by Alison Flood)
Students in America have been asking for "trigger warnings" to be included on works of literature which deal with topics such as rape or war.
The request was formally made by the student government at the University of California in Santa Barbara, according to the New York Times, which yesterday also cited similar requests from students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, George Washington University and other places.
Books which have been named by students as potentially requiring "trigger warnings" – the term is used to warn readers of possibly distressing material to follow – include Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and The Merchant of Venice. A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe's acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was "a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more."
"The examination of suicidal tendencies in Mrs Dalloway may trigger painful memories for students suffering from self-harm," wrote one student at Rutgers, before suggesting that "reaching a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties is imperative to fulfilling the educational potential of our university's undergraduates", and that this could be done through the use of trigger warnings, so that the plot of a story is not spoiled, but that students can "immediately learn whether courses will discuss traumatic content".
"For instance, one trigger warning for The Great Gatsby might be: (TW: "suicide," "domestic abuse" and "graphic violence")," he wrote. "Professors can also dissect a narrative's passage, warning their students which sections or volumes of a book possess triggering material and which are safer to read. This allows students to tackle passages that are not triggering but return to triggering passages when they are fully comfortable."
A student at Santa Barbara told the New York Times that she was moved to suggest implementing trigger warnings after being shown a graphic film containing rape during class. She told the paper she was a victim of sexual abuse herself, and that "people suddenly feel a very real threat to their safety – even if it is perceived. They are stuck in a classroom where they can't get out, or if they do try to leave, it is suddenly going to be very public."
As criticism swirled around the concept of trigger warnings for university literature courses – one professor told the New York Times that "the presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous" – Meredith Raimondo, Oberlin's associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that providing warnings was "responsible pedagogical practice", and that she objected to "the argument of 'Kids today need to toughen up'". "That absolutely misses the reality that we're dealing with. We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously," Raimondo told the US paper.
In the UK, professor of English at University College London John Mullan said the issue had "never come up, as far as I know".
"I think academics talk quite a lot about how particular literary texts might play to or provoke particular sensitivities – we do talk about that privately. But once we have taken the decision about courses and reading lists, we do not put health warnings on. Essentially literature is full of every kind of upsetting, provoking, awkward-making, saddening, embarrassing stuff you could ever think of. That's what it is like. [And] the time you would start labelling it with warnings – it seems to me that that way madness lies," said Mullan.
"What do you decide is upsetting, and what actions does it leave you open to [if you get it wrong]? It's treating people as if they are babies, and studying literature is for grownups at university. You might as well put a label on English literature saying: warning – bad stuff happens here."