Sarah Orem and I co-wrote Weepy Rhetoric, Trigger Warnings, and the Work of Making Mental Illness Visible in the Writing Classroom, which just came out in Enculturation!
Titled “Every Student Uses Your Access Statement,” Sandy explores how different college students and instructors navigate the documentation and writing that surrounds disability.
I really enjoyed this lesson plan that I used in my English 201: Writing Wisconsin class. Feel free to adapt this to your classrooms!
Homework: Students were asked to bring in 2-3 objects that represented their experience as a student at the university. The one “rule” was that they had to be comfortable with other students handling and examining the objects.
Lesson Plan/Handout to Students on Class Day
This activity will help us ask some important questions about archival research. We’ll start by filling out a sheet for each object, each creating a catalog entry for the object. You are free to talk to others around you about how they are describing and categorizing their objects. Think about what kinds of research a person might use your object to conduct when doing this description. Make sure to describe any “handling rules” you have about the object, such as no touching, no photographing, etc. I encourage you to be very specific about these rules.
After we complete this, you’ll switch roles from being an archivist to a researcher. Place your objects on the table and stand up and walk around. Take a lap around the room and think about all the objects here. What’s a central theme that ties some of the objects together? For example, you might think about the
- material nature of objects (plastic, paper, etc.)
- symbols on the objects (W, Badgers, etc.)
- potential use of the objects
- and so on
Try to connect up at least 5 objects. When you’ve done this, take a close look at each object in your grouping. Think about some of the following questions:
- How has the former archivist cataloged it?
- Would you be able to find all of these objects under one subject heading?
- Are there handling rules that would make your research easier? harder?
You can use the chart I’ve made on the back of this sheet to jot down notes about each object and how it is positioned in our archive.
For the last part of class, spend about 5 minutes or writing about what you’re grouping of objects might say about student life. You should also write about what objects in the archive felt out of place. We’ll use this to have a quick discussion about what “archival thinking” can look like!
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I don’t remember the first time I used or saw a trigger warning online–probably in my Livejournal days or perhaps on Tumblr. Like alt text, which on Tumblr posts must be written in the actual caption space for a photo since Tumblr does not allow users to enter alt text on photo posts, I was initially struck by how trigger warnings interrupted my typical reading patterns, though in ways that I appreciated. Trigger warnings on Tumblr moved from being in the post to the tags of posts after Tumblr Savior grew more popular. Long story short, they have a long history in a number of online spaces, respond to constraints of both the form of blogging platforms and the needs of their readers, and rose from digital writers seeking to accommodate their audience.
Recently, trigger warnings have breached the digital spaces where they are maintained. Recent efforts by students at Oberlin and UC-Santa Barbara for professors to use trigger warnings on their syllabi have been met with almost total rejection by both universities, prominent popular feminist bloggers, poets, queer theorists on public and private Facebook forums, and Inside Higher Education reporters. To me the response is almost laughably reactive. The url for the New Republic article castigating trigger warnings ends with “trigger-warnings-have-spread-blogs-college-classrooms-thats-bad.” With most of what has been written I have tried to maintain a Wayne Boothian attempt to listen and understand their argument. But trigger warnings seem to have brought out the worst in us in terms of discussing how to create accessible spaces in college classrooms.
Recently Entropy Magazine published a roundtable discussion about the role of trigger warnings in the creative writing classroom, which is of distinct interest to me because trigger warning discussions are usually framed in terms of literature or cultural studies classrooms where the focus is not primarily about writing. I want to make more of that at some point but for this post I wanted to focus on how trigger warnings are often being defined in this discussion, and how trigger warnings in many ways are a stand in for the disabled student.
Sarah Schulman starts the roundtable off by giving her definition of what being triggered is:
‘Being “triggered” means being reminded of a past violation or unresolved trauma in a way that provokes a reaction to the past, in the present. The responsibility of each person is to learn how to differentiate between the past and the present so that they are not blaming, scapegoating or attacking people today for pain that they have not caused but was inflicted by others long gone. The community around the reactive, triggered person must intervene, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them, to help them be aware. The worst, most detrimental thing a friend or family can do with a triggered person is to feed the runaway train, i.e., re-enforce the delusion that they are being violated when the triggeredness is by definition an over-reaction.
The goal is for the triggered person to learn how to be aware of their own over-reaction. The goal is to learn how to say “I feel out of control” instead of acting out to destroy someone who doesn’t deserve to be treated that way.’
I really don’t buy Schulman’s understanding of being triggered. When I first read this, I was struck by her description of a triggered person “blaming, scapegoating or attacking” people who trigger them. Immediately in the context of this roundtable and in many of the discussions I’ve seen online, those who are triggered–those who have experienced trauma or have a mental illness–act violently towards those around them. The speech act of requesting accommodation is positioned as violence against “the community.” This is a fairly common trope. As Margaret Price and others have extensively documented, violence and mental illness are constantly yoked together. People who aren’t neurotypical experience a particular form of ableism where they are perceived as a physical threat to those around them. What’s sad is that there is no single response to being triggered; for me the response has ranged from stunned silence, feeling set in jelly, uncontrollable crying for hours, and other feelings depending on the context. But in classroom spaces triggering seems to almost always end with a student leaving a space either physically or mentally.
Often the neuroatypical person’s mental health is used as a way to violently separate them from the community in which they live. This is particularly true on college campuses, where hospitalization often results in students’ expulsion from school or being banned from campus. Yi Li’s op-ed in Pomona’s school newspaper shows how students who seek mental health services are roundly cut off from returning to campus life. As Yi Li describes,
When hospitalization results in residential suspension, when displaying signs of mental illness results in threats of disciplinary action, when having issues with self-harm means that I cannot be allowed to live with the sane folk, it’s easy to understand why few students are open about their struggles with mental health.
I believe a similar pattern is happening when we reject trigger warnings and their potential as accessibility tools in classroom spaces. When the model of community intervention is to remind a triggered person that s/he is ill and not normal rather than considering how to build structures into community interaction that make a space more accessible (not more safe) for someone with mental health needs, then we are not doing much better than current campus policies that expel students after they seek help.