Prof: Trigger warnings 'serious threats' to teaching English

An English professor at Columbia University Teachers College recently argued that trigger warnings can pose “serious threats” to English education.

Adam Wolfsdorf, who teaches graduate classes on Shakespeare, just published his concerns on trigger warnings in an article entitled “Reflecting on Functioning in Trigger Happy America” in the peer-reviewed journal Changing English.

“Trigger warnings are posing serious threats to the ways that English educators can teach at the university level,” argues Wolfsdorf, who taught English for 18 years at the high school level, and is now in his fifth year of teaching at the Columbia University Teachers College.

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In a list of six possible consequences of trigger warnings, he argues that they “foster a culture where student fragility is promoted over the development of resilience,” and can “encourage students to avoid intense literary moments that they may perceive as too powerful.”

Trigger warnings could also “handicap English teachers by censoring or casting certain literary moments as taboo,” and cripple “artistic freedom by arbitrarily sanctioning what is and what is not appropriate for class discussion and student experience,” he notes.

In an interview with Campus Reform, Wolfsdorf said that he was inspired to write on trigger warnings after realizing that academic debate on the issue was “void of significant academic research.”

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“Although I had my own personal opinions on trigger warnings, I thought the conflict deserved more dignity,” he explained.

Instead of giving trigger warnings, he hopes that English teachers—and teachers at large—will create a classroom environment that encourages trust, respect, and courage. Although Wolfsdorf does worry about students who have faced trauma, the English classroom is “not therapy,” he points out.

“So, I simply think that a teacher or professor who does his or her best to encourage a learning culture that respects students, values their opinions, and promotes a therapeutic learning environment is the way to go,” he says.

“At the end of the day, we are trying to arm our students for reality—to build their resilience,” he concludes. “Being over-protective, even if well-intended, does more damage than good.”

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