Responding to “On Trigger Warnings and the Halberstam Affair: a Panel Discussion”

In August, I participated in a radio show interview with Natalia Cecire and hosted by Karma R. Chávez and Anders Zanichkowsky about trigger warnings post-Halberslam. A few weeks later, Madison Mutual Drift published a transcript of the interview, along with two written responses by Dan S. Wang and Brigitte Fielder. I wanted to write some reflections I’ve had after this experience, so I thought I’d do it here.

One thing I’m learning from this whole experience is that what Catherine Prendergast calls “being disabled rhetorically” happens by refusing to address disability and its rhetorical productions on their own terms. Prendergast describes how having a mental illness affects one’s “rhetoricability”–when a rhetor is or is perceived as mentally ill, their rhetoricability is lessened and often negated. I’m struck how in the roundtable I participated in that disability was only tangentially discussed and not brought up in either of the written responses. (This mirrors the Entropy roundtable, which was a three-part conversation with disability as the last “part” rather than being woven throughout.) Where disability flickered in these conversations was the resistance to the word “trigger,” which was described as a “medicalization” of content warnings. As a trans person and as a disabled person, I have a lot of feelings about my language being medicalized; I’m aware of how “medical” language creeps into my speech and how certain medical scripts have to be memorized for me to navigate the world. On the other hand, the “medicalized” nature of rhetorical moves by people with disabilities is unavoidable, because often it is a language accessible across broad disabled experiences.

Avoiding, minimizing, or refusing to discuss disability and the need for increased accessibility practices for students with mental health issues when talking about trigger warnings leads to several things happening, some of which happened in the conversation in which I participated, which I’ll explore below.

  1. Trigger warnings are cast as conflict avoidance rather than an accessibility measure. In response to our conversation, Dan S. Wang writes that “one effect of trigger warnings on campus is a layering of the classroom with a sanctioned form of conflict avoidance—a value that aligns all too well with bourgeois class interests and performance.” As a “defender of trigger warnings,” I believe this view of TWs falls into a fairly common misreading of what trigger warnings do, both in the digital communities from which they arose as well how they might be deployed in the classroom. In digital spaces, trigger warnings exist in order to facilitate deep discussions about conflict, allowing writers to write very openly about experiences of mental illness, violence, rape, and other topics for both broad and narrow audiences. They are a fairly simple form of metadata that Melanie Yergeau has compared to tagging; perhaps that is why TWs are so common on blogging platforms. They don’t work to allow or encourage readers to avoid specific content–only to know ahead of time what they will be reading. Yergeau has also pointed out that as academics we “tag” our work in lots of ways for both students and colleagues, both in the classroom and out. Trigger warnings ask us to imagine what might be triggering and tag that work accordingly, and not in order for those works to be avoided.
  2. Trigger warnings, and disability in addition, are cast as too expansive. I’ve been surprised in how most of the conversations I’ve had about trigger warnings there’s been a huge reluctance to “label” students as disabled by offering trigger warnings in written forms on syllabi. In some ways, this seems to be about seeing disability as a negative, as something that someone would feel uncomfortable being identified with (which, as Tobin Siebers has explored in Disability Theory, is not uncommon–disability itself IS expansive, but identifying as disabled isn’t). Disability yet again becomes unwieldy, impossible to accommodate; triggers can be smells, after all. It’s true that triggers can be nonverbal, or unrelated to the specific trauma at hand, but it’s also true that there’s a way to find out what might trigger your students without trying to read specific triggering situations onto their experiences. As Andrew Lawlor wrote in a roundtable on trigger warnings:

    The last time I worked with students who wanted to use trigger warnings, in the Trans*/Queer Writing Group (which was not-for-credit, by the way), one of my clever students created an anonymous collaborative document on the web (http://collabedit.com), so people could anonymously list things for which they wanted warning. We compiled our list, which was fairly short and comprised of pretty common categories (sexual violence, suicide, cutting, etc), and people mostly did offer warnings when they included representations of these subjects in their pieces—which they did! including self-identified survivors, who sometimes wrote pieces which very graphically depicted some of the things on the trigger list. I’m interested in the way the use of trigger warnings in a workshop might allow student writers to write in MORE compelling, more honest, more powerful ways about our world, which includes trauma.

  3. Teachers are not responsible for the disabled. Though less prevalent in the MMD conversation, this is a line of thought that Sarah and I have considered in the project we’re working on. In “Trigger Warnings are Flawed,” a group of humanities professors write that “Most faculty are not trained to handle traumatic reactions. Although many of us include analyses of the cultural logics and legacies of trauma and/or perpetration in our courses, this expertise does not qualify faculty to offer the professional responses traumatized students may need.” There is a strange move that many humanities scholars who have responded to the call for trigger warnings have made–a simultaneous resistance to the medicalization of the language of triggers and to the neoliberal and capitalist project of universities as institutions as well as a reliance on medical, academic research on mental illness and trauma to approach how disability should be dealt with in the classroom. Rather than listening to the requests of disabled students, the spectre of the disabled student sits in limbo between being too institutionally oriented and incapable of remaining in the institution at the same time.

There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered about trigger warnings that were brought up in this interview. I believe that a lot of the pushback about trigger warnings comes from professors already doing the work that trigger warnings do in a classroom setting, via verbal framing of potentially triggering content. From what I can sense, TWs seem like a critique of this verbalized practiced. As Brigitte Fielder points out in her response, the conversation about how to teach difficult material has been happening for decades. But what trigger warnings add to the conversation is a specific turn towards the needs of the mentally ill student in the classroom. Trigger warnings are not about (or shouldn’t be about) compassion, and to frame them as such reduces accessibility practices to compassion. They may not be the most effective means of developing accessible classroom practices for students with mental illness, but I think it’s important that students are asking for TWs to happen. In composition and rhetoric at least, most of our theorizing about how to build accessible classrooms doesn’t come from listening to student voices, instead building best practices from our own personal experiences with disability.

In the end, I don’t want access to be about compassion. I want access to be about reducing the negative effects of disability in my life and my student’s lives. To me, it’s the same way that having a flexible attendance policy isn’t about compassion–it’s about how the way that we do classes is often a barrier for students with disabilities. And that’s why we have to frame all of this in a conversation about disability in the classroom.

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