Posted May 20, 2014 

I had a unique experience teaching my Evolutionary Psychology class this semester, and see, from a recent article in The New York Times that I am not alone.

[Note: the following post discusses “trigger warnings,” and, therefore, refers to topics that some might find unpleasant to read about.]

The above warning is, more or less, the issue. As the Times reports, campuses across the country are increasingly discussing the question of whether faculty members should warn students ahead of time if topics that might evoke unpleasant feelings might be discussed in class. People who have been traumatized, for example, might find it difficult to hear discussions or depictions of an event similar to the one which they have been involved.

My interest comes from having gotten feedback from my teaching assistants – so my experience, I should be clear, is second hand – that two students in my class were upset that I did not warn them about the content of the class, which included a discussion of research and data on sexual coercion and rape. I gave a presentation not unlike the one that I gave last year, discussing the adaptation/byproduct debate surrounding sexual coercion, and some of the data on victims, about which I wrote a little post.

I was surprised to get the complaints, if for no other reason than I had briefly discussed sexual coercion in the prior lecture, and the one that elicited the complaints was more or less continuing that discussion, which made me feel that students might have been able to predict what I would be talking about.

Another connection for me is that the institution where I received my PhD, the University of California Santa Barbara, has recently been in the news cycle on this issue. Back in February, the student senate asked the university to require warnings from professors when they plan to discuss material that might trigger symptoms of PTSD.

From the two articles that I read, it seems to me that there is actually more than just a single issue here, the question of warnings. In particular, the report in the Daily Nexus, the student paper, includes the point that the senate also wants professors to “refrain from docking points from those who opt out of attending class that day.” Another source indicates that the resolution states that “students who feel they may have a negative emotional response to such content, including distressing flashbacks or memories, should be allowed to leave the classroom or skip class altogether without being penalized.”

The first quote makes it sound like professors are being asked not to penalize people on the basis of attendance. The latter quote makes it sound like the professors are being asked to allow students not to be responsible for learning the material in question.

I myself am unsure where I stand on all of these issues, but it seems to me that this is a topic that might be relevant to people who teach evolutionary approaches to behavior, which includes topics that might be on the list of potentially triggering topics, including rape, intergroup aggression and violence, and so on.

The Times article lays out the arguments from various angles. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to try to minimize unnecessary trauma to those who have experienced unpleasant prior events. It seems to me that the question is how the weight of that concern compares to the arguments on the other side.

I myself don’t feel that it infringes on my academic freedom to tell students in advance what I’m going to discuss. My syllabus is, I admit, a bit sparse, especially compared to others I’ve seen. The week I discussed sexual coercion – in addition to other topics – is listed as “Mating Strategies.” This is, to be sure, vague. I’m not sure I would feel terribly put out to be asked, or even required, to indicate when I was going to discuss various topics, as long as the topics that I had to announce were sufficiently well specified that I could comply without too much trouble.

Of course, I would be a lot less sanguine about being asked to forgo covering material in my class because some people might find it disturbing or offensive. My sense isn’t that this is likely to happen at Penn or elsewhere any time soon. But I think that the risk of some harm to students is outweighed by the potential pedagogical loss of not being able to address particular topics at the behest of an administration. As I say, I don’t think this is yet a serious issue.

To me, however, there is a potentially genuine issue arising from those two quotations above that go beyond the question of warnings. Should be excused from class, and, further, excused from responsibility to learn the material?

I haven’t taken a firm stance on this, but I think I would oppose such policies. In essence, one aspect of the tradeoff seems to be the amount of discomfort saved by excusing such students set against the amount of harm done by excusing them from learning the material. Instructors wouldn’t, more or less, put material in their courses if they didn’t think there was value in learning it. Excusing students, then, undermines the pedagogical mission, which it seems to me ought to be given a great deal of weight. There could, I suppose, arise issues of equity. Are the students not so excused unfairly burdened with having to learn more material? Should there, then, be a some sort of test to qualify for being excused?

As I say, I think this issue might arise for members of the evolutionary psychology community because of the nature of the material that we teach, which includes – among many other topics of course – sex and violence. I would be interested to hear – offline or not – others’ experiences with this issue. My suspicion is that this issue will get increased attention in the near term, and those of us who teach classes might take this moment to reflect on our own views on the topic.