Article by Timna Jacks /
The Age /
June 24, 2016 /
Click here to view original /
University students are being warned when classes contain graphic or sensitive content, including sexual abuse, rape and transgenderism, to protect their mental health.
Australian academics are issuing so-called “trigger warnings” for confronting material in classrooms at the start of each semester, and before classes, to give students the chance to opt out.
The warnings – aimed to avoid triggering a post traumatic stress reaction – have stemmed from trends in online chat forums and blogs, and has expanded to universities in the UK and the US, but have sparked a backlash in Australia.
University of Melbourne’s Dr Lauren Rosewarne, who teaches about gender and sexuality, has been warning students about potentially disturbing content since she started teaching 13 years ago.
The senior lecturer warns students about sexual assault, rape, suicide and transgenderism, but said she keeps the warnings to a minimum to avoid “baby[ing]” students.
“It’s like television … you have a warning for everything from drug use to supernatural things, as a way to tell the audience that [they] may be disturbed by one of any number of topics,” she said.
Dr Rosewarne said students in the past two years have been increasingly “polic[ing] the language of lecturers”, and said she is frequently being scrutinised by students, who shout out corrections in the middle of lectures.
“These students have grown up participating in politics through Tumblr and Instagram, and I feel that expressing ideas through sound bites and policing of other language, which is rampant online, has suddenly been translated into the classroom.”
Dr Bianca Fileborn, research officer at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, said she used trigger warnings and had introduced guidelines for class discussions, to avoid victim-blaming language.
However Dr Fileborn said trigger warnings did not always stop people from making offensive or upsetting comments.
“I think self-care is important and creating a safe and inclusive spaces is important, but I suspect that we probably need to be doing more to think about what is actually effective in creating safe spaces.”
But Matthew Lesh, who is a research fellow at libertarian think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, said he feared Australian academics felt pressured to “coddle students”.
“Academics aren’t psychologists, it’s not their job … academics shouldn’t be worrying about the possibility that their content could cause an emotional reaction,” he said.
“Universities should be about exposing people to as many ideas as possible, even if they are challenging.”
The National Union of Students, in addition to student unions at La Trobe, Monash University, Melbourne University and the University of Sydney, are also using trigger warnings in student magazines and events.
La Trobe’s student union and the women’s officers at the University of Sydney issue warnings for content relating to classism, colonialism, Islamophobia, ableism, body image, child abuse, mental illness and weapons.
They go as far as warning students about content relating to needles, insects, food, pregnancy, eye contact, slimy things, skulls, vomit and blood.