Fighting Censorship … With Trigger Warnings

At National Women’s Studies Association annual gathering, scholar talks using trigger warnings and safe spaces as a way to engage men in feminist discourse.

November 20, 2017
 

BALTIMORE -- It was the 38th annual meeting of the National Women’s Studies Association, and Erin Spampinato wanted to talk about cisgender, heterosexual men.

For the City University of New York doctoral candidate, though, that wasn’t an incompatible juxtaposition. Rather, it was a necessary one.

She was talking about a class she taught, Representations of Rape in Literature, and how her syllabus’s trigger warnings on the course's violent content also called for an inclusive classroom -- and specifically welcoming the inclusion of straight, cisgender men -- in order to encourage debate and make sure every student felt welcome to share their opinions. The idea of calling for a safe space in the classroom and using trigger warnings, Spampinato said, wasn’t to stifle debate, as conservative pundits often charge, but quite the opposite: to foster “a diversity of opinions,” the same phrase that conservatives often use when claiming feminism or liberalism is intolerant of their views.

Spampinato was speaking a panel on feminist curricula, titled “Pedagogy’s Cutting Edge: The Practice and Promise of Curriculum Design,” where she was joined by scholars presenting papers on topics ranging from teaching feminism during a period of cultural backlash to the design of online and virtual curricula in a feminist manner.

For Spampinato, using trigger warnings and establishing the classroom as a safe space is a way to promote more conversation and bring more people into discussions on feminism and related topics. During the panel, her definition of a safe space wasn’t a classroom that called for censorship, or a place where no one would be offended, but rather a classroom where “if you are offended, you will feel comfortable explaining why and sharing your feelings.”

Spampinato spoke on her paper “Teaching the Literature of Sexual Violence in the Era of the Trigger Warning” and acknowledged that her approach was unorthodox and very specific to the context of the course she taught, which occurred before the 2016 presidential election. She acknowledged the criticism that comes with carving out space for men in a feminist or women’s studies course, but for her it was as practical as it was pedagogical.

“As a person who researches this topic, I know that the vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by cisgender, heterosexual men,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “I work on a college campus where we have sexual violence. It’s a cultural problem, and I believe men must be part of those conversations.”

The conflation of safe spaces and trigger warnings with censorship, she said, was based on a false understanding by critics of what safe spaces and trigger warnings are supposed to do. The only opinions that Spampinato said were not welcome were ones that were only meant to cause offense without furthering a dialogue or conversation.

Still, Spampinato said her method of explicitly calling for the inclusion of straight, cisgender men was contextual to the class she was teaching, and warned against it being used as a general rule. She wanted to bring men into the conversation around the depiction of rape in literature, she said, and she found that this was a good way to accomplish that in her specific course. Although there were instances of male students saying ignorant or offensive things, their ability to express those opinions became teachable moments when the rest of the class could express their feelings in response.

“The reason I centered cis men in this situation was totally contextual … I didn’t want male students not to take my class, and I was worried about that, especially [given] the topic,” Spampinato said in response to an audience member asking if her method inadvertently made male students the center of attention in a feminist course. “But there might be some internalized misogyny in there, trying to meet the needs of cis male students. That’s something I think about a lot.”

She said her method wasn’t set in stone, and she wasn’t above re-evaluating it; perhaps, she said, she was too concerned with male voices, at the expense at others. She also said she worked made sure her method didn’t come at the expense of supporting students from marginalized backgrounds. Still, she said, her method was in line with feminist goals -- particularly shifting the blame for sexual assault off victims and onto perpetrators.

“If talking about rape more, and sometimes offending each other, means that my students rape each other less, then I’m all for that,” Spampinato said during the panel discussion.

Trigger warnings and safe spaces, Spampinato said, are an invitation for discussing difficult topics.

“You shouldn’t be using them unless you’re down to be challenged, and to reconsider your thinking.”

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