Discussing triggering issues, etc in philosophy classes

I’ve just been having a discussion about this issue, and would like to know what all you wise people think. Obviously, one important thing to do if you know you’ll be teaching triggering issues is to tell students when you’ll be e.g. teaching rape, and let them know that they don’t need to come to those classes or write about that topic. Another is to remind the class that it’s quite likely some of the people in the room, or those they’re close to, have been victims, and to ask everyone to bear that in mind. But a much harder question is what is off-limits in discussion. For example, there are lots of widespread victim-blaming views on rape that could be very triggering and/or upsetting. This seems like a reason to not allow their expression. But these are widespread views, so surely we should discuss them. One might even argue that there is an obligation to discuss them, so that they can be shown to be false.

What do you do in your classes? What works? What doesn’t? What do you wish people would do?

8 thoughts on “Discussing triggering issues, etc in philosophy classes

  1. Without having any experience on the issue of discussing rape, but with experience on discussing other sensitive issues, I (the teacher) would discuss victim-blaming arguments in order to refute them, but would not let the class discuss them freely
    because insensitive things are likely to be said.

    It’s like discussing the Holocaust. The teacher has every right to show that Holocaust denial is false, but has no necessity to let Holocaust deniers argue their “case”.

  2. This is so very tricky. I have taught this topic and students do say things like “She shouldn’t have been doing x, y, z…” I think it’s ok to allow those opinions but to bring out the point that the way victims of rape are treated tends to be very different from how victims of other crimes are treated and also in health care practice victims, in particular incest survivors, are treated quite negatively in comparison with other kinds of victims.. This can be validating and supportive for rape victims in the class. It could the first time they have been validated in this way. See http://www.jemh.ca/issues/v4n2/documents/JEMH_Vol4_No2_InMyLife_Incest_Survivors_and_Borderline_Personality_Disorder.pdf. I also explore the view that it demeans men to say that they can’t control themselves, are inherently sexually aggressive.

  3. I feel that we have an obligation to deal with potentially upsetting issues, but (a) I always let people know what’s coming well in advance and (b) if anyone brings up odious victim-blaming rhetoric, I make SURE that the gross flaws in such arguments are addressed in detail. I hope – hope – that there’s some benefit to hearing a (pseudo) authority figure take down such a view.

  4. Yes, at this point I have to say this at the start of almost every term. I tell them we’ll be reading material about this subject, that students are not obligated to identify themselves as personally experienced in this, that students ARE obligated not to demand personal accounts from others, and that the aim of the course is to discuss the material, not each other. We discuss ways of assessing our reactions to the readings that would avoid visiting generalizations insensitively. To date, doing this has yielded good results.

  5. All these suggestions seem exactly right to me. I especially like two of profbigk’s strategies – saying that students may not demand personal accounts from others, and the advance discussion of different ways of reacting to readings.

    I have a couple more thoughts. One is that it’s really important to know what your own particular areas of discomfort or fear are, because you need to be able to keep calm in order to make the students feel safe – and it can be hard to stop your tone of voice changing when you’re responding to claims you feel it’s particularly important to challenge.

    The other is that you should check what counselling or other student support services your institution has, and provide the contact details in the syllabus and in the relevant class sessions.

    There’s a sort of briefing document called ‘Dignity and Respect in the Classroom’ at http://learning.cf.ac.uk/themes/inclusive-curriculum/resources/ which might be useful, though it’s not only about this specific question.

    Oh, and I suppose what I should’ve said first is: I think you *have* to discuss the difficult and offensive and scary arguments/claims, as long as they’re genuinely relevant to the topic. What else is education for? There’s horrible stuff all over the internet, so it’s not as if we can protect our students from these things by not discussing them.

  6. I’ve taught rape only in my intro feminism course, and I teach it toward the end of the class so that the students are already familiar with feminism. I use Susan Griffin’s paper and Susan Estrich’s paper (on the law and rape, in Pat Smith’s anthology, Feminist Jurisprudence). I always warn the students that the cases Estrich discusses are graphically described, but that they need to be so in order for her to make her points of challenge to the law on rape. The cases show how ludicrous and inconsistent when it comes to gender that the legal system can be, and I can honestly say that I have never had a student resist. In fact, I’ve have a good number of students tell me that they were skeptical about feminism when they first took the course, but that this issue is the one that tipped them over the line, and that I should teach it first. My response is that they had to be ready for it (and then I point out the ways in which what feminists have to say about rape is not that different from what they have to say about the other issues we discussed in the class). As far as writng assignments, I usually do assign a paper on this topic (maybe in conjunction with woman battering — and I use papers by Wanda Teays and by Kathleen Waits on this), but I have the students write about just what these authors’ views are. On occasion, I get a student who writes about their personal experiences, sometimes in conjunction with the assigned questions, sometimes not. I once had a student who wrote the most jarring personal story I’ve ever seen about her experiences with an abusive boyfriend. Since she was a philosophy major (and struggled a bit with writing, which was no surprise, given her experiences), I offered to do an independent study with her on self-respect. She agreed, and loved it, and I think it gave her a great way to see how philosophy can come to life and matter to you as a person. She loved the readings we did, and I think it helped her see that she had self-worth, and that philosophy could be used for very good ends. Her writing improved immensely when she could write on a topic that mattered to her.

  7. This past year I TA-ed for 101, and since I wasn’t planning the topics I didn’t have to worry about this issue. However, there were two different times when I solicited my students for a moral dilemma to discuss and got potentially triggering responses, and I’m still not sure whether or not I handled them correctly.

    The first time was when we were discussing akrasia, and I wanted an example of a situation in which it was clear what the right thing to do was and yet there was a temptation not to — usually the example ended up involving infidelity. In one section they didn’t seem to get the point and kept suggesting interesting, complicated moral dilemmas wherein it was not at all clear what was the right thing to do, and one (female) student suggested being tempted to respond with violence to one’s sexual abuser. I pointed out that it was not at all clear that in that kind of case violence would be morally wrong, and that I personally suspected that at least in some cases it wasn’t, and then I asked again for a more relevant example. I left class that day thinking that maybe I should have spent more time on the subject, like perhaps she raised it because she was conflicted and wanted a chance to talk about it under the guise of a hypothetical, but we only have 50 minutes a week and I needed to get akrasia clear.

    The second time was when we were talking about the CI formula of humanity, and one (male) student suggested the moral dilemma of whether or not to “hook up with a drunk girl at a party who wouldn’t remember the next day.” I went ahead and used the example, but re-framed it as rape, pointing out that someone who is blackout drunk probably is not capable of consent. That day I left class pretty sure that I should have changed the subject to something less triggering, but having to think on my feet (and this being my first year as a TA) I erred on the side of using it as a teachable moment to re-frame a common rape culture-caused misconception and take a very clear stand on the side of “that is not OK”. Some of them weren’t immediately convinced that it counted as rape, and I brushed it off by saying that perhaps there is a grey area depending on the level of intoxication (one beer is probably OK), but that for present purposes we were going to assume that the “drunk girl” is not capable of consenting. We didn’t dwell much on that question and no one really pushed back (which was a relief), and they accepted that it would clearly count as using her as a mere means and was morally wrong.

    I would be curious to hear how more experienced feminists-educators would have handled those situations.

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