Skepticism about trigger warnings in class

LTEWEB letter

From: Jennifer Ballengee, University Senate Chair and English professor at Towson University

The Towerlight published an article titled “SGA updates student body on progress of platform promises,” in its Feb. 6 issue. The article included a quote from SGA President James Mileo who said, “If we get [the trigger warning initiative] passed, it shows the faculty are acknowledging mental health on campus and that mental health affects education.” 

There are a couple of things about this statement that I want to tease out.

 First, if some faculty are resistant to the trigger warning initiative, this does not necessarily mean they don’t care about student health. In fact, in some ways, some faculty may feel they are acting in students’ best health interests in affording them the opportunity to deal with challenging ideas in the safe space of the classroom — and thus coming to some greater understanding of these serious issues within a supportive community, rather than when they are suddenly and violently sprung on one in “real life.” Many have argued, and a number of studies confirm, that the kind of hypothetical “thinking in an emergency” that can happen in a classroom makes people better equipped to deal with such traumatic incidents when they occur in one’s life.  

In addition, the trigger warning reflects upon faculty curriculum in a way that some faculty feel strongly about—and in some cases for good reason. We are in a supportive university environment at Towson, but you can see the kind of nationalist, even fascist, fervor that’s happening around the world (and in some respects in our own nation), and in some places in our world even now there are governmental controls over what can and can’t be taught. I think that the direction our country has seemed headed in recently may remind us that it is not impossible that that sort of censorship could happen even in our own country. The fear of that is one of the main reasons for academic freedom, and the reason that some faculty are protective of their syllabi. I’m not saying that either of these positions are my own viewpoint, but I want to suggest that they are legitimate viewpoints, and that neither is reflective upon a general attitude about the importance of student health.

Second, the problem as I see it isn’t that faculty don’t acknowledge mental health or its effect on education. I’m not sure where this idea is coming from. Every faculty member I know at TU recognizes quite clearly how mental health impacts education, and feels strongly that they want the best mental health support possible for students at TU. Indeed, most faculty I know—including myself—have found themselves needing to negotiate students’ mental health inside and outside of the classroom, whether simply in providing support and understanding or in managing violent outbursts that may come from traumatized or otherwise suffering students.  So we care about mental health for students. The problem is that more resources at TU need to be devoted to supporting mental health needs here. This is the reason we are short of counselors, and other mental health facilities and support mechanisms. This is a budget question, one that the TU administration determines. In my opinion, that should be our first concern: building the resources that our growing student body needs for mental health (which is necessary for academic success) before we sink millions into a fancy gym and athletic complex, for example.  Physical health is also very important, of course; but in my opinion, mental health should come first.

I wish I could help the student body see that faculty at TU are on the side of students. If the faculty members here didn’t care about teaching and students, many of us would have chosen different (more lucrative) career paths. We are here because we care deeply about students and about the value of education, for everyone. 

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