Thursday, August 20, 2015

Trigger Warnings on College Campuses

The Atlantic has published an article that correctly laments the rising use of "trigger warnings" by colleges, but which focuses on an unsupported thesis that there is something materially different about "kids these days" rather than examining why college administrators are sensitive to demands for those warnings. Don't get me wrong -- there are differences between generations, and in some ways today's college students are a lot more sensitive about wrongs than were past generations. For example, today's college students appear to be much more sensitive to and much less tolerant of racism, as compared to past generations.

A couple of decades ago, when I was in law school, my criminal law professor used sexual assault in order to illustrate some of the complexities of the law. A law professor can pose a hypothetical example of a sexual assault in which the victim sincerely believes that a sexual assault occurred, while the accused (reasonably or unreasonably) sincerely believes that everything that occurred was consensual. Such a hypothetical case allows you to examine questions of the degree to which intent should factor into criminal prosecutions, charging decisions and sentencing. Should two equivalent acts receive the same punishment, even though one offender was acting deliberately and the other was clueless? To what degree does deterring the future acts of others justify prosecuting an offender who may not have realized that he was committing a crime? Hypotheticals can also extend into cases in which consent is obtained through fraud or deception, or by a mistake of perception.

Some of the students in my section made strenuous objection to the use of sexual assault -- not to any specific example, but to its being mentioned at all -- within the classroom. The objections did not change the manner in which the class was taught, but did inspire school administrators to meet with the students who raised the objections to try to explain what the professor was hoping to accomplish and to resolve their concerns. At that time I was told by another professor that the atmosphere for discussing sexual assault cases had changed significantly, and that some professors had already stopped using sexual assault hypotheticals in the classroom despite the difficulty of formulating hypotheticals that would as clearly illustrate the legal principles they were trying to teach. The Atlantic article opens with the example of "law students asking... professors at Harvard not to teach rape law", as if it is a new development. It is not.

When I hear of demands for "trigger warnings", my response is not that students are somehow different from back when I was in college. It may be that there has been some shift in the number of students raising objections -- something that I have not seen documented -- but the primary difference appears to be that school administrators have changed how they respond to student objections. Forty years ago, the response probably would have amounted to, "It's college, and you're going to be uncomfortable at times. Get over it." When I was a student the response was more gentle, but with a similar outcome. Today, college administrators do seem much more likely to ask that a professor add "trigger warnings" or change something about a course in order to avoid making the objecting students uncomfortable.

Why would administrators change their approach?

I think the answer lies not with the modern generation of students, but with the modern approach to the funding of college education. When college education was more affordable, and colleges were less dependent upon squeezing every last tuition dollar out of a student, colleges could more easily treat their students as students. As states have chosen to reduce their support for public colleges, colleges have increasingly had to fight for every dollar. Part of that process has involved making life a lot easier, and a lot more comfortable, for students. Part of that process involves catering to a vocal minority that, if not appeased, is likely to create negative publicity for a college or take its tuition dollars elsewhere.

The authors write,
The press has typically described these developments as a resurgence of political correctness. That’s partly right, although there are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and ’90s. That movement sought to restrict speech (specifically hate speech aimed at marginalized groups), but it also challenged the literary, philosophical, and historical canon, seeking to widen it by including more-diverse perspectives. The current movement is largely about emotional well-being.
I think, here, that the authors are looking at two different forms of response by college administrators. There was no ambiguity in the classroom instruction -- sexual assault was presented as a bad thing, empathy was extended to the victim even when the hypothetical posited an offender who did not realize that he had committed a crime, and nobody questioned why "'No' means 'no'" was sensible policy. The students who objected to any reference to sexual assault in our criminal law class were not interested in widening the discussion or including additional viewpoints. Had our professor been less sensitive, perhaps an administrator would have advised him as to how to introduce the subject in a more sensitive manner, but the key difference seems to be that the administrators were not receptive to demands that material be removed from classroom instruction on the basis that it created discomfort for some of the students.

While the authors of the article describe the efforts in our society to make life more safe for children, I think that they overstate their conclusions. They write, "children born after 1980 — the Millennials — got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well." I disagree that the underlying message is "Life is dangerous" but, more than that, it's difficult to see that as a distinction from prior generations. Doe the authors believe that in the past generations, parents were teaching kids that "life is safe", even when that was patently untrue? Did the generation that grew up a century ago, spending their early childhood in an age before polio vaccination and where infant mortality was common, who experienced the Great Depression, who were born around the time of World War I and saw the country go through World War II (perhaps fighting in that war) under the impression that life was safe? I somehow doubt it.

Perhaps the difference is that parents of past generations of kids told them, "Life is dangerous, but you're on your own, kid -- you can't count on me to keep you safe"? No, that doesn't seem plausible, either.

I think the authors stray off of the rails when they suggest that political partisanship may be a significant contributing factor, based on "survey data going back to the 1970s". The authors are certainly aware that past generations have also experienced times of fierce political partisanship. Our country even once had a civil war. I also have little sense that students arriving on campus are more politically aware than those of past generations. So when the authors suggest that "students arriving on campus today might be more desirous of protection and more hostile toward ideological opponents than in generations past", it seems fair to point out that they're engaged in conjecture, and that they haven't adequately supported a theory that even they phrase as conjecture. Similarly, when describing the advent of social media, the authors write,
These first true “social-media natives” may be different from members of previous generations in how they go about sharing their moral judgments and supporting one another in moral campaigns and conflicts.
Or... they may not be any different.

The authors note that faculty members may be concerned about being attacked on social media, something that might explain why faculty members and administrators are perhaps hypersensitive to certain student complaints, but that's not an observation about the students.

The authors state,
We do not mean to imply simple causation, but rates of mental illness in young adults have been rising, both on campus and off, in recent decades. Some portion of the increase is surely due to better diagnosis and greater willingness to seek help, but most experts seem to agree that some portion of the trend is real.
If they're not suggesting "simple causation", what form of causation do they in fact intend to imply? What changes in diagnosis rates has occurred, and for what mental illnesses? Which mental illnesses are now more frequently diagnosed, and what portion of the increase for any given mental illness do the authors believe might be associated with calls for "trigger warnings"? When they speak of "experts", what are the qualifications of the experts whose views they have examined and deemed relevant? What does it mean to "seem to agree", as opposed to expressing actual agreement? It's really easy to make a nebulous, speculative assertion in support of an argument, but if you want it to carry weight you have to provide some amount of substance.

The authors suggest that changes in the interpretation of federal civil rights law that occurred in 2013 might play a role in the changes, but that argument seems weak on a number of fronts. First, the trends they are describing started long before 2013. Second, the average student is completely unaware of those changes. Third, to the extent that administrators are responding by being hypersensitive not only to situations implicated by the actual changes, but to situations well beyond their scope, that suggests a problem with the administrators and not the students. To the extent that interpretations of the law by federal agencies are making it more difficult to teach effectively on campus, those organizations should reconsider or clarify their interpretations, but it's not the fault of either students or federal agencies if college administrators impose policies that extend far beyond what the law requires.

The article continues into what I see as some rather odd armchair psychology, such as the suggestion that triggering material could benefit sensitive students by desensitizing them to a trauma. Even if we assume that the people demanding trigger warnings are doing so because of their own sensitivities, as opposed to those of others, there is a difference between a sensitivity and a phobia -- and no psychologist in his right mind is going to conflate random encounters with material that triggers a phobic reaction or PTSD is a proper alternative for a professionally conducted process intended to desensitize and individual. In fact, you're apt to learn that such an approach could worsen the phobia.

They share a couple of example of "catastrophizing" that are about college administrators:
Catastrophizing rhetoric about physical danger is employed by campus administrators more commonly than you might think—sometimes, it seems, with cynical ends in mind. For instance, last year administrators at Bergen Community College, in New Jersey, suspended Francis Schmidt, a professor, after he posted a picture of his daughter on his Google+ account. The photo showed her in a yoga pose, wearing a T-shirt that read I will take what is mine with fire & blood, a quote from the HBO show Game of Thrones. Schmidt had filed a grievance against the school about two months earlier after being passed over for a sabbatical. The quote was interpreted as a threat by a campus administrator, who received a notification after Schmidt posted the picture; it had been sent, automatically, to a whole group of contacts. According to Schmidt, a Bergen security official present at a subsequent meeting between administrators and Schmidt thought the word fire could refer to AK-47s.

Then there is the eight-year legal saga at Valdosta State University, in Georgia, where a student was expelled for protesting the construction of a parking garage by posting an allegedly “threatening” collage on Facebook. The coll[e]ge described the proposed structure as a “memorial” parking garage—a joke referring to a claim by the university president that the garage would be part of his legacy. The president interpreted the collage as a threat against his life.
I don't think that the dean who complained about Francis Schmidt was identified, but I doubt that the dean was a 'Millennial'. The president of Valdosta State University appears to have been in his late sixties at the time of the incident, so it's safe to say that he's not a millennial. Those actions may not represent the best of what we hope to impart to college students, but they appear to support for the argument that the primary source of the problem lies with college administrators as opposed to students.

The article also references an incident in which an instructor's joke was misinterpreted by a student and reported as a threat, resulting in the instructor's suspension. It is no surprise that college administrators are sensitive to potential violence on campus, and does not appear to be in question that the response in that case was an overreaction. It's difficult to see how the incident has anything to do with students being too sensitive, as opposed to there being an understandable concern (even if magnified by the spotlight effect) about violence on campus.

My preferred approach would not be seen as very sensitive to those who are concerned about potential triggering, or who are inclined to reinvent innocuous statements as "microaggressions": I would like to see colleges instruct incoming freshmen that the can expect their ideas to be challenged as they come into contact with other students, professors, and materials that reflect opinions and perspectives different from their own, and that the risk of being at times upset or offended is inherent to the learning process. I would trust professors who were planning to use particularly disturbing or potentially offensive materials to warn their students; for the most part it's difficult to think of scenarios where the nature of the material that will be presented in a course is not foreshadowed by the subject matter. Students who are hypersensitive would be free to explore their options within that framework, or to consider other colleges. The small but influential population of students who want to protect not only themselves, but to protect others from any form of actual or or potential offense would be on notice that the administration will focus on incidents of actual bias and discrimination, but won't be tying itself in knots trying to ensure that nobody is ever offended.

Will that happen? Perhaps at a college that is not dependent upon accepting most or all of the students who apply. But as long as colleges are in the position of having to treat students like customers, I don't expect that this sort of trend will reverse itself -- and I find myself in full agreement with the authors' underlying position that this trend isn't good for anybody

2 comments:

  1. This happens in K-12 too. Every student walks in with a price tag above their head. If a parent gets pissed for any reason or for no reason and pulls their kids (as they can, thanks to school choice), then that money goes away. I have see the effects, as when a principal was afraid to discipline students lest the parents pull the kid. Parents who didn't like a teacher and requested a new one were accommodated, usually without question. The kids are running the schools, and we all know it.

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