Students studying the archaeology of modern conflict at University College, London, have been told they are permitted to leave class if they find the discussion of historical events “disturbing” or traumatising. This does not surprise me. Shielding students from topics deemed sensitive is fast gaining influence in academic life.
My colleague at another university showed a picture of an emaciated Hungarian Jewish woman liberated from a death camp. A student, yelled out, “stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised”, disrupting his lecture on the Hungarian Holocaust. After the student complained of distress, caused by the disturbing image, my colleague was told by an administrator to be more careful when discussing such a sensitive subject. “How can I teach the Holocaust without unsettling my students?” asked my friend. Academics who now feel they have to mind their words are increasingly posing such questions.
Throughout the Anglo-American world universities have drawn up protocols warning of exposing students to “sensitive subjects”. Astonishingly, the university is now subject to practices that demand levels of conformism historically associated with narrow-minded, illiberal institutions. The terms “sensitive subject” or “challenging subject” are used by administrators to designate a class of topics portrayed as a risk to students’ wellbeing.
Take the statement on the use of sensitive material produced by the University of Newcastle’s school of English literature, language and linguistics. It assumes that since topics that depict “distressing life events and situations” require special handling, teachers should help students “prepare themselves to study challenging material”.
What constitutes “challenging material”? For generations of undergraduates the term was associated with complex and intellectually demanding topics. Most sociology students tackling Max Weber’s Economy and Society or linguistics undergraduates engaging with Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar found the material challenging. The new meaning of “challenging” has little to do with the complexity or the difficulty of the subject matter – it refers entirely to the potential of a subject to unsettle students.
Guidelines use words such as “challenging” or “sensitive” subjects to communicate the idea that they should be taught differently to apparently non-sensitive topics. Since in the humanities and social sciences almost any topic may prove sensitive to some students, academics are encouraged to adopt the role of amateur clinicians.
The invention of the category of a “sensitive subject” is itself significant. It designates a moral contrast between it and other academic topics. There is no clear objective criterion by which to judge when a topic is sensitive, and the search for such a criterion raises the questions “sensitive for whom?” and “sensitive to what?” The only possible answer is “sensitive for potentially anyone and to anything”. This point is recognised by guidelines advocating the use of trigger warnings. Oberlin College, Ohio, advised its faculty that “anything could be a trigger – a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on”, and concluded that “some triggers cannot be anticipated, but many can”.
It is difficult to think of any powerful literary text that does not disturb a reader’s sensibility. Consequently virtually any classic text could incite a demand for a trigger warning. A Durham University student complained that his class was “expected to sit through lectures and tutorials discussing Lavinia’s rape in Titus Andronicus”, though he was delighted that “we did get a trigger warning about bestiality with regard to part of the lecture on A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, once sensitivity becomes a commanding value in academic teaching, the range of topics deemed sensitive will expand. This has far-reaching implications for academic teaching. Once the teaching of an academic topic becomes subordinated to a criterion that is external to it – such as the value of sensitivity – it risks losing touch with the integrity of its subject matter. At the very least, academics have to become wary of teaching topics in accordance with their own inclination as to what is the right way of communicating their subject.
Sadly, far too many academics have responded to the pressure to protect students from disturbing ideas by censoring themselves.