Ithaca enters trigger warning debate

The university has created a "multicultural student lounge," and one prof confesses to no longer teaching sensitive material in her course.

An Ithaca College professor says she has stopped teaching sensitive material in her Sociology of Sexualities course because it has become too difficult to accommodate all of her students’ needs.

Rebecca Plante, an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca, always provided trigger warnings prior to coursework on sexual violence in her Sociology of Sexualities course.

“I had no way of knowing who in my class maybe had survived rape, had been subjected to some kind of sexual assault, who maybe had been subjected to something they had forgotten about,” Plante told The Ithacan.

However, she decided five years ago that the topic was unteachable because too many students, citing past trauma, opted out of the coursework.

She reportedly believes the absence of the sexual violence coursework is a disservice to the course, but still supports the use of trigger warnings. Throughout her teaching career, she says she has tried to balance the feelings of students with academic rigor.

“At the end of the day, do as little harm as possible to our students,” she said. “What we do do is in the service of helping students become better people, better thinkers, better human beings.”

According to Tom Swensen, chairman of the faculty council at Ithaca, faculty began debating the use of trigger warnings after the University to Chicago released a letter to incoming students telling them not to expect safe spaces or trigger warnings.

[RELATED: You won't find safe spaces here, UC dean tells freshmen]

Swensen says faculty came to the conclusion that it should be up to individual faculty members to decide whether or not they provide trigger warnings to students.

Tiffani Ziemann, Ithaca’s Title IX coordinator, said the UC letter uses a popular misconception that trigger warnings are used to coddle students. Rather, she claims, they are essential to making students feel comfortable with sensitive topics.

“I think when they are used well, it actually creates the opportunity for people to be more engaged and conversationed [sic] and feel more comfortable, because they know what they’re getting into,” she told The Ithacan.

Students weighed in on the debate as well, but like their professors, seemed to have a positive view of the warnings.

One student said trigger warnings were important because, “We can’t predict what people have gone through in their lives,” while another said “if you’re possibly going to cause trauma to a few of your students, then I feel like it’s worth it.”

Ithaca also recently embraced safe spaces, establishing a “multicultural student lounge,” although Sean Eversley Bradwell, director of programs and outreach in the Division of Educational Affairs said the lounge would not explicitly be called a “safe space.”

“It doesn’t mean that that’s not the impetus for where it comes from, because last semester students were advocating for safe spaces on campus,” Bradwell said. “The way in which I translate that for me is that they want a space where they can feel comfortable and be themselves. … The idea is providing a space where we can just come, gather, have some conversations, provide some connections.”

David Heffernan, the president of Ithaca Young Americans for Liberty, on the other hand, is concerned about the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings to avoid certain topics. An education should make people uncomfortable, he argues.

“If you have been severely impacted by one of those topics, then yes, that’s a conversation you need to have — maybe even think about dropping the course,” he said. “However, I do not condone people who wish to avoid a topic simply because it bothers them. … If you’re … listening to the same things you already know, you’re not learning.”

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