Terence Smyre and Joel Puchalla form the dyad that is the editorial wing of the University of Nebraska Press’s journals department. Their offices, and hearts, share a common wall—though not a physical coronary septum, which would be weird. They envision these discussions as being a quarterly—duh, journals—look into their workplace discussions.
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TS: Joel, as a grad student you were one of those poor people tasked with teaching freshman comp. I’m curious to hear what, if any, experience you had with trigger warnings (Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response from their students) and how you may have dealt with them or were instructed to do so. Maybe because it’s Monday I’m having a hard time really appreciating the pro-trigger warning perspective. Isn’t there a tacit understanding that in attending a college or university challenging and sometimes upsetting ideas will be thrown your way for consideration? And aren’t those same kinds of ideas also wrestled with in the public forum of popular culture? The threshold for considering something an act of aggression here seems really low to me.
JP: So let me get this straight: you’re for traumatizing college students? You monster. But to be serious, it was seven years ago that I began teaching freshman comp, and the idea of trigger warnings hadn’t really come to the fore then. That said, academic freedom has long been a concern within the academy, so the idea isn’t completely foreign. Frankly, students objecting to course materials is hardly a new thing, but the Atlantic article paints this mindset as a culmination of societal influences. Do you buy that? Or is this just another angle for objecting to difficult material?
TS: Do I buy that? Well you did just send me a link to an article out of Kentucky about a woman being hit in the head by a flying brisket, which was thrown at her by a fellow cook-off contestant in the heat of an argument. The AP picked that story up. The AP! Perhaps, though, it’s a counterpoint to the other Kentucky story that is Kim Davis. Maybe you heard about that one? I have this deeply held suspicion that you may have! So yeah, I think there’s some merit to exploring what and how those kinds of influences are playing a part here because they seem to be manifesting in various expressions around the country. From the manner in which we conduct our discussions to the means by which we construct it, we seem to be embracing—maybe even celebrating—the idea that it’s best to simply opt out of societal structures when they don’t suit. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but Captain Kirk is starting to sound a lot less like Shatner with each passing moment.
JP: OH MY GOD, SYBOK HAS TAKEN CONTROL OF OUR UNIVERSITIES! I seem to recall something about something or other in Kentucky, but it might require a trigger warning, so I won’t go there. Anyway, here’s a conundrum: I have tailored my Facebook news feed to keep the political beliefs of certain Facebook friends from ruining my periodic browsing. Am I pro–trigger warning? Am I part of the political polarization problem? Is this issue more complicated than it seems at first blush? I mean, I want to say that college is about being challenged, but can I do so without looking like a hypocrite?
TS: Do you really think of Facebook as a sort of intellectual salon meant to improve your critical thinking and reasoning abilities, as a platform to improve you as a person or train you to aid you in becoming expert in some arena? Sure Facebook is a way to share social experiences or news or to engage in topics of the day. But it’s just as like a platform to vent frustrations about comic book movies or share cat videos and Kim Kardashian memes. University is, ostensibly, a crucible by which one transforms themselves into a person better able to be a leading member of the community. Among all the other things it is, it’s also a burden that one takes upon themselves—no? Or I am being too noble or idealistic about the whole enterprise?
JP: Well, I was going to work to that conclusion, so thanks for pulling the rug out from under me. Coincidentally (or not, since this topic is everywhere the last few months), staff and students at a large public university recently received a university-wide email from the chancellor that contained the following sentence: “It is certainly our privilege to engage in robust debate on any number of topics—it is a fundamental part of the university experience.” That email was specifically about two people speaking outside the student union, not trigger warnings, but the spirit of the response is the same. Here’s the thing: trigger warnings seem to have been borne from the idea of avoiding unnecessary harm to others, which sounds like a great idea. I mean, what non-sociopath would possibly want to cause others harm? But discomfort is one way people learn and grow, as pointed out in that Atlantic article, which means it should be a key component of any university. -Semi-related concluding question: do we disagree enough to continue these blog posts? Maybe we should intentionally choose topics on which we disagree for the future.
TS: In keeping with the spirit of open and honest discourse we celebrate here? Sure, why not—but I wonder under which rock we’ll find this pit of discord? Beer? Cheese? Camping? Music? Epic sci-fi and fantasy? Bio-engineering?
JP: Beer, cheese, camping, and music will be our next four posts. I’m for the first three and staunchly against your anti-harmonic leanings.
TS: Dude, what you listen to doesn’t even feature synthesizers. They are the life-blood of true music! I’m going to tweet at Duran Duran what you just said. You’ll see!