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As an English major, I often deal with difficult topics and texts. This is not just a choice, it's necessary: my English major teaches me how to articulate, address, and critically examine issues that are faced in our society and world right now. However, as a trans man, a college student, and a human being, I also have my own vulnerabilities, soft spots, and positions. This goes without saying: we all have issues that we care about. It's what makes us people.
As a result, I am often shocked when college professors are insensitive about issues that affect so many college students. Lectures that deal with books and issues on depression, mental health, and suicide are often approached from the assumption that no one in the room has experienced any struggles or thoughts related to these issues, despite the fact that many of my peers and friends, myself included, have incredibly potent emotions and sensitivities related to these topics. I am fully in support, in theory, of engaging texts that deal with these and other issues. However, in practice, the way such classes are structured goes beyond a teacher's personal choice, and can be profoundly influential on a student's day and mental state.
I've been in several classes where books were assigned that featured intense thoughts and theory on depression and death. These texts range from classics such as Hamlet (or Shakespeare in general) and Crime and Punishment to new literature –– while 13 Reasons Why is a large part of our cultural exploration, other popular media, from Divergent to Riverdale, has taken up this theme. I have been affected by these and other ‘triggers,’ including historical and contemporary texts that take up transphobia and hate crimes, because my identity never has been and never can be a jacket that I take off when I sit down in a classroom: it informs everything I think, everything I do, and everything I am, and that’s a good thing.
The start of Winter –– and the associated issues of SAD that affect many students –– has brought this up for me. At the end of last quarter, I was assigned in class a book that was in many senses about suicide. By “the end of the quarter,” I mean the very last week, the one often referred to as ‘dead week’. While one could tell from the back cover that this theme was present, the professor neither justified this choice of text or the time at which they assigned it, and did not give any further detail on what that looked like. Reading this text for me was an exercise not only in what I felt but where I had been. In past finals weeks, I have struggled with stress, sleep deprivation, and mental health issues to the point of invasive suicidal thoughts. This, too, is not something that I can simply shed to do homework, and whether or not my peers are joking, I do not believe I’m alone in this. Given that we never really unpacked the text –– that week ended up being more on final projects and ‘wrap up’ than curriculum –– I’m dubious that it was necessary, and while I’m in a better place now, I don’t doubt that this text impacted other students as well.
When people argue against content warnings, they often try to invalidate the vulnerabilities of students, saying that as people in the ‘real world’ we should be prepared to shed or ignore our identities and vulnerabilities to cope at all times. This attitude puts groups who already may have extra barriers toward accessing classrooms and education –– thinking specifically of mental health barriers that impact daily life –– even more at risk. By simply acknowledging the presence of humans, and not just students, in their classrooms through content warnings, professors can allow a much greater diversity of voices and experiences to be heard. This is not just a favor to individuals, it’s a help to the class: students who aren’t affected (if they exist) by graphic depictions of depression and suicidal thoughts, hate crimes, and other intense contemporary issues get to be more aware of the experiences of being affected by these identities and positions, while the professors themselves get to think more critically about the place of such literature in their classrooms and the reasons that they’re assigning it. I hope we are all able to agree that while contemporary issues have a place in our classrooms, marginalization of the most vulnerable voices does not.
Will St. Pierre
English and Physics Major, June 2020