Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

Trigger Warnings, Trauma, and an F for the University of Chicago

acceptance_letterYesterday was my first day teaching for the academic year. I run the Poetry for the People Program at UC Berkeley, and I teach poetry, spoken word, and pedagogy. Just before I went back into the classroom, I encountered this piece of news, coming from University of Chicago. A letter from Dean John Ellison to the incoming class of 2020 warned the students that “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’….and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

If Dean Ellison’s letter this were a student paper, here is some of the feedback that I might give:

John, I see that you are trying to take a stand for academic freedom, but your analysis falls short because your premise is faulty. You suggest that students would create safe spaces to retreat from ideas with which they disagree. Did you fail to do the reading, John? In the pieces I assigned about trauma, there’s a clear delineation between intellectual opinions and the kind of trauma that can be triggered by certain words or images. Your essay falsely equates those who are intolerant to new ideas with those who are triggered by material that restimulates past experiences of trauma. I agree that the intolerance needs to be challenged. But I also believe strongly that trauma needs to be adequately and thoughtfully addressed in the university environment.

Part of the problem with today’s university education is that it is not adequately preparing students for the world. The university was originally developed to serve the needs of wealthy white men. They were assumed to be free of trauma and privileged to spend their time contemplating abstract intellectual concepts. In reality, it was those men who were intolerant to new ideas, whose intellectual narrowness and biases were enshrined in the university’s culture, canon, and admission policies.

Over the centuries, the university has evolved into a sort of Frankenstein monster, with professional schools and more practical fields stitched onto the original liberal arts core. It has become a much more diverse environment, with women, people of color, immigrants, and people from poor and working class backgrounds. As a whole, the university culture has never really invested the necessary resources to make the experience culturally competent to serve all these communities, rather expecting new folks to assimilate into the old, white, male, middle/upperclass culture. As I’ve written before, this institutional culture was founded at a time where privileged men’s sexual access to women–consensual or not–has always been protected. Therefore, as colleges have become co-ed, they have always been bastions for sexual violence. When faced with the choice of protecting the status of the original male student or the status of the newcomer female, they default to their old ways. Finally, this bias toward the rapist is being effectively challenged, but very, very, slowly.

Not only are female students traumatized in the university setting, but students, both male and female have backgrounds of sexual trauma. Given the high rates of child sexual abuse before the age of 18, we can expect to have those trauma histories in the classroom. In addition to sexual trauma, participants bring many different kinds of trauma into the classroom. What do we do with that information? According to your essay, John, we ignore it.

But I believe there’s a better way. Educators are beginning to speak about trauma-informed schools. I have consistently run my classroom as a trauma-informed environment. But that requires that the faculty be informed about trauma, and be comfortable integrating trauma education into the curriculum where appropriate, and be able to manage student trauma responses in the classroom. Best practices occur when teachers integrate tools for managing trauma into their curriculum.

When schools revert to the model of ignoring trauma and not seeing students’ vulnerabilities, they reinforce existing hierarchies and power dynamics in the larger society: men, white folks, able bodied, cis folks, heterosexuals and and upper class individuals dominate. In fact, the very reluctance of higher education to look at trauma is part of middle and upperclass culture. We’re fine. We don’t have any of those problems.

The lie of trauma and young people is that getting to college means that a young person is trauma-free. The rates of depression, suicide, substance abuse, self-harm, addictions, eating disorders, and anxiety in college paint another picture. However, the process of developing emotional intelligence, coming to terms with our difficult individual, family, and group histories, is generally under-resourced in colleges. These concerns are dealt with outside the classroom, burdened with stigma or secrecy, and given attention haphazardly. Developing the skills to manage one’s own trauma would be a crucial toolbox to help students build during their college years. This would go further than many classes in preparing them to thrive as adults. But John, it’s really your culture–old, male, white, economically privileged–that is challenged and made uncomfortable by revealing these realities of trauma. Because male culture and white culture and privileged class culture is uncomfortable with emotions. So it is your culture that is silencing the debate.

In this day and age, all young people entering college have some significant level of trauma. This reality is inevitable, given the persistently oppressive nature of our societies to young people. All students enter college with the baggage of having their intelligence, agency and power systematically belittled, undermined, and denied while they were children. This is not to mention instances of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. And your institution continues the mistreatment. Your letter is a typical example of the bait and switch:

The University of Chicago website promises that “A transformative education….Our education empowers individuals to challenge conventional thinking…”

But then, after the students accept admission, and arrive at school, they are told that the university fully subscribes to the conventional thinking with regard to trauma.

In other words:

If you were expecting safe spaces or trigger warnings, too bad. We already have your tuition money. You turned down the other schools. Sorry suckers. If you don’t like it, you can always drop out.

In closing, John, your ideas are ill-formed and cliche. I regret that you will not receive a passing grade for this essay. Feel free to try submit another draft. I know these ideas about trauma are challenging and new to you, but as a trauma-informed classroom, I’m glad to give you another chance.



One comment on “Trigger Warnings, Trauma, and an F for the University of Chicago

  1. Noelle Hanrahan
    August 29, 2016

    Ok this piece was just BRILLIANT!!!!! Made laugh and angry at the same time.

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This entry was posted on August 26, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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Aya wins first place Independent Publisher Awards for UPTOWN THIEF, THE BOSS, THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS

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