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The ratings reasoning for the long-forgotten, embarassingly '90s film 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up. Somehow, there were four movies in this series. It was a simpler time.

The ratings reasoning for the long-forgotten, embarassingly ’90s film 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up. Somehow, there were four movies in this series. It was a simpler time.

I am not a sensitive person. Maybe I saw too many Schwarzeneggerian shoot-’em-ups. Maybe I played too many video games. Maybe I listened to too much metal and hip-hop. Or maybe it’s just because I liked to read. After all, Beowulf includes a detailed description of an arm getting torn of its socket at the shoulder, Tess of the D’urbervilles deals with a woman ostracized for becoming pregnant after a rape, and Catcher in the Rye includes a scene where the frequently profane underage protagonist hires a prostitute. And that’s just the books I read for school.

I’d like to propose a new acronym for these moments, whether it’s graphic content in literature, sensitive content in history, or full frontal content in art history: NSFWBSFS (not safe for work, but safe for school).

Apparently, there’s a growing conversation among educators about whether or not students should be warned about certain content in advance. Think of this like a very specific ratings system about upcoming content.

I’m sure many of you recoil in horror at this suggestion. Shouldn’t students, especially by the time they reach college, be treated as adults? One of the greatest gifts literature gives us is a way to talk about the heaviest topics — racism, sexual violence, religious conflict — through a fictional lens. Why strip that important aspect of education away because it might make a few people uncomfortable?

But the counter-argument shouldn’t be dismissed quite so quickly. What might count as a sensitive topic to one person might not be a sensitive topic to another. This is especially true in instances of trauma. If a victim of rape told me that Tess of the d’Urbervilles was too painful to read, I’d consider that a perfectly understandable reaction. It’s not censorship per se, because it doesn’t limit access to objectionable material.

However, what sounds reasonable for an individual opt-out makes less sense for a campus-wide policy. Oberlin College has tried to institute “trigger warnings” for its classes, but they’ve erred on the broad side. The idea is to let you know of anything that could be conceivably objectionable in advance, and let the individual student work out what he or she is comfortable with. The problem with that mentality is that you soon end up with the kind of nonsense the MPAA regularly prints, like the screenshot above’s “non-stop ninja action” or Alice in Wonderland (2010) getting a PG rating for a “smoking caterpillar.” Go too broad, and you end up cheapening the warnings.

The humanities (any of them) are a study of the best and worst of human nature. Students should understand that, but instructors likewise need to sympathize when the ugliness cuts too close for comfort. That fundamental understanding is what’s needed, far more than a warning label.

Comments on: "Do College Classes Need Content Warnings?" (4)

  1. Any warning was for me a MUST READ flag!

  2. Kenneth said:

    As long as there are no restrictions/censorship it’s fine by me. Just stick to the facts and don’t try to decide for me what is or isn’t appropriate.

  3. Norman Konzelman said:

    Excuse me, but how do you teach a mind protected from being taught?

  4. I absolutely understand. And I understand a summarized yet succinct warning on certain topics. And by certain topics, I mean rape, abuse and things worse than that. I don’t believe that classes should, by any means, be censored, but re-traumatization of a person can be or make the original trauma all the worse. There should, I think be a “disclosure” for certain classes, although again it is a disclosure, not a restriction/censorship. The student should be able to choose, and if it’s a required course should be able to talk to the professor or receive counseling at the same time as may be appropriate, if the person is still trying to deal with whatever trauma.

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