So an archaeologist of whom I’ve written before, Gabe Moshenska (one of the organisers of the Monstrous Antiquities conference), has been sneered at by some gutter-press dullard about the practice of mentioning that the content of a course he teaches — which is on modern battlefield archaeology — could be upsetting. I won’t link the article, but by my summary you can pretty much figure it out. Distressingly, the story spread from this foolishness into the realm of more outwardly-respectable publications, who gave it the ol’ free-speech-controversy treatment.
Anyway, to summarise: Gabe mentioned in advance that the course would cover difficult material and that students who felt they had to leave could as long as they made up the work later. That seems pretty unremarkable to me, especially considering how grim modern forensic archaeology can get, but apparently I’m wrong and this amounts to triggered kek. Howard Williams has written on the topic, and has intelligently tried to turn this foolish conversation toward a more serious discussion.
I’m interested in the topic, though; some years ago Ali Klevnäs and I edited a volume of Archaeological Review from Cambridge that dealt with these issues — and naturally that dealt a lot with some of the psychological and social effects of things like battlefield and forensic archaeology. We did get a little criticism, mostly from people who felt that emotions and mental health are specialist stuff that archaeologists don’t have the standing to talk about, or people who felt that the volume was … let’s say off-topic for an archaeological journal.
What’s interesting to me is that this was nine years ago now (Jesus, nine years ago I was an up-and-coming young archaeologist; what a thought) and we had (or at least I had) absolutely no sense that this was a political issue. A best-practice question, perhaps, for researchers and educators to ponder and debate, but a thing to separate right- and left-wing? Silly. How remarkable the change.
Wait, no, OK. One more thing. I could see being concerned — indeed, would be concerned myself — if what people were talking about was not teaching topics that might be frightening or distressing. And that was what was supposed to be concerning about “safe spaces” from a pedagogical perspective: that students were going to miss something they would benefit from seeing or knowing. But this isn’t that, even by what they’re reporting themselves. This is a brief message that says “heads up, guys, we’re gonna be looking at mass graves here; it could get a bit ugly,” and now they’re objecting to that! So they used to be concerned about preventing students from doing something, but now they’re concerned about permitting them doing something. Which is it? And what will it be next week?
It’s just like their attitude toward the lecturer’s authority. When students want warnings and lecturers don’t want to give them, the students are disrespecting authority. But when a lecturer decides to use them — not “is made to use them” but reckons they’re a good idea — then all of a sudden that’s … I don’t know. In any other week of the year, they’d be baying “his classroom, his rules,” wouldn’t they?
And another thing! What is all this foofaraw about “allowing” students to leave class? It’s a university course, not a fucking math lesson for nine-year-olds on a nice spring afternoon. What are you gonna do if they want to leave? Give them detention? Write a note to their mum? Student doesn’t feel well and wants to leave, Gabe says “I hope you feel better. Make sure you meet up with another student to go over what you missed.” What is that but how everyone in the world does and has always done it? I don’t know, maybe they do things differently at UCL?
And these jerkoffs — these people who apparently think that students ought to be forced to sit in a lecture theatre until Sir says they can go, and, I dunno, put on the Naughty Step if they don’t comply — these tiresome sons of bitches are the ones complaining that students are being infantilised! Forcing people into rigid schedules of compliance is what we do to infants, you fucking Martians.
In conclusion, the issue of trigger warnings is an interesting one from an educator’s perspective, and the valuable discussion to be had is not furthered by this kind of superficial sensationalism.