Trigger Warning: How do Boro professors deal with controversial topics and the ever evolving student culture?

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015 at 9:27 PM
Trigger Warning: How do Boro professors deal with controversial topics and the ever evolving student culture?  by William Stevens

The years spent in higher education allow people the chance to discover what they want out of life. However, people do not normally go to college with the intention of being upset by course material. Several professors at Edinboro University teach classes which cover a range of topics from ethics to sexual abuse.

Dr. Corbin Fowler is a professor in the English and Philosophy Department and has taught several of these controversial classes.

“Each semester, I regularly teach several sections of ‘Introduction to Moral Issues,’”Fowler said. “Almost everything we talk about in that
class is [seen as] controversial by someone. Euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment; all those issues are charged for a lot of people.”

Fowler also mentioned how in the past he had taught a class titled “Death and Dying,” which covered “things like capital punishment that are very sensitive in a lot of ways.”

“You don’t ignore them (sensitive topics), but you try to handle them in a way that is as inoffensive as possible.” 

However, in some cases, this can prove to be difficult. Trigger warnings, a popular and rising term, can be a way for professors to ensure student engagement remains civil.

According to Kate Manne, a writer for The New York Times, “the practice originated in Internet communities, primarily for the benefit of people with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“The idea was to flag content that depicted or discussed common causes of trauma,” so people could choose whether or not to engage with the material.

“I can certainly understand courses using them (trigger warnings) in which material about rape and sexual abuse could be really distressing to victims of sexual abuse,” Dr. Stephen Sullivan said.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trigger warnings in those kinds of cases. I think the mockery of them that’s so widespread on the right and even from some liberals is overdone.”

“I can also imagine cases in which there’s no need for them and yet people are so concerned not to cause offense that they go overboard. But for the really serious issues like rape and sexual violence, I think it’s a good thing to do.”

Trigger warnings and microagressions go hand in hand. For those that don’t know the term microagression, it refers to small actions or word choices, which appear to have no malicious intent but are thought of as violent.

A writer for The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff, provided an example, writing, “it is a microagression to ask an Asian American or Latino American ‘where were you born?’”

The consensus appears to be millennials are more susceptible to this than other demographics. In order to understand this issue in its entirety, we must look at it in a new light; pop culture has also weighed in on this issue.

Author of “American Psycho,” Bret Easton Ellis wrote a piece for Vanity Fair titled “Generation Wuss” about how the next generation of kids are “too sensitive”.

Ellis claims that it’s the “late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X parents who [are] inducing an inadequate preparation in how to deal with the hardships of life”.

Ellis continued, by saying “Generation Wuss” responds by “collapsing into sentimentality and creating victim narratives rather than acknowledging the realities of the world”.

“Parents are a heck of a lot more involved in their children’s lives than when I grew up,” Dr. Kathleen Golden said. “It’s because they’re afraid in some cases and when the students leave home, they don’t really have a good way of managing their time because someone’s [always] managed it for them.”

Golden mostly spoke about her public speaking class, which she teaches because, according to her, it was a more open forum style of teaching. “If it gets uncivil, you [the professors] just have to intervene. People can’t be calling each other names,” Golden said.

“The idea is to help the person if you feel that somehow something is incorrect. It’s no good laying waste to someone.”

“People have their noses in the phones so much that they’ve lost some of the skills that you need to figure out the nonverbal; [it’s] lost in some of the text-based communication.”

“I see a paradigm shift; the whole purpose of a university historically was supposed to be...that ideas would compete against each other,” journalism and public relations professor Dr. William Covington said. “Now the value is not competing ideas, [but rather] we don’t want to offend anybody at any cost.”

According to Covington, it’s a disservice to students because “it’s a cruel world out there and once they leave the hallowed halls of academia, people aren’t going to treat them the same way they were treated in their four years of college.”

“I try to keep the topic focused and I am careful with my words. I am super sensitive to how other people might interpret things,” Covington added.

Another thing that affects students psychologically is their parents. Los Angeles Times author Patt Morrison defines helicopter parenting as a style of parenting where mom and dad will literally take their child in hand. She also mentions that the kids in these cases are happy to go along with it.

In the article titled, “How ‘helicopter parenting’ is ruining America’s children”, Morrison spoke with Julie Lythcott-Haims, the first dean of freshmen at Stanford University.

She [Lythcott-Hains] continued by saying that one night while she was cutting her 10-year-old son’s meat she realized that she was enabling his dependence on her. Lythcott-Haims said she “could see the link between parenting and why my college students, though very accomplished academically, were rather existentially impotent.”

Yet, it also seems that dependence is one of the issues, while another underlying concept that comes into play is awareness of danger.

“The greater protectiveness that parents have now has to do with a lot of other things,” Sullivan said. “For example, greater awareness of sexual predation [and] extraordinary alarm over actual and perceived dangers to children.”

“It’s not necessarily because there’s more child predation than there used to be, just much more awareness of it.”

According to a study performed by several professors at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT), public notifications has indeed increased awareness of sex offenders living among us. However, this does not mean that the public is well informed about the topic.

The study performed by the FIT professors found that both the general public and sex offenders are generally misinformed on the topic of sexual abuse.

People go to college in the hope of not only learning about new topics, but also in learning about themselves. As stated previously, people do not go to college in the hopes of being upset by course content. An increasingly important part of college for both traditional and non-traditional students is the possibility of this changing worldview. 

William Stevens is the Online Editor for The Spectator. 

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