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August 10, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Warning: Content

“What the %@$*?” I thought to myself every time this guy in my 100-level Political Science class raised his hand to try to convince everyone that New Zealand should abolish the Treaty of Waitangi and adopt a Chinese form of Communism. #ControversialOpinion

University is supposed to be a great place to get to ‘Know Your Mind’. As learners in our richly diverse academic community, students are constantly challenging themselves and being challenged by those around them, debating and discussing issues facing New Zealand and the world. This raises a difficult question – how should highly controversial and triggering content be dealt with when some vulnerable members of our university community have been affected by the issues we’re discussing?

Triggering can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. Narrowly, a person who has suffered trauma might be provoked or triggered when faced with images, writing, discussion, or any other thing that takes them back to the initial traumatic event and may cause them to relive it. Broadly, a person affected by a particular issue may become distressed. Whether we interpret triggering narrowly or broadly, the situation remains that sometimes, classroom discussions around controversial content go far beyond mere difference of opinion and can cause vulnerable students to feel unsafe.

Victoria offers many courses that explore triggering content. This content includes sexual violence, domestic abuse, mental health and suicide, abortion, race relations, gender issues, sex and sexuality, and other contentious and highly sensitive issues. Some of these courses are compulsory for majors or degrees. For example, a student pursuing an LLB who has been sexually assaulted cannot avoid taking Law of Torts or Criminal Law, which both closely examine the explicit details of legal cases that involve sexual violence.

I sat down with Professor Simon Keller, an academic in Philosophy, to talk about his teaching on the ethics of abortion and his thoughts on teaching triggering content here at Victoria. He strongly believes that exploring highly contentious issues is a core part of studying the humanities and social sciences, and said: “I’d feel I wasn’t doing my job if I wasn’t making my students feel uncomfortable, challenged, or like what we’re discussing is relevant to their own lives.” He said that, while he has “certainly had some obnoxious students” making vocal contributions in his classes, it is important that students learn to think critically and consider views they find “outrageous.” He interprets triggering more narrowly, and is not aware of any of his students suffering from post-traumatic stress as a result of any content taught in his classes.

I prefer to interpret triggering more broadly. It’s an incredible privilege to be able to
debate controversial or triggering issues in courses from a purely academic and intellectual standpoint. If you’re a woman discussing gender issues, Māori discussing the relevance of the Treaty of Waitangi, or not white and discussing race issues, then you are personally invested in the point of class discussion. This is not just your opinion: this is your life experience.

In conversations with students, overwhelmingly the response has been that it is crucial to explore this controversial content at university. Many students felt that issues like domestic violence, mental health and suicide are often swept under the rug, and need to be discussed. Other students believe these conversations can raise awareness of social issues like gender, sexuality and race, and help students develop tolerance. Considering the value of teaching this content, how can we ensure all students – especially vulnerable students – feel safe in their learning environment?

The question of how to deal with triggering course content has sparked controversy recently among the academic community in the United States. Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college in Ohio, has developed an extensive policy on trigger warnings. The policy interprets triggering broadly, stating: “Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma.” It goes on: “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” The policy suggests that triggering content be removed from courses where it does not contribute directly to specified learning objectives, or otherwise, students should be issued with a warning of upcoming triggering material.

If a similar trigger policy were to be pursued here at Victoria, it may risk similar criticism for impinging upon academic freedom. Section 161 of the Education Act 1989 defines academic freedom as “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.”

Asher Emanuel, a tutor in Law of Torts, delivers and facilitates discussion around triggering content. He sees this kind of content as giving rise to issues of accessibility, saying: “The University should work towards making education accessible to everyone.” He notes that different learners have different needs, and that “some students need to avoid encountering distressing content in circumstances that are difficult or impossible for them to control.” In order to accommodate those different needs, he takes care in his teaching, indicating at the beginning of his classes that he expects everyone offering opinions to be considered when approaching discussion on serious or distressing issues.

If university students are supposed to constantly be challenging themselves and others, then here is a challenge for the university – how are we going to maintain a safe, accessible learning environment for our most vulnerable students?

Rāwinia Thompson,
Academic Vice-President

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