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Monash trigger warning policy

Monash University is the first Australian university to have a policy on trigger warnings. (Credit: ABC licensed). 

Tim Palmer, Monash University trigger warning policy fires up free speech debate, ABC Radio, 29 March 2017

Has Monash University melted in the face of the “Snowflake Generation” or is it just looking after its students’ wellbeing?

A key element in the new culture war that has swept through universities around the world has reached Australian campuses.

Monash University has become the first in Australia to implement a policy of “trigger warnings”.

In its pilot program, 15 of the university’s course outlines carry the warnings of potentially emotionally distressing content.

The university says political correctness played no part in its decision, but critics say it is a concession to students demanding to be shielded from ideas they disagree with.

The pilot involves the university asking its academics to review course content looking for “emotionally confronting material” in the discussion of sexual assault, violence, domestic abuse, child abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, pornography, abortion, kidnapping, hate speech, animal cruelty and animal deaths including abattoirs.

‘This will allow students … to prepare themselves’

The policy is the culmination of years of campaigning by the university’s Student Association.

Union president Matilda Grey dismissed criticism of the move, saying the current generation of students was simply more aware of the range of experiences of their peers that included for example, those who have been traumatised by sexual assault or other violent crime.

“We’re not suggesting that students shouldn’t be faced with challenges during their uni experiences,” she said.

“But this will allow students who do have a response, whether that be an anxiety attack or a panic attack based on any previous traumatic experiences, to be able to prepare themselves and take responsibility for their actions and manage those responses.”

That raises a difficult question.

Monash University said all course content will remain examinable.

So where would that leave a student who, having been warned that course material might traumatise them, decides they cannot attend a class or read a text?

‘Life is emotionally distressing’

Conservative critics, like Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs, say the claimed goal of protecting students’ emotional wellbeing masks a political agenda.

“We’ve seen how this has played out in the US and it can turn into a censorious, highly politically correct [culture] and highly harmful to the mission of education that universities exist for,” he said.

Newcastle University associate professor Marguerite Johnson has never shied away from warning students when particularly explicit material was coming up.

But while she considers herself a progressive educator, she too objects to the idea of a university administration codifying when trigger warnings are to be given.

For a start, she thinks Monash University’s threshold of “emotionally distressing” sets the bar ridiculously low.

“Life is potentially inevitably, regularly, emotionally distressing,” she said.

“The world is emotionally distressing and I find it quite absurd that the universities may see themselves as the guardians of emotionally distressing situations.

She believes warning students about texts interrupts the way they approach and interpret works.

“If we are warning them all the time, then we are creating a preconceived notion that this material is going to upset me,” Associate Professor Johnson said.

While in recent years criminal law students at Harvard University have objected to the discussion of sexual assault law because it could cause victims distress, Associate Professor Johnson said it is the very fact that material might disturb students that can benefit society, pointing to the reform of sex assault laws in Australia.

“Those young feminist students in the 70s who were reading law and looked at the way women were represented in the law, who studied rape cases, who then went on to be lawyers who advocated to change the legislation about rape in court — if they hadn’t experienced the horrors of reading the materials as students, how would they know what to fight against, how would they know what to kick against?” she said.

Fears trigger warnings could lead to censorship

Associate Professor Johnson also fears the move for trigger warnings on courses could lead to the imposition of warnings on specific texts.

That is hardly surprising given her long experience in teaching the ancient Roman poetry of Ovid.

In the United States, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has been repeatedly targeted by students objecting to its sexually violent content.

The works of F Scott Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf are among others singled out by students as difficult and requiring warnings.

Associate Professor Johnson believes such lists are a real threat to academic freedom.

“My fear is that if we go down the track of vetting courses and vetting course material, that we are handing over a lot of power to people can make decisions to censor your course material,” she said.

“It could lead to certain courses being deemed by an advisory board as being too potentially traumatic to remain on the syllabus.”

While the student body at Monash has no plans to demand warnings on specific works for now, it will not rule that out in the future.

“Certain texts that perhaps should be removed from courses, absolutely,” Ms Grey said.

“But I wouldn’t suggest that that would be anything that would be taken lightly and we would have received a broad group of students to suggest that that should be removed.”

The Student Association at Monash is satisfied with the list of subject areas the university has adopted for trigger warnings, but at other campuses students are drawing up much more extensive lists.

The Network of Women Students Australia has its impressively long list that includes classism, corpses, skulls or skeletons, drug use or talk of drugs (legal, illegal or psychiatric), eye contact (scopophobia), food, gore, insects, medical procedures, mental illness, Nazi paraphernalia, needles, panic attacks, pregnancy, slimy things, snakes, spiders, trichitillomania, trypophobia, vomit, warfare and weapons.

It says it remains open to suggestions to add to that list.

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