Of Trigger Warnings and Kropotkin with Some Disability Perspective Thrown In for Free

Students today want affirmations of their world views and a sense of safety when they enter classrooms. These desires are not always easy when it comes to “agon” or intellectual struggle but I understand why students want these things. The world is ugly and violent and assurance and safety are human values and shouldn’t be utopian.

Alongside this crucial desire for safety is the fact that universities have priced higher-ed so “high” students are right to think of themselves as customers–which means “I don’t like this dish, send it back.” I recall years ago a faculty colleague telling me of a student who asked him “what do you want?” when a paper assignment was handed out. He replied: “I want a trip to Paris.” Today’s student is perfectly reasonable in asking, “what do I want?” If universities wish to get out of this trap they need to cut the cost of education and train faculty better when it comes to diversity.

I posted the paragraphs above on Facebook and think now I should elaborate.

I’m blind. My entire experience in secondary education has been painful. There’s no other way to say it. As a college student, a grad student, then a junior professor, and now a senior faculty member the ableism that’s marked my works and days has been consistent. Moreover, as I’ve written more than once, non-disabled faculty and staff are often unhelpful even as they proclaim progressive values of all kinds. Disability is poorly accepted in universities. The best book on the subject is Jay Dolmage’s “Academic Ableism” which I continue to recommend far and wide.

When BIPOC students say they’re not being heard I get it. I’ve been unheard for so long I feel like a Victorian umbrella stand. Dominant culture–whether patriarchal or driven by white fragility or homophobia or ableism is inured to hearing from the historically marginalized. Worse is the assumption many professors and college administrators fall prey to–namely because they’ve read about oppression they think they’re sufficiently schooled on the matter. The white professor says to himself, “don’t tell me about your struggle, I’ve read James Baldwin” and the ableist prof thinks having seen “The Miracle Worker” with Patty Duke he knows all about blindness. I’m not exaggerating.

Students who say they feel unsafe in classrooms are telling the truth. Old school dismissal of this is beside the point. I’ve heard some faculty say the demands for trigger warnings regarding uncomfortable material are ridiculous–it’s a violation of academic freedom; it’s time wasting namby-pamby-ism. But at the core one must ask whose discomfort are we talking about?

When I enter a classroom with my guide dog students are faced the prospect of a wholly unique and foreign scholar. You can feel the tension. Unspoken sure. Present and palpable absolutely. My appearance demands some kind of narrative. Certainly I don’t have to explain my blindness but it’s good for everyone if we talk about what a guide dog is and what she does. It’s also good to take that opportunity to talk about mutual respect, our culture, fragility and vulnerability, and how we can best learn together. This has never failed me as an instructor.

How has the world changed since I went to graduate school? How is it better and how is it worse? How have students been affected by thirty years of eroding support for education, rising housing costs, or a growing awareness that the very university may to be unsafe?

I don’t believe sincere apologies from faculty who fail to provide trigger warnings should be ignored or dismissed by students as seems to have happened recently at the University of Michigan but I take it that our duty as professors is to bring students together in what Kropotkin called “mutual aid” even though he meant it somewhat differently.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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