Teaching the material: Trigger warnings, what it is, and the ontology-epistemology thing

I’ve just had some wonderful time out in BC, doing interviews for the AIDS activist oral history project I’m working on and starting to look into the history of AIDS criminalization legislation out there (did you know that BC passed legislation in 1990 to send HIV positive people to former leper colonies?). I felt really lucky to have some time with my friends James Rowe and Trudi Lynn Smith, in part for the joy of long friendships and in part because being and talking with them was incredibly rejuvenating. I had a crummy teaching year last year for a whole bunch of reasons, which has been hard for me because normally teaching feels engaged and sparky. This year, I’ve committed to reading and thinking about pedagogy in a way that I haven’t really taken the time to since working as a writing teacher in grad school; talking with James and Trudi about teaching was great on this front on a whole lot of levels that I’m still working through.

I started the school year off, as a lot of people I know did, with the latest round of debates on trigger warnings – this one sparked by the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students. (I liked this response on elitism in this debate, this one on what’s wrong with lay people thinking it’s good to spring traumatic things on people who’ve experienced trauma, and this one from last year’s iteration of this yearly flap about what’s wrong with thinking that giving content warnings somehow coddles students). I’m perpetually obsessed with the entanglement of how we know about the world and how the world is, which lately I’ve been thinking about in terms of what it means to think that “decolonization is not a metaphor,” as Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang put is, and what it means to see the ontological turn as of a piece with racist theory – and am I ever grateful that Zoe Todd has joined the department where I teach, because her work is so generative on this question. I come to this through Donna Haraway and Karen Barad too (I love how this interview kind of summarizes a lot of Barad’s massive book Meeting The Universe Halfway), and through Karl Marx, George Smith, and John Holloway in their engagement with the question of what the difference between understanding the world and changing the world might be.

ANYhow, I’ve been thinking that one mistake the people who critique content warnings in university contexts get wrong is that they think that what’s going on is just or mostly epistemological – that we teachers are giving information about what claims, depictions, and topics will be treated in upcoming material or discussion. If you take this view, all the criticisms about how some people are triggered by breakfast, therefore I shouldn’t have to flag a film where someone is raped or killed make a little more sense; it’s really not possible, within the field of knowing, to know all the things that our students may have experienced and thus what might hit them in such a way that they won’t be able to engage the material in the class (etc). But of course when the conversation gets going, that overlay – an epistemological concern about the limits of what it’s possible to know about and for our students – quickly shifts to an ontological refusal to be in the classroom with them in a particular way. That way is recognizing that we are not capable of predicting all the things that might interrupt our pedagogical commitment to working with students on learning, that learning is a fragile and vulnerable space for everyone involved including teachers, and that being together in the classroom involves caring for each other. The distribution of that care is not obvious (students don’t have a burden to care for teachers, but at the same time sometimes they can be nasty in ways they oughtn’t) and it’s definitely mal-distributed (racialized and Indigenous teachers, women teachers, queer teachers, precarious teachers, and disabled teachers all bear the bulk of affective care-giving pedagogical labour in the university). But thought of in terms of being in an entangled world, giving a trigger warning expresses a commitment to understanding that what’s happening between teachers and students is not merely epistemological but it is also world-making, and entangles being, knowing, and politics. That’s why I give them, and I wonder if that’s why people resist them – it’s so much harder to teach as though our bodies, feelings, and entangled being were always with us in the room.

On this, I’ve loved Ada Jaarsma, Kyle Kinaschuk, & Lin Xing’s piece on “teaching existentialism existentially” since it came out. Talking with Trudi about teaching resonated with some of what they raise, maybe in part because she’s an artist and an anthropologist, and maybe in part because of what and how she teaches. She loaned me a few books that I’m still thinking through but that feel generative: Lynda Barry’s books Syllabus and What It Is, Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Michael Taussig’s I Swear I Saw This. These are such interesting books! I feel as though they’ll really help me think about what it is to teach more materially – that is, to teach the material while holding an understanding of how we’re all also materially entangled and implicated, but also to teach in a way that engages and grows students’ capacities. But this is difficult! I had an assignment in one of my sex & sexualities seminars riffing on Ladelle McWhorter’s brilliant work in Bodies & Pleasures about cultivating capacities for unexpected pleasures, in which they actually took up practices of various kinds. While it was amazing to see what they did I also felt out of my depth in a way that thinking about integrating drawing or hand writing into classes also makes me feel.

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