Its been another exhausting, if intermittently exhilarating week here at Vole Towers. We have quite literally had laughs, tears and leaking windows, plus the occasional bout of teaching and learning (this week: Gwyn Thomas's All Things Betray Thee which went down very well indeed, The Tempest, a selection of JG Ballard's short stories, and Jilly Cooper's Riders for the last time ever). I've enjoyed it enormously, particularly the privilege of hearing a new colleague lecture quite brilliantly for the first time ever. Next week sees me teaching more Ballard short stories, Dave Eggers's The Circle, Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and Hamlet. Never let it be said that my teaching load is monotonous.
The other issue of the week has been the latest reappearance of cynical government ministers demanding universities defend 'free speech' and threatening fines. This is a cyclical event: in a few weeks a story will appear in which the same government minister will condemn a university for hosting a 'radical' or 'extremist' speaker. Being the organiser of a public lecture and research seminar series, I can attest to the simultaneous paranoia and liberalism at play in university hierarchies. They genuinely want to be open to a range of ideas, but they've also been trained by Prevent and their local security service representatives into seeing terrorists under every shalwar kameez. It's all dressed up as 'mental health concern' and equally applicable to 'extremists' of any type, but it doesn't hold water: we know very well that the definition of 'extremism' is covertly linked to ethnicity. The Overton window is getting smaller every day, and the modern university discourse of employability, vocational skills and so in makes it shrinkingly unlikely for any student to be exposed to anything other than capitalist discipline.
However, the other evergreen education story of the week is my old favourite, Trigger Warnings. Personally, I hate the phrase, almost as much as I hate the terms 'Political Correctness' and 'Check Your Privilege'. Perversely, perhaps, I like and endorse the sentiments and purposes – 'privilege checking' is what we literary critics have been doing ever since someone pointed out that the Leavisite Great Tradition was just a tad narrow. It's just the awful language that implies a deadening managerial rationality to concepts that are and should be expressed emotionally. I'm with Stewart Lee on 'PC': it's about being polite enough to recognise that words have effects and should be used thoughtfully – or as he puts it, 'you can't even scrawl racial abuse in excrement on cars without the political correctness brigade getting involved'.
As for Trigger Warnings, I've been teaching (and alive amongst humans) for long enough to know that a significant number of people in my class have experienced deeply traumatic things: a depressing amount of my time recently has been spent trying to help my admirable students cope with things that nobody should have to deal with. I happen to think that literature is how we collectively process our experiences, and that it's entirely appropriate to study texts which examine awful events. There's a difference between doing that and deliberately picking texts because you think 'snowflake' students should 'toughen up'. I don't give anything that might be construed as a 'Trigger Warning' (it sounds like the kind of thing a lawyer would advise an institution to put in place) but I do carefully introduce texts and make sure that graphic texts are contextualised sensitively and chosen for their literary merit or social significance rather than just because it might be a laugh. One of my very clever and inquiring students told me today that she'd given up on a book because it used self-harm as the basis of a cheap gag. I'm with her: there's a qualitative difference between a text that takes serious experiences as its subject and one that unthinkingly throws such things in.
Exposing people to something horrifying without context or warning then telling the newspapers that they're snowflakes is pretty much my definition of Being A Dick. And, let's note, the Telegraph understands this too: here are some lines from their Style Handbook:
we do not make gratutitous reference to a person's ethnicity or sexual orientation.
obscenity: always seek guidance in reporting foul language. It may be necessary to use dashes (not asterisks) to indicate the deletion of obscenity from direct quotes. Gratuitous use of obscenities is forbidden. The presumption must always be that profanities are forbidden.Clearly the readership of the Telegraph must be protected from hearing the kind of words they used freely in the colonial wars, but students don't deserve enough respect to introduce things carefully. I can't find the Mail's style guide ('All foreigners are Bloody') but commenters are – and this may surprise you if you've ever seen its message boards – asked to be nice:
Please be polite. Do not use swear words or crude or sexual language.
Rule 5: No libel or other abuse
You must not make or encourage comments which are:
defamatory, false or misleading;
insulting, threatening or abusive;
obscene or of a sexual nature;
offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic or discriminatory against any religions or other groups.
We have entire modules about taboo and banned texts – Cannibal Holocaust is on the menu soon – but students haven't objected because we demonstrate that there's a justifiable reason for analysing these texts: I have some controversial texts coming up which I won't name because I don't want to make yet another unwilling appearance in the local rag, but I've had to think long and hard about whether the offence is academically justified. I think students are quite right to expect academics to a) ask them to read disturbing texts; b) to have a justification for doing so and c) be happy to have the debate in class.
The latest furore is about Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's nasty revenge tragedy. I don't think I'd spend too much time on trigger warnings if we were simply reading the play, but I'd certainly warn people what to expect if we showed them one of the recent film adaptations – just as the RSC did when it toured a production in the 1980s. Even horror films have certificates and explanations of what's in them, and I don't think the Mail is calling for abolition of the BBFC. Julie Taymor's astonishing film Titus (1999) got an 18 certificate for its 'strong sex and violence and sexual violence theme'.
Finally, just to tie the week's education news together, we discover today that Oxford and Cambridge (from whence the Trigger Warning story emanates) have recruited almost no black students, and very few from poor or provincial communities. Perhaps it's because so much of the political and media classes were educated there, but there seems to be a special level of outrage applied, as though the journalists' and politicians' successors at such places are specially degenerate, whereas the oiks who attend ex-polys like mine are so brutish that they're incapable of feeling much at all.
The temptation therefore is to write off these Cambridge students as pampered posh whingers, but that requires us to treat them monolithically rather than as individuals with agency and unique identities. Perhaps the Telegraph (which quite often moans about the loss of civility and politeness) disagrees, but being rich does not exempt one from abuse and assault, as a review of historical boarding school abuse scandals should indicate. (The wicked thought crosses my mind that perhaps Oxford and Cambridge are so aware that their posh intake are such reactionary pigs that it would be abusive and unsafe to expose ethnic minority students to their behaviour: the former BNP fuhrer Nick Griffin went to Cambridge after all…).
Academics should always be self-critical and open to re-evaluating their professional practises and how they relate to students because those relationships are complex, driven by sometimes unexamined or unconscious dynamics. I really don't think that simplistic headlines generated by privileged people in furtherance of a generational warn against their own children is particularly productive, and we shouldn't be feeding the beast.