the stories of me, me, me the brain is always waiting to unfold. The brain likes those stories, because the world beyond the safety of me is frightening. It is a place where suffering is not redemptive, where pain and terror and agony happen for no reason, where goodness and hard work are not always rewarded, where evil does exist. Part of the terror of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls is that reality that you can still be doing everything “right,” can be pursuing your education and going about your life in the belief that it is under your control and still be snatched out of your own world into a parallel, powerless one, where your selfhood is blotted out under the weight of indifferent forces that see you only as a vessel to be filled with themselves. It’s the horror of the end of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and, more sharply, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; it’s the kind of horror so blithely ignored by Todd Akin and his ilk in dismissing some kinds of rape as “legitimate” and others as not; it’s a basement dungeon in Cleveland. It’s the imposition of your own self’s “needs” and desires over someone else’s; it’s a willed blindness to the fact that the other person is also real. It happens to our students. It happens to us. And it always has.

Humans try to escape suffering or discomfort, in whatever form it might present itself. Yet higher education, set at the hinge point between adolescence and adulthood and increasingly asked, as education in general is, to be all things to all people, cannot be tempted to conflate all discomfort as equal or avoidable. We know that students and parents increasingly shop for and curate their college experiences like any other consumer good, demanding “better customer service” and a more comfortable ride, in and out of the classroom, from climbing walls in the gym to less difficult texts and higher grades. More than ever, we are seeing students who desire to manipulate, manage, and be in control of their own experience of everything, including college. At its best, this mindset leads to the good kind of skepticism, to an active and alert engagement with and choices about what’s around you, and to the knowledge of yourself that is both honest and direct – including a mature openness to the world. At its worst, it leads to an otiose self-protectiveness and intellectual and emotional laziness, setting up filters to exclude challenge and discomfort. As hard as it is, and as apparently uncaring as it can seem, we have to ask: can students expect to be shielded, at college, from certain kinds of pain? How do we separate the Socratic pain of confrontation with the light of truth (necessary for the intellectual growth and maturity we claim to be about, and inescapable in life in general), from a type of psychological suffering college should not inflict or reinflict, such as involuntary re-experiencing of serious trauma? And how can we help students distinguish the two?

I’m going to turn from thinking about obvious subjects of “trigger warnings” – rape, torture, abuse, as cited in the NY Times article above – to a college-specific case study: religion. As a college of the ELCA, established in the nineteenth century to provide training for Norwegian Lutheran ministers in American immigrant communities and a more questioning, intellectually rigorous mode of Biblical exegesis than was common back then, my college requires all students to take courses in Biblical studies. The approaches my religion colleagues use are very historically and textually based, shocking many students with the facts that (for instance) the Bible was assembled over time by multiple authors, and that there is nothing or at best contradictory things about [insert hot-button social issue here] in the text. To a student from a conservative Christian household, brought up to serve God and do well in school and obey what both teachers and parents say, the collision of faith and historical fact may rock the foundations of self in a way it is easy for non-Christians (and non-adolescents) to mock but impossible to overstate. Such a student may experience what a professor would call this Socratic process of struggle as a violation of the deepest aspects of himself and his understanding of the world, a source of existential bewilderment and pain equivalent to struggles with death or war or other kinds of human accident or evil. And many do. My colleagues in the Religion Department wrestle with this and counsel more students over it than the rest of us will ever know. Yet they do not say that we should back away from confronting challenges to faith, that we should only read or study what confirms our 18-year-old view of the world. Neither do students, as it turns out. Routinely, they tell my colleagues and me that their experiences in religion class here are among the most challenging but, because of that, the most important of their lives – that they have grown, as a result, from a child’s understanding of God and the world to an adult’s, and are prepared to see that process continue, no matter where it goes. They are, as Sonya Chung says of creative writers, accepting a tolerance of difficulty and uncertainty as the basic fact of adulthood.

And that tolerance for difficulty is the basic fact of adulthood, as it is of intellect and art. It just is. Routinely now I begin my creative writing classes with age-appropriate discussions of this fact: you will confront, here, your own limitations and insecurities and arrogances in ways you never expected to, and you will be changed, because when you write, that’s just what happens. You will get little to no external reward – even I write and get rejected and keep going. But you will have to decide, for yourself, whether and how to keep doing it because it’s worth it. Creative writers live at the territory of always-inadvertent self-triggering, anyway – going deep and always stumbling across some live wire in our own psyches that unexpectedly jolts and sobers. We know this about ourselves and each other. It’s just part of it.

None of this is to minimize the fact that the difficulty of, say, rape and its aftermath is real. And it is not to say that a student struggling with a personal issue should be constantly smacked upside the head with it in the name of Socratic learning. Self-protectiveness can be necessary for a while; it can lead to the good choices about where to go or not to go, what to see or not to see, that can mean surviving and healing, getting over a bad time and continuing on to a life that incorporates that memory but is not limited or defined by it. But it can also lead to clinging, as a means of self-definition and self-protection, to the same trauma or trouble it claims to be guarding against; the student who refuses to read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice on the grounds of anti-Semitism (an example from one college’s list of potentially “triggering texts” and traumas) closes herself off to any understanding of anti-Semitism beyond the one with which she approaches it, locking herself in place. Most students, of course, lie somewhere in between. And this spectrum asks for realism and compassion from us, mixed in doses appropriate to that student and her situation that will both support her and nudge her forward, helping her stand on her own two feet. It asks for college to be a place – as democracy still struggles to be a place – where multiple perspectives and experiences meet in a common ground that gives all of them space. This is academic freedom; this is the reality of the world; this is maturity. If dictatorship and oppression are singularity, orthodoxy, and control (and the banning of books that might upset you, as in the recent cases in South Carolina), democracy is multiplicity, possibility, more-than-one-right-answer, maybe-I-am-wrong, there-is-more-to-this-than-I-thought. I do still believe in college as a place where students can experience and learn from this, one by one, no matter what their circumstances. It’s hard to work out how to give everyone this chance, to enable everyone’s flourishing in fairness and rigor and safety. But we have to try, and triggering warnings or regulations, with their potentially chilling effect on pedagogy and academic freedom, are not the way.

Of course, resisting a too-easy embrace of “trigger warnings” does not mean that professors can just charge ahead into a sort of unexamined, tough-guy, if-they-can’t-take-it-get-out pedagogy, which risks turning us into professorial equivalents of the tiresome philosophy major who prides himself on “making people think” when he’s really just being a jerk. We are the adults, and we are twenty years or so ahead of our students, and things that seem “obvious” to us are not always “obvious” to them. It’s easy for us to forget that. “The world is not a story about you” applies to us, too – we don’t and can’t know what is happening inside everyone’s head. But as the example of students encountering Socrates shows, we have to create a fair, safe, but open field for them to encounter a variety of texts, be supported (as needed) in their reading of them, and be ready to experience what we can’t predict in advance.  We can give fair warning in our syllabi if difficulty lies ahead, and we can use our syllabi to make clear how “challenge” and “difficulty” will be defined for the purposes of our class. Of course, we’ll need administrators and parents to support us. We’ll need students themselves to do so too. But an approach to texts that is inquisitive, sensitive, but open and fair can get them on board, offering them more grounds for identity and discovery than “trauma” alone and getting other people into a story that a focus on “trauma” risks shrinking to a false singularity and that lists of “traumas” like the ones from Oberlin et. al. risk flattening even further. In my experience, trauma victims or sufferers of illnesses themselves are often most appreciative of a sensitive but open approach to these issues in the classroom, just as they are often mature and responsible about self-advocating, seeking resources they need, and eager not to be defined by that “trauma” alone.

Novelist Mary Gaitskill, in her essay “On Not Being a Victim,” writes about her own experience of being raped, “Since I had been taught only how to follow rules that were somehow more important than I was, I didn’t know what to do in a situation where no rules obtained and that required me to speak up on my own behalf. I had never been taught that my behalf mattered. And so I felt helpless, even victimized, without really knowing why.” Yet Gaitskill continues, “Part of becoming responsible is learning how to make a choice about where you stand in respect to the social code and then holding yourself accountable for your choice. In contrast, many children who grew up in my milieu were given abstract absolutes that were placed before us as if our thoughts, feelings, and observations were irrelevant.” College has got to remain a place where critical thinking and independent decision-making – based on one’s own nonproscribed encounters with texts – remains possible for students, no matter what backgrounds or experiences they may be bringing to us. Approaching a classroom with assumptions about what a text might or might not do to students risks teaching your own assumptions about students – not the fully multidimensional people they actually are – and denying them of college’s most precious gift, the critical faculty of taking in information from the world around them, making their own decision, and finding the means to act on it.

Like so many of us in 2014, many students long for “authenticity” and “experience of the world” even as they fear these things. They may hesitate to step from beyond the safety of their own equivalent of gated communities, their own internal “caves,” because the light above – which illuminates weakness and fear as well as possibility and self-reliance – is just too painful.  Yet college is one of the last defining adulthood transition experiences – aside from military or post-college-nonprofit service – available to young people now, who are funneled toward it by combinations of personal and economic desires and other people’s expectations. College is where our students are coming to experience something real – to live out the dreams of intellectual or creative transformation that their high schools (as I hear from more students every year) are just not giving them. (“You can still get a great high school education,” colleagues joke, “too bad you have to go to college to get it.”) Even though what they bring with them doesn’t always prepare them for what they find when they get here, we can still offer them difficulty and complexity and the opportunity to find their own voices. And – with attention to their particular circumstances – we have to try.

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10 Responses to The triggering town: some thoughts on pedagogy, warnings, and experience.

  1. Anon says:

    Beautiful essay.

  2. Emily Haraldson says:

    Really fantastic post. I’m now curious about where you teach since I read that you are in the upper Midwest at an ELCA college. I went to Augsburg College in Minneapolis and what you describe being taught in biblical studies sounds eerily familiar. I actually owe a debt of gratitude to my professors for opening up my mind to a world beyond the Missouri Synod mindset I grew up with.

    I am now an adjunct professor of art history at a community college in California. As I’m sure you know, art history is fraught with nudity, violence, and misogyny. The reason I’m so intrigued with the topic of trigger warnings is that I did give my contemporary art students a head’s up yesterday before showing them an image from Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio,” the portfolio that got Jesse Helms and his ilk all up in arms in 1989-1990. The discussion question that followed the image was, “What’s the difference between pornography and art?” I would never, however, give a trigger warning or head’s up for a crucifixion scene, nude images of women or men, or other scenes of violence because I’d have to basically do that for every other image in my courses.

    This is, indeed, great food for thought. Thanks for your approach to this topic!

    • Hi, Emily – thanks for your thoughtful response! Minneapolis, Missouri Synod, ELCA – yep, that’s our world. :) I remember the Mapplethorpe/Helms controversy VIVIDLY (as our students don’t, right? :) ) and think it is really important that in your course you “go there” with them. The question of trigger warnings for particular subjects is also really important – I have a philosopher friend whose subject area is the Holocaust who says, basically, “if I put trigger warnings on my syllabus, I wouldn’t be able to stop, and I wouldn’t have a single student in any of my classes.” I do think that if you make space for different reactions in the beginning of class, admitting candidly that challenge is going to happen, explaining why it’s important, and offering different ways to respond (discussion, writing, whatever), students will actually get with it fairly readily – they do at least in theory acknowledge that college is not only about self-protection. Thanks for this response!

      • Emily Haraldson says:

        The “challenge” issue is brought up the very first day in class, especially in my contemporary art class and not so much because of trigger-worthy topics, but because some of the art is so abstract that it causes knee-jerk reactions like, “I could have done that!” I have them discuss in pairs, write individual responses, and hold class discussions on a variety of issues that confront them in my classes. I haven’t had a complaint yet in ten years of teaching, so I must be doing something right :)

      • That sounds really effective — and also like it is the kind of experience in the classroom that continues to bear fruit when students look back on it from a distance. Good for you for creating this kind of classroom environment!!

      • Emily Haraldson says:

        Thanks! The best reward is when I get an email from a student a year or more after he/she has been in my class, telling me what an impact my class(es) made on him/her. I have no doubt you’ve received such messages.

        I also feel the need to state that it’s rare for a pedagogical topic like this to grab my attention. This one is really sticking with me today.

  3. A statement of Anna Carter Florence, prof. of homiletics (preaching) at Columbia Theological Seminary, is apropos here: “The truth of a text depends on where you are willing to stand and what you are willing to see.” Her immediate reference was to Lucille Clifton’s “Shapeshifter Poems” concerning the trauma of incest, but it is as true of any text, including those we ourselves write, as well as any “text” that we might “read.” The truth of the world depends on where you willing to stand and what you are willing to see. The truth of my own life in the world depends on where I am willing to stand and what I am willing to see. Reading and writing, if done as they should be done, require courage more than creativity. This is why I tell preachers that I expect two things from them: I expect them to tell the truth; and, I expect to see them limping.

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