CW: potentially triggering words
A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of taking first half of US History. During one class, my professor used all of these words in some capacity (and I promise they all made sense in context): penis, vagina, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, obstetrics, gynecology, prostitute/hooker/whore, sex, sexual assault, rape, erection, damn, crap, hell, and ass.
You could argue that his lectures are rather…adult.
Like I said, all of these words made sense in context. All the anatomy was describing how Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female medical doctor in the United States, and began the specialty of obstetrics and gynecology, because up until that point men had not thought it important to study women’s reproductive health. They thought women were defective men, and that their uteruses just floated around their bodies when not pregnant, causing “hysteria.” All the other words had good reasons too, and the last four are just because he likes to mildly swear.
So why is this a problem?
On the surface, it’s not. Not really. This is college, and we’re all adults, and we’re all paying to show up and listen. And I actually appreciate that he covers perspectives many professors don’t; his specialties are women’s history and religious history, so we hear a lot about both. White male rhetoric stays at a minimum. It’s the first history class I’ve not been bored in.
So while I appreciate that, I often find his language startling for a classroom environment, particularly since he’s prone to nearly shouting. As a rape victim, I can find a man shouting the words “rape,” “erection,” and “assault” at me pretty triggering, even now, even as healed as I am.
So what’s the solution?
What about trigger warnings? This has been a topic of debate for a while now. I don’t know about trigger warnings for the classroom. This is US history. It has slavery, war, racism, misogyny, genocide, and all sorts of other ugly shit. If you have issues with violence, expect to be triggered, and take responsibility for your own self-care. Like I said, this is upper education. It’s meant to be adult conversation, it’s meant to make you think and push your boundaries, and you’re showing up voluntarily.
I have developed ways to protect myself. Things like picturing a force field around me that the triggering words can’t penetrate. There are any number of ways to cope with triggers, and this is necessary to do everywhere, not just in the classroom. However, not everyone is at the same stage of healing that I am, and not everyone has the resources to go to therapy. Some people may not even be aware that they have PTSD yet. And some people just need a little warning so they can engage those coping skills. Usually the argument against trigger warnings in college is that the rest of the world doesn’t have them, and that people need to develop a thicker skin instead of being coddled. One could argue, however, that trigger warnings are simply another way of making school an accessible and safe environment for students who have a psychological issue, not unlike having elevators for people who can’t climb stairs. Some people can’t listen to certain lectures. Perhaps educators need to be more sensitive to that.
The truth is, under all that bluster, this professor cares deeply about his students. When he saw the old cutting scars on my arms, he took me aside and asked if we needed to go to the counselor’s office (I thanked him and told him I was good.) He told us on the first day that if he thinks a student is depressed, he will take them to the counselor’s office because he doesn’t play with suicide. I think he doesn’t mince words because we don’t learn anything from history unless we look at as many perspectives as possible– even the ugliest ones.
Everyone has some ugliness in their history. Those of us who have a lot of it may need to be supported more than we currently are.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.