Toward a Trauma-Informed Pedagogy: The University of Oregon Adds to the Ranks of Generation Wimp

Kudos to The Daily Emerald, the student-run newspaper of the University of Oregon, for providing us with a damning portrait of the intellectually crippling concept of “trigger warnings.”

We are supplied with real-world examples of students who want to be protected from anything unpleasant and professors who, in the name of a “trauma-informed pedagogy,” undermine the entire purpose of higher education.

The writer of the May 9, 2022 article, Trigger warnings: essential or excessive? tries his best to be even-handed and is more than fair to the pro-wimpification, trigger-warning students and instructors he quotes. But the sheer idiocy of the advocates of the therapeutic university comes across loud and clear.

Note, for example, the use of the term “accessibility” in the subheading of the article:

Some see trigger warnings in the classroom as an essential issue of accessibility, while others worry they stifle discussion. The truth may be more complex.

Here we have students who wish to be shielded from discussions of topics that upset them cloaking themselves in the mantle of “disability” and turning the whole concept of accessibility on its head.

Instead of “accessibility” meaning enabling physically disabled people to gain access to classrooms and other settings that had once been literally impossible for them to enter, the term “accessibility” in the case of trigger warnings means neutering class discussion and lectures to such an extent that anyone who does not want to acknowledge that violence and oppression exist can safely sit in a university classroom and be assured that everything will be utterly anodyne. This, obviously, is not what universities are for and is a violation of the rights of students who want to grapple with the world as it is and get an education.

Hilariously, we learn from the article is that those who cater to those who are easily upset find themselves upsetting that quick-to-take-umbrage group:

…a faculty consultant with UO’s Teaching Engagement Program, said. “Some of the research says that there might even be a slight increase in anxiety levels when students see trigger warnings.”

What next—pre-trigger-warning warnings? Maybe something like this, “Warning: proceeding further towards contact with university education could result in exposure to emotionally upsetting trigger warnings.”

And take a look at how broadly the category of “marginalized” is painted:

Likewise, students with marginalized identities — including women, students of color, trans and non-binary students, low-income students and disabled students — are more likely to be triggered as a result of the systemic oppression they face.

Wow. I did not realize that simply being a woman makes me marginalized.

The article does a service by quoting the psychobabble here:

a UO professor of English and disability studies, [argues that] trigger warnings are unquestionably linked to promoting accessibility in the classroom.

“I find them to be an essential feature of universal design in learning,”… I feel they are commonly misunderstood as coddling students, or treating students as if they are breakable or little snowflakes or something.”

It is fascinating how the therapeutically-inclined professoriate gloms onto concepts such as universal design (which was originally meant to assist the disabled in a variety of settings and improve their experiences with tools and services) which have nothing whatever to do with the free speech-squelching trigger warning movement and twists them out of all recognition. It’s all just jargon and cover for speech crushing.

This professor is right about one thing. These students, who are supposedly so easily traumatized, are indeed not little snowflakes. Rather, they are exceedingly aggressive in their ferocious determination to control the speech of their instructors and to render classrooms as idea-free as possible.

Take this student quoted in the article—note how she deems it a right not to be exposed to information—and does not seem at all concerned that some of her classmates might not want to have to wade through trigger warnings:

…the freshman student, said trigger warnings and trauma-informed accommodations should be a right for students at the university, regardless of their use in other spaces.

“I understand the argument ‘oh, the real world’s not like that, you don’t get a trigger warning…But this is a class you’re taking at a school you pay for. You should know what you’re walking in for and how to be prepared for it.”

One would think that it would be obvious enough that a class about, say, sexuality, might involve discussions of rape or that a history class is probably going to cover war and its associated not-so-cheery aspects.

And it is not just students who are being rendered into total wimps by the ever-growing therapeutic staffing component of universities these days. As our trusty faculty consultant with the UO Teaching Engagement Program says:

…in addition to students, faculty can be triggered or disrupted by certain material and might need additional support.

“I think that most of us –– students, faculty, everyone –– have experienced in some way over the last two years what kind of toll on us, from health, emotional, financial, what kind of toll that can take on our ability to learn, our ability to be productive and present with our colleagues…”

Yeah, everyone is an emotional wreck. Let’s just give up on modeling resilience for young people. Colleges should no longer be venues for truth seeking or vocational training. They should be converted into a nationwide network of counseling centers for the psychologically fragile.

Note that even the professors who try to fend off the rise of the trigger warning mobs are little better than milquetoasts, who employ the same therapeutic language as the mob:

a UO professor of political science, said that while calling attention to sensitive or triggering content is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of grappling with uncomfortable material

a UO professor of English and Latinx studies, said he believes safe spaces are not suitable for classroom learning, though they may have a place in other campus environments

I encourage my students to think about the classroom as a ‘brave space,’ where we can have difficult conversations — and yes, learn through materials that can be triggering — in a kind of classroom environment built on trust and vulnerability

None of the professors says anything like, “You know what? My job as a professor is to forthrightly address the entire human experience and not sugarcoat the uglier aspects of the lives of others of the past or present. That is my duty to them and to the adult students at this institution.”

What is astonishing in this article is how so many of the instructors say that they offer detailed trigger warnings on syllabi and allow students to opt out of triggering content. One even goes so far as to flag specific page numbers.

For heaven’s sake, is a professor of American literature supposed to state in a handout, “Something very bad happens to Blanche DuBois on page…” and excuse any student from having to answer an exam question about that? Is a history professor now expected to say, “In our next class session, we are going to discuss something that occurs in war that involves men and women and anyone who might be triggered by such discussion is excused from class or reading any material connected with such historical phenomena.”

Quite bizarrely, the faculty consultant with the UO Teaching Engagement Program even argues that depriving students of education and exposure to ideas endows them with agency and the ability to make informed decisions. Huh?

Very few of the people in the article seem to believe that treating the entire student body as a mass of traumatized jelly is bad for education:

…some faculty are seeking to establish a trauma-informed pedagogy; a set of teaching and learning methods that are sensitive to difficult material and students’ lived experiences, while also providing space for open dialogue and honest conversation.

Dialogue? When students can simply opt out of class sessions? What are the criteria for these opt-outs save the say-so of the supposedly traumatized and capricious rulings by individual professors? What about the rights of the students who are doing all the coursework and not picking and choosing what assignments to complete?

This is scary for faculty and anyone who cares about academic freedom—and note how the UO professor of political science quoted is determined to teach her students to regard themselves as victims:

We have a lot of debates about free and open speech on campuses these days, because they come into conflict with the idea of holding safe space, ostensibly. I absolutely disagree with that…No space is absolutely safe, right, but if you pay attention and learn the tools of regulation and teaching people to notice their own discomfort and how it arises in these certain ways, then what you do is create a space with more diversity of opinion, and more safety of expression.

And, surprise, surprise, the faculty consultant with the UO Teaching Engagement Program is totally onboard with the idea of making students hyper-aware of the possibility that they are oppressed and/or traumatized and therefore need to be cordoned off from university education as such and instead treated more or less as mental health patients—and that handing over quite a bit of authority to young people who consider themselves to be so mentally frail is good design:

it’s all about what design choices we can make that will help students do that kind of self-regulation for themselves

That is the American university for you today.

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