Culture war skirmishes over trigger warnings for sensitive topics, previously a distant spectacle involving humanists and social scientists, are now entering natural science departments — at least at my institution. In April, a colleague suggested that I may be harming students because the final project in my Applied Optics course involved technologies for coronavirus testing (much of my research is on biomedical applications of optics), and because I offered to help any interested faculty develop similar assignments or test questions. What if a mention of COVID-19 should cause distress that prevents a student from succeeding on the assignment or test? Another colleague (not in my department) encountered similar questions when they mentioned plans to discuss science relevant to COVID-19 in an upcoming class.
These well-meaning concerns are not yet the majority opinion among my peers, and students responded positively to my assignment. But they do reflect a growing trend toward emphasizing students’ supposed fragility. Both in my department and beyond, a certain segment of the professoriate seems to have begun microscopically examining nearly every aspect of daily academic life in hopes of rooting out assignments, events, or announcements that might cause unwitting harm, and scolding the rest of us about the allegedly substantial burden of trauma carried by the typical student.
A presumption of weakness underestimates students’ strengths, fits poorly with our skills as professors, and fails to address society’s needs. Presuming resilience would track closer to the reality I observe every day: In my experience, the vast majority of students are perfectly capable of discussing the science of diseases that affect them and their loved ones. Indeed, students who have experienced illness in their families often thank me for teaching topics relevant to their relatives’ diseases. They find it empowering to learn applied science rather than face disease passively.
Fortunately, my observation of many students embracing rather than avoiding such applications is consistent with my understanding of expert consensus on trigger warnings and trauma more broadly: The majority of trauma survivors do notexperience long-term symptoms such as triggers, and those who do need therapy, not avoidance and warnings. What’s more, recent research shows that such content advisories are unhelpful to college students, and may in fact increase anxiety. A further challenge is posed by the very nature of triggers. They are by definition individualized, varied, and often unpredictable. For instance, a friend who lived through a war may be fine discussing military conflict, but cannot eat foods that conjure memories of wartime shortages. How can we possibly preempt potential triggers? Given their idiosyncrasy, does it really make sense to expect instructors to work around them? Would it not be better for students to take a leave of absence (without academic penalty) to receive mental health treatment, and then return to the classroom? This fits neatly within the established (both conceptually and legally) notion of a “reasonable accommodation.”
I am certain that I have not adequately summarized professional opinion on trauma, and that illustrates one of the dangers of working within a fragility framework: It obligates all professors to become amateur consumers of mental-health literature. Yes, I know something about biomedical applications of physics, but there is a substantial difference between imaging membrane proteins and treating trauma. Presuming widespread fragility requires non-experts to not merely make an occasional accommodation prescribed by campus mental health services, but build default classroom practices around the presumption of widespread trauma among students. While it is true that one in five American adults deals with some form of mental illness, mental health professionals work to help people function outside of a clinic, not turn the world into a clinic.
I invite readers to think about how many of the people whom they encounter (from a safe distance, hopefully) in their normal routines willingly chat about the pandemic without becoming tearful or agitated. Students and professors alike already discuss COVID-19 with numerous people every day, and likely with less sober analysis than would go into a lesson on, say, diagnostic technologies, viral genomes, or mathematical models of disease spread. A fragility framework risks sidelining such productive discussions for the benefit of the rare (or phantom) student who is too ill to discuss this topic yet healthy enough to attend school. Those unusual cases require individualized exceptions devised by experts, not changes to overall course structure by amateurs trying to err on the side of well-meaning but uninformed caution.
A common theme for these well-meaning concerns about trauma in the classroom is the idea that students from underrepresented backgrounds may have unique vulnerabilities. Some universities promote the idea that working with underrepresented students requires unique skills and extra sensitivity via the increasingly common requirement of diversity statements from job applicants. It is certainly true that disadvantaged students often face greater demands on their time due to work and family responsibilities, and may need additional academic support to succeed. However, it does not follow that they are ripe for panic attacks at the mere mention of a topic, not least one that is dominating every newscast. If anything, people who have dealt with hardship are often more resilient than privileged peers.
Also, socioeconomic disparities in healthcare outcomes, including COVID-19 hospitalization rates, point to the urgency of addressing biomedical applications of science when teaching students whose under-privileged backgrounds may make them acutely aware of the relevance. My goal is to empower students to advance in professions and develop technologies that address unmet needs. Rather than assuming that disadvantaged students cannot handle discussions of a disease ravaging their communities, I prefer to assume and hope that they will be involved in setting future research and development (R&D) priorities. The best way to prepare them for such work is by confronting hard problems in applied science as part of their education.
Finally, calls for trigger warnings disregard an omnipresent fact of quarantine life: Universities spent the second half of spring semester inundating students with mentions of COVID-19. Administrators sent daily updates on the latest public health measures, the campus responses, and new resources for affected students. Why should scientists offer warnings or apologies for a topic plastered across every website and belabored in daily emails? A lesson on technologies to fight the virus may be the most novel and constructive message they will encounter. The same logic applies to the many other social issues that have elicited calls for trigger warnings: If students already encounter gun violence, substance abuse, or other issues in their lives outside of school, would it not be empowering to confront these issues through the lens of academic inquiry, and see how knowledge might lead to solutions?
Let us not quell or regulate such lessons to signal misguided sensitivity. Instead, teach students about science and technology (as well as any other subject) relevant to our hardest societal problems. It would be a mistake to let good intentions stifle exploration of something that everyone is discussing, especially where students might bring their academic strengths to the discussion: the science classroom.