For all these reasons, I’ve concluded that it would be sound pedagogy for me to give my students notice about some of the challenging material we’ll be covering in class—material relating to racial and sexual oppression, for instance, and to ethnic and religious conflict—as well as some information about their rights and responsibilities in responding to it. Starting with the summer semester, as a result, I’ll be discussing these issues during the first class meeting and including a notice about them in the syllabus.
My current draft of that notice reads as follows:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
That’s it. That’s my content warning. That’s all it is.
I should say as well that nothing in these two paragraphs represents a change in my teaching practice. I have always assumed that if students step out of the classroom they’ve got a good reason, and I don’t keep tabs on them when they do. If students are made uncomfortable by something that happens in class, I’m always glad when they come talk to me about it—I’ve found that usually both student and professor learn something from such exchanges. And of course students are still responsible for mastering all the course material, just as they’ve always been.
So why the note, if everything in it reflects the rules of my classroom as they’ve always existed? Because, again, it’s my job as a professor to facilitate class discussion.
A few years ago, one of my students came to talk to me after class, distraught. She was a student teacher in a New York City junior high school, working with a social studies teacher. The teacher was white, and almost all of his students were, like my student, black. That week, she said, one of the classes had arrived at the point in the semester given over to the discussion of slavery, and at the start of the class the teacher had gotten up, buried his nose in his notes, and started into the lecture without any introduction. The students were visibly upset by what they were hearing, but the teacher just kept going until the end of the period, at which point he finished the lecture, put down his papers, and sent them on to math class.
My student was appalled. She liked these kids, and she could see that they were hurting. They were angry, they were confused, and they had been given nothing to do with their emotions. She asked me for advice, and I had very little to offer, but I left our meeting thinking that it would have been better for the teacher to have skipped that material entirely than to have taught it the way he did.
History is often ugly. History is often troubling. History is often heartbreaking. As a professor, I have an obligation to my students to raise those difficult subjects, but I also have an obligation to raise them in a way that provokes a productive reckoning with the material.
And that reckoning can only take place if my students know that I understand that this material is not merely academic, that they are coming to it as whole people with a wide range of experiences, and that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful.
It’s not coddling them to acknowledge that. In fact, it’s just the opposite.