Does Academia Care About Your Emotions?

By Matilda Médard

— From the 7th until the 11th of November, Amsterdam University College was host to a series of events aimed at starting discussion around mental health, held under the banner ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’, and organized by the Peer Support team in co-operation with the Student Life Officer Vinika Porwal. In parallel, a debate on trigger warnings is growing in a polarizing way, in particular on U.S. college campuses. The University of Chicago’s recent release of a report on the freedom of expression, condemning the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces, attests for such a divide.

Trigger warnings were initially used in the field of psychology as a means to protect patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), by helping them avoid being confronted with content which could bring back past traumas. Although trigger warnings were originally used in the case of war survivors, victims of child abuse, incest, and sexual violence, the term (also called ‘content warning’) has now been loosely stretched to include warnings for suicide, mental health problems, racism, sexism, ableism, or drug-use discussed within an article, movie, or speech.

In an educational context, the use of trigger warnings would be a means to warn students about the content of a class, which, in the case of shocking or offensive material, could play a part in a student’s academic success. What should the role of a teacher be in these situations? To what extent do teachers at AUC take student sensibilities into account when deciding on their method of teaching? How do different fields conceptualize the role of education in relation to offensive or shocking material? In order to better understand the complex relationship between students’ emotions and their learning experience, AUC teachers from different fields were questioned on the impact and use of student sensibilities in their class. It should be noted that there is great difficulty in defining exactly what offends students and why, or what characterizes certain material as ‘shocking’ or ‘offensive’ as these concepts are usually attached to a subjective experience.

In her International Relations classes, Dr. V.P. Vessela Chakarova makes use of the documentary film Ghosts of Rwanda (2004), which contains highly graphic footage from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “Violence and conflict are a major part of international relations […] the world out there is a conflictual place and it’s becoming more so now, so it’s important that students know about this”, she explained. Although students never explicitly said that they couldn’t or didn’t want to watch the film, many reported their shock and disturbance after doing so. “A lot of students have told me this was a traumatizing documentary for them, but that they are grateful to have seen it,” Chakarova said. Grateful, perhaps because, as she pointed out, they are now aware of the forms of violence that exist, and can better analyze them within the framework that the course provides.

When asked about her motivations for screening the documentary, Chakarova explained that it was recommended to her by someone from Rwanda who has worked in the Gacaca courts established in the wake of the genocide. “We live here in our nice, Western bubble, but people are being raped and killed on a daily basis in some places […] we have to see this, and we have to talk about it.,” Chakarova cautioned. She also acknowledged the importance of warning students that specific content will be shown. “I still get traumatized, every semester, from watching this documentary; I usually cry and I don’t watch it entirely […] it always has a strong effect on me, and that’s also why I always warn students.”

In the Human Body 1 course, students learn about human anatomy and physiology, and regularly go to the dissection center at the Academic Medical Center in Holendrecht. There, they have to work on real human bodies in order to learn about anatomy in a more concrete way. “Watching a corpse can be quite an experience,” said Dr. Bjarke Jensen, who teaches Introduction to Health and Well-being and Human Physiology at AUC. “It’s mandatory that before students enter a dissection room or ward, we say, ‘should you feel dizzy, then please just sit down, put your head between your legs, so you don’t pass out, let a teacher know, go outside and get a bit of fresh air’”, Jensen added.

According to him, there exists the awareness that the process can cause immense discomfort, but the exercise is also meant to encourage curiosity. “Our aim is to make students interested in the human body, which relates to how you function yourself. One means to achieve this is to show people what the human body looks like on the inside. If you can’t go through with that class, that’s a loss, but what we ask at the exam can be answered without having gone to the dissection ward,” Jensen explained. Before they go there, students are given a pamphlet with their assignment (usually exercises to find parts of the body), as well as instructions from the teachers should they feel dizzy or uncomfortable. In the case of discomfort, Dr. Jensen advises that medicine might not be a field the student should go into, but that this unease should not harm that student’s performance on the exam.

Dr. Ernst van den Hemel teaches Literature of Social Exclusion at AUC, in which students analyze the language of dehumanization in Mein Kampf, in cartoon representations of the prophet Mohammed, and in other various racist and sexist imagery. “Every time I teach this, there is a moment when it becomes real. People realize that this is something quite real in different senses of the term, and I don’t think it’s possible to teach this material without that moment, the realization that this is not statistics, this is not objective data analysis, these are trajectories of dehumanization which lead to real disasters,” van den Hemel said.

Indeed, shock can be the initial reaction from students, but it is certainly not the main objective of the course. Van den Hemel explained that he skips using graphic imagery in the part of the course on antisemitism for a reason. “Both Maus and Primo Levi don’t use cheap shock effects. I think both of them would have qualms with replacing thought with shock – that’s quite often what the risk of these matters is – that shock replaces thought, and that shock replaces the inter-subjective dimension, and the moment in which shock does that, it ceases to be an interesting tool,” he argued. Aside from studying explicitly shocking material such as the processes that lead to genocides, the sections of the course on gender, racism, and blasphemy are also able to deeply affect students. “I try to take into consideration when I teach that things that might not be offensive to me might be offensive to others,” van den Hemel said. According to him, trigger or content warnings should be approached in the form of self-reflexivity, to facilitate what he believes is part of the core mission of teaching: fostering debate between different points of view.

Dr. Tina Bastajian, who teaches the Documentary course, decided to offer a separate option for the weekly film responses this year, after some students complained to her about the difficulty of watching Titicut Follies (1967) by Frederick Wiseman, a graphic observational documentary which shows the conditions that existed at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. In her course manual, she offered students the option to watch other films by the same director from the period, which employ similar ‘direct cinema’ strategies to portray the inner workings of American institutions. In the same manner, she also gave a choice between watching the films Tarnation (2003) and The Gleaners and I (2000), because of the personal and disturbing portrayal of mental illness in the former. “Documentary deals with the human condition in all its flavors, whether it be shocking or not,” Bastajian explained.

Although she is conflicted about the use of trigger warnings in her teaching, Bastajian stressed the importance of self-reflexivity, transparency and critical judgment in her role as a teacher: “The framing of trigger warnings tends to make it into a catchphrase – I don’t always like the language and the rhetoric around it. For me it’s also up to the teacher to judge, to gauge.” Bastajian noted that “sometimes it’s more complex in terms of making choices,” as in the case of Mitchell Block’s short dramatic film No Lies (1973), which features interviews with a rape victim shot in the ‘direct-cinema’ (cinéma vérité) stylistic. “I wasn’t quite sure what I thought about this particular film, but I also felt I needed to revisit screening it in relation to the other assigned films and essays for that week […] so I took it off the syllabus, but I wouldn’t necessarily say this was stimulated by a trigger warning,” Bastajian said.

These differing perspectives on what may shock or offend students, and how teachers in specific fields take into account student sensibilities in their teaching, also reveal different attitudes towards the ‘neutrality’ of teaching. In the field of human anatomy in the sciences, student sensitivities are accommodated for, but rejected as a tool for discussions because the material deals with factual, scientific, objective truths. “The obligation is not concerned with sensitivities or knowing whether people will take offense or not. The obligation here is to speak the truth,” Dr. Jensen explained.

In a similar way, the field of International Relations (as part of Social Sciences) requires students to be aware of violence and conflict in the world, but the ‘neutrality’ in discussions has more to do with seeing different sides of the same conflict than one absolute objective truth. “Students often do refer to things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and in these situations I always say that good and bad are relative notions, so you have to consider all sides of an issue,” Chakarova said. In the Humanities, however, when students are shocked or offended, part of their task is to reflect on why that is. “I don’t believe that people’s sensibilities censor me in teaching, quite the contrary, they provide valuable input in how I teach, and secondly, I don’t think that people’s sensibilities are opposed to academic freedom, they’re a necessary ingredient,” van den Hemel stated.

With regards to the current discussion on the use of trigger warnings in schools, most teachers complained about the polarized state of the debate, which does not actively engage with the style of teaching and the particularities of each field in a productive way. Moreover, some felt conflicted by the idea that warnings and paying attention to student sensibilities should be institutionalized, as they feel that this is one of their main roles as teachers. They highlighted the importance of studying violent or offensive imagery in the cases of social sciences and humanities, and doing so within the context where the element of shock is given a purpose, as van den Hemel explained: “If it’s clear why you are watching certain things, if it fulfills a clear role in a project of understanding a topic, then I think it might be less hurtful. If there’s no clear setting, no clear introduction, no clear framing in what these horrific details you discuss serve, then I think the real risk of creating or having people relive a trauma is all the more real.”

In the end, however, teachers failed to explain how they would specifically address the case of students with PTSD, who may be more affected by subjects such as war, violence, rape, suicide, or mental illness, than students who have not experienced traumas. A systematic use of trigger warnings or content warnings in certain classes would be especially important for these students. It should also be noted that without a clear framework of content warnings, there can be difficulty for students with PTSD in disclosing their personal information to the teacher or school, as there is still a lot of stigma surrounding the disorder, or mental trauma at large. However, learning about teachers’ perspectives on the treatment of shocking or offensive content, and exploring different fields’ specificities in regards to student reactions should both be taken into account when elaborating a nuanced and efficient framework for addressing trigger warnings in the context of education.

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