Don’t Fear the Weeper: Trauma, Triggers, and Feelings

9 Jun

Recently, a couple of prominent think-pieces on academia and feelings have been circulating, at least amongst those in academia (I’m not sure what the rest of the world thinks of them). The first has grown in popularity and infamy: “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” on Vox. The premise of the piece is that the professor–Edward Schlosser, by pseudonym–is too afraid of the feelings of his students to engage them in controversial topics. He fears not causing them to feel things, but of “hurting their feelings,” since students–he claims–are so oversensitive that hurting their feelings causes them to lodge formal complaints against their faculty. For a non-tenured faculty member, such complaints could mean termination or a failure to secure tenure.

My gut reaction to this piece was to scoff. As a non-tenured faculty member, it never once occurred to me that I needed to be considerate of my students’ hurt feelings beyond basic human decency. What that means, to me, anyway, is being aware of things that might be triggering for students who have undergone trauma (so that when I teach Othello, for instance, I will tell students if they are uncomfortable discussing act five, they don’t have to come to class). It means that in my syllabus there is a section that tells students if they are not comfortable speaking about a topic, they can write up a private email–not to explain why, but to send their thoughts in private when they have time to consider them… or not. Their choice. It means that sensitive topics need to be handled sensitively–but not ignored. It means, sometimes, talking about using appropriate terms and discouraging the use of terms which are hurtful, and talking about why. It means allowing students to leave the room if they feel they need to, or allowing them not to come to class (with or without an explanation–my students get three “free” days away from class, for any reason they wish).

I also consider it part of my responsibility as an educator to not avoid topics that cause heightened emotion. We need to talk about the isms of the world–sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, agism, elitism–and talking about those things is going to be upsetting to some students, often for wildly different reasons. But that is precisely why we need to talk about them. Not talking about them is far worse.

This is why I was happy to see Vox publish a follow-up: “I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all” by Amanda Taub, not a pseudonym. Taub does exactly what I wanted her to do–explains that students need to feel some discomfort in order to learn, and that it’s her job to do that. She’s also willing to take risks that the pseudonymous Schlosser is not: she uses her real name, and she speaks up even though she’s a woman in a still-male-dominated field (either internet journalism or academia, take your pick).

But at the same time, I can’t help but think of Dr. Laura Kipnis, a female professor at Northwestern who was accused of violating Title IX for suggesting that some female students at Northwestern were taking victimization too far. Kipnis wrote a piece on faculty dating or married to former students, specifically criticizing a new ban on such relationships when they occur between consenting adults and in which there is no coercion (relationships with current students are almost always a problem because of this coercive power).

In the piece, she mentions other prohibitions, which she terms “draconian,” such as sexual jokes, advances made to co-workers or former students (which may or may not be reciprocated), and similar behaviors. She notes that if unwanted, such actions ought not to be engaged in, but also points out that some things–like asking someone on a date–might not be obviously unwanted until attempted. Kipnis states that “Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma.” It is this idea–that even an extremely minor misunderstanding was grounds for “lasting trauma”–that Kipnis finds particularly problematic, since it tacitly (she suggests) permits students to claim trauma where there realistically is none.

A refrain familiar from Schlosser’s Vox piece–hurt feelings leading to potentially career-ending repercussions for a faculty member who is largely innocent of wrongdoing, and certainly not on the level of the punishments with which he or she might be threatened.

Where Kipnis got into trouble was in bringing up a current case at Northwestern–she does not mention names, but she does talk about the case (she is not the first to do so publicly, it is worth noting). That led to protests on campus (some of which involved mattress-carrying) and two students accusing her of a Title IX violation in making female students feel “unsafe” on campus. (Kipnis’s description of her reaction here.)

Kipnis’s experience is precisely the thing which Schlosser fears, and I have to say, I sympathize with them both on some level. I don’t really understand the harm in Kipnis’s blog post (I don’t agree with it, but disagreement is not grounds for a Title IX suit), and find it disturbing that faculty around the nation are being cautioned against speaking their minds in print, online, and on social media, lest someone at their institution (administration or student) disagree and find in it grounds for reprimand or dismissal.

I get that. Particularly as I watch the disintegration of my undergraduate alma mater (University of Wisconsin-Madison) at the hands of Scott Walker, I can only feel horror at the curtailing of academic freedom running rampant throughout the academy. And–particularly in Kipnis’s case–I see echoes of what I saw in GamerGate and continue to see in movements like #AllLivesMatter: the idea that somehow, to quote Laurie Penny, “speaking about prejudice is itself prejudice” (Unspeakable Things, 65).

[Note: I know this is also complicated by one’s own social position–whether one is tenured or not, certainly, but also what department one is in; whether one is a POC, a woman, a queer person; one’s age or marital status; and so on. Some people have a greater ability to speak out than others simply because they are able to risk less in order to do so. This piece does not judge individual choices to speak out (or not), nor one’s choice to use (or not) a pseudonym in order to avoid backlash.]

What bothers me is the idea that we either have to avoid controversy entirely (Schlosser’s suggestion) or be censored in the worst possible way. There must be a middle line, a space in between offensiveness and complete banality in which we can continue to do what Taub does and what I hope I do–challenge our students to question the things they read, see, and experience, to question the status quo not in order to destroy it, but to discover which parts of it serve society and which parts hold it back; to embrace just enough discomfort to make necessary a willingness to strive for change.