UChicago stance on trigger warnings brings debate to Elmhurst College

Over the past two weeks, there have been heated debates on the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses across the U.S., an issue that EC president Troy VanAken said he is “conflicted” about.

“I want students to have an environment where they feel comfortable and they feel safe and where they can learn,” VanAken said. “I don’t like to see anyone feeling offended or feeling uncomfortable … because they’re dealing with stresses.”

Safe spaces are places free from hate speech and sexism-a safe haven for marginalized groups. Professors give trigger warnings, often used in safe spaces, when speech or text contains distressing content such as sexually graphic or violent language. Many are concerned that the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings limits freedom of speech and prevents students from learning.

“On the other hand, we are preparing students for the world that awaits after graduation and that may involve having to brush up against some of these uncomfortable topics,” he added. “I don’t necessarily know what the right answer is for Elmhurst...I’m conflicted on the topic.”

On Aug. 26, the University of Chicago’s (UC) dean of students, Jay Ellison, published a letter stating that the University does not support the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus, because it inhibits freedom of expression. Schools such as Brown University and Claremont McKenna College were quick to follow UC’s lead.

UC’s statement follows several student protests of certain speakers on campus. Among these speakers include former IL state attorney for Cook County, Anita Alvarez, and Bassem Eid, an Israeli TV analyst and human rights activist. UC’s College Republicans president Matthew Foldi supports UC’s letter because it condemns the protests of speakers.

“We’ve seen countless speakers canceled, shut down, or uninvited simply for holding views to the right of the student body,” Foldi said in an email interview. “We had a Palestinian human rights activist threatened with death on our campus because he didn’t reflexively blame Israel for all of the problems in the Middle East, just a few months ago.”

The University of Chicago is not the only campus dealing with student protests of controversial speakers. At Depaul University, conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos were prevented from speaking on campus due to cited security concerns.

Though there have not been any recent instances of canceled speakers at EC, VanAken discussed the possibility.

“I would have a hard time with somebody coming, and using college resources, [who] is so offensive to the majority or significant part of our population that I’d like to try and avoid that if we can,” he said.

However, VanAken stressed the importance of different views being discussed on campus.

“I think we should have conservative and liberal views... [being] expressed here and other issues where there may be difference of opinions,” he said.

“I’ve had students email me about things they have seen here on campus that I think are certainly within bounds, but it was clear that person thought that is something that should not be discussed here,” he added. “And it could be over sexual orientation issues or things like that.”

In an email interview, Student Government Association Executive Vice President Emelio Davalos also said that college students should challenge themselves and their ideas.

“I agree with Obama’s stance that college is a place to learn and to challenge yourself,” he said. “That not everyone is going to agree and that history, politics, society and just about everything in life has a dark side.

Sophomore Eric Balderas agrees.

“College is about challenging what you already know and believe,” he said in an email interview. “How many people would be willing to push themselves if they knew they had trigger warnings [or] safe zones to retreat to when something gets controversial?”

However, some students believe that the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces can be particularly helpful to victims of sexual assault, violence, and PTSD.

“Trigger warnings are a way of allowing people to safely approach what might be a difficult subject for them,” said sophomore Shannon Wilson in an email interview. “ If it [is] something that has to be dealt with, it gives them the forewarning to mentally prepare themselves to face something traumatic.”

Besides students, some EC faculty have also considered how trigger warnings and safe spaces can be helpful to particular students.

In an email interview, English department chair Dr. Ann Frank Wake explained that she and other English professors often use trigger warnings in their classes.

“The English Department doesn’t have a written policy about trigger warnings, but we discussed it last year, determining that most of us quite routinely set up works with shocking or difficult topics in advance of students being assigned to read them,” she said. “We agreed that if a student needed to leave a discussion or boycott a particular work we would not be likely to force the issue.”

Head of the Communications Studies Program Dr. Courtney Waite Miller also uses trigger warnings in her classes.

“I sometimes use trigger warnings, usually as a means of stating expectations for student conduct while discussing sensitive issues,” she said.

Dr. Amy Swarr, the director of counseling services, discussed her recommendations regarding the use of trigger warnings at a faculty meeting.

In the report, Swarr recommended that faculty have trigger warnings written on their syllabi if they plan on teaching or using content that can be “triggering” to some students. She also recommended that faculty “give a heads-up to students when a topic that could be triggering will be discussed”.

Proponents for banning the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus argue that if faculty administer trigger warnings, students would be discouraged from attending class or would try to excuse themselves from course work without a valid reason.

However, VanAken does not believe that will be an issue.

“I trust people a little more than that. I trust the faculty,” he said. “It’s going to be very rare, if it even occurs, that someone is going to use this to dodge work.”

Elmhurst College does not have an official policy on the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces. However, VanAken suggested more discussions with the faculty about the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces will take place.