5 Questions for . . .
If you read The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or any other magazine or journal that draws attention to social trends, you've read a lot about "microagressions" and "trigger warnings." The use of these terms appears to be having a significant impact on discourse in universities and schools. For this issue's digital forum, therefore, we have turned to a group of educators and students to weigh in on the topic.
The participants were sent the questions and responded to them by email. Their answers are presented here just as they wrote them, save correcting the odd typo. One final note: In seeking contributors for this forum, there was a serendipitous turn in that, in two instances, a solicited participant wound up engaging a colleague at his or her campus in the conversation, thus enriching the discussion further. So Olga Shurchkov and Michael Jeffries produced joint answers, while Javier Espinoza was engaged for the forum by the recent UCLA grad I initially asked.
Here is who is sitting at the table:
Meredith Derecho, class of 2018, East Asian Studies,Yale University
Lauren Britt-Elmore, recent graduate, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Javier Espinoza, class of 2017, Luskin School of Public Affairs, UCLA
Kirsten Hoyte, Department of English, Concord Academy
Michael Jeffries, Associate Professor of American Studies, Wellelsley College
Michael Salamone, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Washington State University
Jonathan Sawday, Walter J. Ong, S.J., Professor in the Humanities, Saint Louis University
Olga Shurchkov, Associate Professor of Economics, Wellesley College
1. To what extent do you hear the terms "microagression" and "trigger warning" (or words to that effect) on your campus?
I started as a freshman at Yale in fall 2013. I don't remember hearing terms like "microaggression" and "trigger warning" much until the end of freshman year; the terms definitely became more common my sophomore year. This past academic year the conversation has expanded to the point that these words and their pros and cons have become a point of national discussion. I've taken the past academic year off to study Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan, so I haven't been on the physical campus. I have, however, seen the conversation unfold in cyberspace, which I think is just as important an arena as the physical campus.
There are three main "locations" on the internet that immediately come to mind in terms of where these terms pop up. The first is Overheard at Yale, a Facebook page where Yale students post things they have, you know, overheard on campus. This year people would often make posts about microaggressions or related incidents, and the comments sections would get ugly pretty fast. I think that out of these three, Overheard at Yale is the most direct extension of the campus space. The second is social media conversation, which here includes people's personal status posts on Facebook and conversations on applications such as Facebook Messenger and Groupme. The third is articles on websites like Buzzfeed, which are of course not necessarily written by students, but definitely interact with the student mood (campus imitates Buzzfeed imitates campus?).
So that's all pretty vague. A lot of the conversations I'm thinking of are about different microaggressions and might not actually contain these terms. People sometimes use the term "microaggression" to explain how something that might not seem offensive is actually kind of rude or insensitive. On the other hand, people also use the term to trivialize the feelings of the person who feels offended by whatever happened. When "trigger warning" pops up, it's also often disparaging, as in talking about how trigger warnings are unnecessary, how students are so weak now, and so on. The other common usage of trigger warning of course is the presence of actual trigger warnings at the beginning of online articles or friends' Facebook posts.
Olga Shurchkov and Michael Jeffries
Both have become part of the general lexicon on campus, but we hear "microagression" far more frequently. I do think that on the Wellesley online forums, using TW for content has become a very common practice.
I have heard the term “microaggression” far more than “trigger warning.” This question immediately started me thinking about the context within which I hear - or don’t hear - these terms. For instance, there has been debate in professional publications and in the media about the use of trigger warnings on syllabi and in news reports. As an avid NPR listener, I notice they institute trigger warnings in all of their programs. However, I don’t know of any teacher who actually used trigger warnings for their courses. I’m not sure if HGSE thinks it’s too elite to have to use them, or if they feel the content of the courses here at the Ed School does not warrant them.
As I mentioned above, “microaggression” is a word used much more frequently. I hear it used both as an academic term and as a way for people in the community to describe situations in real life. I find it's used a lot to name a phenomenon that was once unnamable, and thus deemed invisible. So it’s made people on both sides of the equation - but especially the aggressor - aware of the role they play in this kind of interaction. Personally, knowing this term has been very helpful to me to name those subtle, yet piercing moments when my race and/or my gender is playing a factor in a negative interaction.
The only times I’ve heard these terms used on my campus have been by faculty usually protesting to one another about why they won’t use these terms / encourage their use. Personally, I don’t find the term “trigger warning” helpful since (as any student of Freud or the films of Hitchcock will testify) we cannot predict with any certainty what images / texts / words will spark off a (negative) chain of associations in any given individual. Having said that, as a teacher of literary texts, a certain degree of empathetic awareness just seems to me to be a necessary skill in the classroom. For years, when teaching “difficult” material, I’ve usually proffered some kind of warning – but the key question is why are you teaching such works? Teaching a class in “satire,” for example, inevitably is going to involve dealing with material that is offensive – since satire works through giving offense. Context (historical / cultural) is everything. Would I show a video of kittens being drowned? No, probably not; for what would be the context? Would I show a video of Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation, or scenes from Leni Riefenstahl’s films? Absolutely, in the context of a class which I used to teach on the History of the Body, and which contained sections in which we studied the idea of the body under fascism. Would I give a “trigger warning?” Not in those words, but I would (and have) said words to the effect that we’re about to watch harrowing scenes which will make us deeply uncomfortable in our humanity. But then, I’ve rarely seen the classroom / seminar room as a comfort zone. Rather, I see it as a place where we can encounter the discomforting, but in a way that tempers that discomfort with (what I hope) would be growing understanding.
In my UCLA social work graduate program I hear the term “microagressions” pretty often—we were actually given a presentation on microagressions. I use the term with my friends pretty often too, to describe whenever I myself am a victim of a microagression.
Experiencing a micro aggression could look like me being brown on campus and people thinking I’m a janitor or gardener despite me carrying a backpack while holding books. So whenever something like this happens I usually tell my friends “I was microaggressed today” and vent to them about it.
I don’t hear the term trigger warning at UCLA as much. In fact I don’t really hear it at all. When I do hear it it’s via social media, right before state sponsored violence publicly executes an unarmed dark skinned body. In these instances I really appreciate the trigger warnings, because if I had to re-experience that kind of trauma visually without warning, it would most definitely have a negative effect on my mental health.
Up until recently, I rarely heard those words. However, starting in 2014-2015, there was a steady increase in the use of those terms among both faculty and students. Then last year (2015-2016), there was quite an uptick. As an English department, we have discussed trigger warnings several times around the literature that we read and the content of our syllabi. Students and faculty have talked about microagressions mostly when we are discussing social and interpersonal interactions within our community. We have also had professional development and school-wide assembly speakers discuss microagressions two or three times in the last year.
I am familiar with the terms, but, honestly, I do not hear them much on campus. They have not come up in any of my faculty meetings nor with any meetings with the administration. Given the salience of the debate over these terms, I imagine there is a conversation at WSU about them, but it is not a conversation that has found its way to my corner of the university. That said, friends of mine at other institutions – especially smaller liberal arts colleges – tell me that these terms are the topic of much discussion in their departments.