In this series of related posts with the title “Trigger Warnings” I am talking about strategies for using “difficult” material in an adult literacy or ABE class. I’ll get to why it is important to use such material in a later post.
Usually I was aware that a piece of material might be uncomfortable or very difficult for some students, and could prepare accordingly, but once I was caught by surprise by the need for a trigger warning. As I think about it, my surprise surprises me. Did I think everyone would be comfortable talking about menstruation in an ABE class? Or did I bury any misgivings because I wanted to right an imbalance my feminist soul had noticed and railed against? It happened like this:
In an upper level ABE class one year, two women students came to me with a trigger warning that I ought to have anticipated, but didn’t.
In the book of short stories we were using in class there was a graphic story of a girl who lived on a farm, and of the day she had her first menstrual period, and with it a sudden awareness of sex and procreation.
About ten days before it was scheduled, two young women came to me to say that they had been reading ahead (which I was very happy to hear) and wanted me to cancel that short story. They didn’t think it was appropriate to read or discuss in a mixed group of men and women.
I was dismayed. So much of literature is about the sexual coming of age of boys and young men, and my feminist heart had been pleased to find this story in the textbook and to choose it for the class. And now these two wanted to cancel it! They told me they didn’t have reservations about the story itself—they had read it and found it interesting. They just didn’t want to talk about periods in a mixed group.
I kept my dismay to myself, and we talked about their dilemma—they didn’t want to be in the room when that story was discussed, but attendance was a large factor in the final grade for the course, so they didn’t want to skip class.
I said I wasn’t willing to cancel the story, but I was willing to find some sort of compromise for them.
A Preview Committee Never Formed
And why, you might ask, did I not turn the whole thing over to a group of women to decide if and how the story would be read in class? Why did I make the decision to deny their request to cancel the discussion of the story? As I look back, I see some not-so-admirable motives.
First, I didn’t think I needed a group of students to give a trigger warning for this story, because it was my group—women—that were being represented. I made an assumption about the women in the class because I am a woman. A minute of rational thought would have brought me up short, but that’s the nature of assumptions: they sneak in beneath the radar of rational thought, and you act on them before you know thought is needed.
Second, I had chosen that story because I wanted to redress an imbalance. So much of the material we read in a literature course was written by men, about men’s experience. I wanted to use that story because I wanted to see myself, my own life, reflected in the classroom. And I wanted that for all the women in the class.
In hindsight, I might have held a discussion of the story for only the women in the class, after which we might have decided to meet again about the story with the men, or not. (However, I knew from experience that action would have landed me in all sorts of hot water with the administration.)
On that day I was bound up in my own motives, so I made the decision not to honour their request to cancel the class discussion. We talked for a while, and together we came up with a solution. I would give them a written assignment about the story, based on the discussion questions I had prepared for the class, which they would work on together. In addition, they would do the assignment the rest of the class would get, and when both were complete, they would not be marked absent for the class.
Their action in coming forward warned me that the material might be troublesome for other students as well. So the next day, I told the whole class about the discussion I had had with a couple of (anonymous) students, what the story was about, what their concerns were, and the decision we had come to about the extra assignment. I offered the same option to anybody else who didn’t want to be present for the class discussion.
Nobody else took me up on it, but several things ensued:
- More people than usual read the story more carefully before class, either to find the offensive bits so they could decide whether to skip class, or to find the salacious bits, which they knew must be there after that intro!
- I was able to lead the discussion more freely because I was confident that people knew what they were getting into.
- I didn’t worry so much about “protecting” people’s sensibilities because they had opted in.
- Some students who might have been a little boisterous or crude in their comments had been warned that some people were feeling a little delicate and, I think, watched their language a bit more than usual.
Bringing Ourselves into the Classroom
It was not my finest hour, but it was what it was.
When we bring our whole selves into the classroom, and invite students to do the same, we are in for a bumpy ride. Wonderful things happen on many days. Some days we miss.
But it is never boring. It is always more engaging than when we use bland material that no one can possibly take offense to. It is always more respectful of students to use material that they can see themselves in.
When I bring my whole self to class, and students feel free to do the same, there is an inspiring mix of strengths and weaknesses. When I am not at my finest hour, some students will set me back on track. Those two lovely women, for example, had the insight and then the courage to come to me and give me the trigger warning when I didn’t see the need for it myself: I had already shown them in other ways that their experience was relevant, and they used that foundation to come to make a request that showed me how to improve a lesson I had planned.
I remember early on in my teaching ABE career, I ran into a colleague who wanted to have stories/ articles with happy endings so we didn’t add to the misery of the students lives. I couldn’t then tell her why that seemed so wrong headed to me. She didn’t want anyone upset and wanted the class to be comfortable for everyone – and I suspect most of all for her. Do they have these kinds of debates about teaching children? Are the answers any different?
Thanks for your voice here, Evelyn. I don’t know how the discussion goes amongst people who teach children. Maybe readers of this blog can tell us.
Your blogs and some online articles prompted some reflection here: https://annwalkerwea.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/parsnips-trigger-warnings-and-coddling/
Thanks as ever for sharing your experiences so openly.
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Hi Kate, While I very much like your openness in talking about this, I most like what you write about the nature of assumptions – so true the way they slip in unnoticed.
Thanks, Esther. Been fighting the assumptions I make for years–seems to be a losing battle.