Monday, November 9, 2015

Embracing Difficult Issues

Should Reading My Syllabus Carry a Trigger Warning?
Edward Renner

The American University Senate adopted a resolution that discourages instructors from granting student request to be shielded from certain readings or discussion by trigger warnings and course exceptions. The resolution was in part a consequence of a request by the library for guidance on how to handle student requests to flag books for controversial content, and a pledge by the student government president to push for trigger warnings on course syllabi.

Now days, most course syllabi are available on-line. My syllabus includes a graphic icon for every class – a picture that is more memorable than any 1,000 word summary.

One of those is a Pulitzer-prize winning photo taken by Kevin Carter in 1994 during the Sudan famine. The picture depicts a famine stricken child crawling toward a United Nations food camp located a kilometer away. The picture shocked the whole world.  No one knows what happened to the child. The photographer was widely criticized for not having saved the child. Three months later he committed suicide due to depression

The topic for that class is not famine, but an exercise in critical thinking: How many different perspectives and implicit assumptions can be brought to bear on how to think about the picture and its context, including the shift in attention from the world letting millions die to the specific fate of that child, and the individual ethical responsibilities of Kevin Carter.

I have had many students tell me they did not sleep well that night. However, that exercise on thinking about how to think haunts the course. References to “Class 03 Cognitive Tools for Thinking” come up frequently throughout the term in the context of actually thinking about the academic content of IDH3400: “The Social and Behavioral Sciences.”

Another image was the picture of caskets returning from Iraq. The picture prompted the US government to close the area to the press, prohibiting any future such pictures to be show to the public as too sensitive and disrespectful to those who serve. A brother of a woman in my class was on active duty in Iraq. Road side bombs were a frequent danger.

This picture is a context for some of the most difficult conceptual issues of political science. It is why political science is no less important than computer science. It is not just abstract theory. The discipline has very direct implications for determining the limits of censorship in a democracy and for the impact of political decisions on individual people. Yes, a woman in the class was in tears, but we did not avoid the power of this moment for an intense lesson in civics. We were all meaningfully disrupted; as we should be, often.

Should my syllabus carry the trigger warning: “Reading this Syllabus May Be Disruptive.” Would that warning be sufficient, or should such potentially disruptive material be a necessary, or at least expected, element of every course syllabus? Perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe there should be a trigger warning for any course that is not disruptive; then, students could consider not taking it and we could question why it was even offered.

The icons I use are intended to be disruptive, as is the course. I want my students to respect the behavioral and social science to be as intellectually demanding as their math, chemistry and physical science courses. The question of our time is how to live peacefully and sustainably on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. In my mind this question trumps STEM in importance. This is the challenge of the behavioral and social sciences; the risk of labeling any topic essential for meeting this challenge as disruptive is the danger to be avoided.
Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at