Self-care for new university tutors: a queer supplement

This post was inspired by, and is a supplement to, Emma Kennedy’s excellent article New to University Teaching? Look After Yourself. Please read it first, if you haven’t already: it’s a crucial resource for new tutors. This is my adjunct to it, which draws on some of the thoughts I presented at the Academia & Affect symposium a couple of months ago.

New to university teaching, and queer too?

Be visible if you can…

Students benefit enormously from visible diversity in academia. (This point is obviously far from restricted to gender and sexuality, even though that’s what I’m going to talk about here.) For queer students, it sends the message that teaching is collaborative, not adversarial: it’s not one separate, privileged group imparting knowledge to another group further down the hierarchy, but the sharing of ideas between two diverse groups of equals. It also provides role models, something crucial to aspiration and motivation; and it lets them know they have an ally, both in their classroom and within their department. Seminars in the arts and humanities in particular depend to a great extent on students feeling sufficiently comfortable to voice their ideas, and a visible point of identification and allyship is invaluable in helping that happen. For non-queer students, seeing a person from a marginalised group in a position of academic leadership is socially powerful and reminds them to be aware of their language and behaviour.

…but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. 

The emphasis on the political and social benefits of being “out” – not to mention the somewhat sinister capitalist imperative to do so because it will make you “more productive” – can be overwhelming. But there are many reasons why you might not be able to be out in teaching, and that’s okay. If it’s not the right thing for you as a tutor – in terms of personal safety, wellbeing, energy, or any other factor – then it’s not the right thing for your teaching situation. A visibly queer tutor who is exhausted by hypervigilance, worry or emotional vulnerability is not the best tutor your students could have. It’s okay to choose to protect yourself. If you feel guilty, try to reframe it as a choice that benefits your students’ learning environment (or even better, try to remember that you are an important person too).

Remember, too, that this isn’t a binary situation. You can foster a safe environment for your queer students without outing yourself. You can include a round of preferred pronouns in your ice-breakers and introductions; if you have any control over reading material, you can make sure it’s inclusive; you can encourage your students to use inclusive language. Visibility may be powerful, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

Teach your students to be better…

Students are usually young people and are always in the process of learning. Like all of us, they get things wrong. They might use oppressive language without realising why it’s a problem, or they might base their arguments on cisnormative or heteronormative assumptions. (In the past, my students have been particularly fond of assuming that the addressee of a love sonnet by a male poet must be female, and of referring to the vulva as “the female genitals” and pregnancy as “an exclusively female experience”). As a tutor, your position enables you to point out the problems with statements like this where other students may not feel able to correct their peers.

…but steel yourself for their mistakes…

Remember, though, that you will be on the receiving end of that language and assumptions, too. After a day of students obliviously talking about “the female body” that made me feel physically sick with dysphoria, I resolved to prepare for future seminars as if I were constructing trigger warnings for someone similar to myself. Ask yourself, “Which things might come up during this discussion that might cause me to panic, and how will I handle the situation if they do?” And if you can avoid these topics altogether, don’t be afraid to make that choice. Repeat it to yourself again: I am important, and an exhausted tutor is not the best tutor these students can have.

Steel yourself, too, by finding allies within your department. If you experience outright discrimination from a student, is there someone who won’t dismiss your concerns?

…and recognise that they can teach you too.

It can be tempting to feel that your position as a member of one marginalised group makes you the authority on classroom inclusivity – but keep your ears and your mind open to your students too, and try to create an environment in which they feel able to speak up. “I’m often wrong,” I always tell my students in their first seminar. They laugh, and I feel a pressure lifting too. You’re never going to be able to answer all their questions: if you ensure that they’re expecting that, you can move away from fearing it and towards seeing it as an opportunity to learn and as a deconstruction of the hierarchy between you.

I’m sure this is incomplete, and I’d love to hear more – from other queer people, or from members of other groups that are marginalised in academia. Is there a supplement to be written for tutors of colour, or for disabled tutors? I’d love to read it.

My thesis mixtape; or, queer mourning and resistance

Content: murder, LGBTQ-phobic hate crime

This post started as a response to one of the many excellent topic suggestions for #AcWriBloMo given by the lovely folks of Facebook’s PostgRAD Study Gang: “If you had to make a mix tape about your work, what songs would be on it?” “If?” I thought. “If I had to make a mix tape? But I already have a thesis playlist!” [NB: It’s not a tape, it’s an iTunes playlist, because I don’t think I have anything that will play tapes any more. This does genuinely sadden me though.] Then I thought, “How would I explain the songs that are on my thesis playlist to readers of my blog?”

I thought about this for a really long time. I wondered whether I should write a completely different post. In the end, it was the memories of the supportive atmosphere at the Academia and Affect symposium I attended a couple of weeks ago – and the conviction I came away with, that we shouldn’t stop talking about the topics raised there – that made me carry on writing. I’m very thankful to all the wonderful people who created that atmosphere and that conviction.

My PhD explores the development of the historiography of Edward II (1307-1327) and his favourites during the period c.1305-1700. I first came across Edward’s story during my first year of university, through Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II (c.1593). This is important, because Marlowe’s play is a searingly emotional first impression. Marlowe vividly dramatizes Edward’s passionate grief when he is separated from Piers Gaveston – his friend, favourite, and romantic and sexual partner – first by exile and then by death. As an undergraduate still a few years away from making full sense of my intense emotional connection to gay men (it was later that I came to fully appreciate that it’s academically unhelpful to refer to fourteenth-century people as gay), I was blown away by the tiniest of details with which Edward’s grief was conveyed. One of the only stage directions in the original text has him fall to his knees for a vow of revenge on Gaveston’s death, a moment I still find breathtaking to read. Grief was the first thing I learned to associate with Edward II; it struck a particular emotional chord in me, and so it stuck.

However, as my PhD has progressed, it’s become increasingly clear that this was far from an inapt first impression. In fact, grief and romanticisation are central to the medieval and early modern historiography of Edward II. In the 1350s, Geoffrey le Baker wrote an extraordinarily sympathetic account of Edward II’s life, deposition, imprisonment and death which is characterised by Edward’s Christ-like endurance of hardship and strong emotion. He weeps copiously, swoons frequently, and suffers a catalogue of abuses at the hands of his jailers. The account is highly fictionalised, highly sensationalised and highly readable. Early modern chroniclers seized upon Baker’s account (which they attributed to his patron, Sir Thomas de la More) as emotionally gripping source material. Typically, they follow other, far less sympathetic sources up to the moment of Edward’s deposition, before switching to reliance on the sympathetic Baker once Edward loses his crown, slotting Edward perfectly into the rise and fall of a de casibus (wheel of fortune) structure.

Edward’s relationship with Gaveston is also increasingly romanticised over time. During my period of study, Gaveston moves into centre stage as Edward’s romantic partner in accounts of his reign, at the expense of his later favourites, the two Hugh Despensers. There are so many examples of this that it’s half a chapter of my thesis, but I’ll give one here: between the fifteenth and seventeenth century, an oft-quoted sentence in the account of Gaveston’s final capture before his execution moves through several stages. The original, in the chronicle attributed to “John de Trokelowe”, states that “[Gaveston] humbly begged that he might deserve to enjoy the conversation of the lord king”. Thomas Walsingham adapted this to “[Gaveston did] not request anything, except that they should allow him at least once to enjoy the plentiful conversation of the lord king.” Walsingham’s interpolation of “at least once” (saltem semel) is significant here. Though ostensibly signifying Gaveston’s desire for more than one conversation with Edward, this diminutive presentation of his final request suggests its importance to Gaveston: if he cannot have anything else, he would like just one conversation with Edward. Moreover, the additional detail presents a more vivid picture of a pleading Gaveston than can be gained from Trokelowe’s account. By the seventeenth century, the equivalent sentence in Richard Baker’s Chronicle reads, “Gaveston seeing no meanes to escape, was content to render himselfe; requesting onely, that he might but once be allowed to see the Kings face”. The first sentence could be referring to a business meeting; the last is the request of a lover suddenly stricken with the reality of permanent separation.

My response to Marlowe’s Edward II, and to the rest of the medieval and early modern historiography of Edward II, was certainly a product of my own personal connection to the subject. But it was also a product of texts that are crafted to provoke an emotional response. As I tell my undergraduate students, close reading at its best can function as a form of self-awareness: it enables the reader of a text to pin down the features that helped to create the emotions and impressions they experienced when reading it. However bound up my thesis is with my own identity, the emotions I experience when reading the historiography of Edward II are also academically valid and productive in their own right.

So what’s on my thesis playlist? A small selection should confirm to you that it’s exactly as the tone of this blog post might have led you to expect. [Important: I make no claims to have any form of remotely decent music taste, although it is somewhat better and more influenced by  being a habitual 6Music listener than this selection would suggest;  this topic doesn’t exactly lend itself to edginess or subtlety.]

Snow Patrol’s “Run” has a mental subtitle “1312”: it’s about Edward and Gaveston’s final parting at Scarborough Castle in June 1312, shortly before Gaveston was captured by the rest of Edward’s nobles and executed. “Right Here Waiting”, covered by John Barrowman no less, is about separation enforced by exile. The Feeling’s entire 2013 album “Boy Cried Wolf” (breakup album extraordinaire, can I just say?) fits perfectly. In particular, “The Gloves Are Off” reflects the dynamic of Manchester Royal Exchange’s excellent 2011 production of Marlowe’s Edward II, which brought home the impossibility of expressing emotions openly and without violence in a constrained situation like the fourteenth-century English Court. Biffy Clyro’s “Many of Horror” (don’t talk to me about the X Factor cover) does the same.

The massacre in Orlando, and the collective mourning of so many queer communities including my own, has returned me powerfully to these emotions over the past few days. In fact, the grief I feel over Orlando is what prompted me to turn to my thesis playlist today. The song on the playlist that I listen to most frequently is Muse’s “Resistance”. It may have its own literary meaning, but to me it has always articulated the anger I feel about the acceptance denied to so many same-sex couples in the past, and indeed the present:

“It could be wrong, could be wrong, but it should have been right.”

I’ll play it again tonight, as I try to move into a place where I can organise as well as mourn.

 

Conference report: Communication, Correspondence and Transmission in the Early Modern World

Academic achievement unlocked: almost a month ago (how?!) I helped to organise my first ever conference. The report (featuring Henry VIII’s feet) is now up at the Northern Renaissance Seminar website. Here’s a picture of six exhausted, proud PhD students whose first conference has just received lovely comments from lots of the speakers:

NRS organising team

(That’s me in the paisley tie, obvs.)

Thank you enormously to my fellow organisers, Claudia, Claire, Gio, Hannah and Stephen; to all the speakers who made it such an academically exhilarating two days; to Liz Oakley-Brown for enthusiastically welcoming us under the Northern Renaissance Seminar umbrella; and to WRoCAH for their financial support.

Maurice Dobson and Darfield: problems of appropriation in LGBT history movements

Darfield museum

Content: mention (not quotation) of transphobic views/TERFs and misgendering.

Yesterday my friend Liz and I visited the Maurice Dobson Museum and Heritage Centre in Darfield, a village to the east of Barnsley. I’d been wanting to go ever since the launch night of York LGBT History Month 2016, when Dr Helen Smith gave a fascinating talk based on her research on desire and relationships between northern working-class men in the twentieth century. Maurice Dobson – former miner, soldier, hotelier, boxer and prolific antique collector – owned and operated Darfield’s village shop from 1956 to the 1980s. He lived openly as a gay man with his partner, Fred Halliday, and the two were known for wearing dresses. When he died, he was persuaded to leave his shop to the village, where it became a museum.

Helen’s talk made much of the way that Maurice and Fred’s story provides a necessary challenge to assumptions about the social conservatism and intolerance of rural, working-class communities, particularly in the north of England. To me, the continued existence of a museum bearing Maurice’s name seemed demonstrably to further that challenge: this small South Yorkshire village had not only tolerated a gay couple during their lifetimes, but continued to celebrate Maurice. Having excitedly told everyone in my office at work that I was “going to visit a gay sweetshop museum”, I set off to meet Liz in Darfield for what I hoped would be an exhilirating education in local queer history.

The volunteer guide who showed us around – an ex-miner several generations older than us – was happy to tell us the story of Maurice and Fred, and happy to say the word “gay” without a trace of awkwardness. But it quickly became clear that I had been remiss to describe it as a “gay sweetshop museum”. The building was Maurice and Fred’s shop and home, and the downstairs room contains photos of them, along with some of the many antiques Maurice collected (and mended cackhandedly with plasticine and Elastoplast!) But the guide soon moved on from them to the story of Darfield. The museum is not one of a gay couple, but of Roman coins and pit-village life, of glass bottle factories and football-stitching, of vacuum cleaners through the ages and giant Meccano models. I listened politely and with genuine interest, but the moment the guide had finished I headed back downstairs to the photos of Maurice and Fred: they were what I had come for, after all.

This was where it got interesting. A local man was talking animatedly to a different guide, and their talk was all of Maurice. Noticing I was listening, they asked why I had come, and I explained (as I had to all the other guides, without getting much of a response) that I’m the lead coordinator of York LGBT History Month. The local man gasped with excited surprise, and the guide willingly told us both stories of Maurice’s life, before disappearing briefly into the gift shop to return with a postcard. “Have you watched the Memories of Maurice film?” he asked. There had also been a one-man play written about Maurice’s life, he said. “Then we were encouraged to apply for Arts Council funding, and they filmed the play, and they’re editing it at the moment. It’s been booked by the Sheffield Showroom before it’s even finished!” he said with some bafflement.

Hearing a reference to drama, I thought immediately of Pagelight Productions, the theatre company who have produced plays for the last two National Festivals of LGBT History. “Are you in touch with the national LGBT History Month team at all?” I asked excitedly. “They’re really interested in – ”

“Not at all!” the guide interrupted, shaking his head.

“I reckon they’d be really interested in this play,” I pressed. “I can give you the name of the guy to contact – ”

“You know,” the guide said, “all this Maurice stuff has taken us a bit by surprise. It wasn’t supposed to be  a museum about him. He gave us this building, so we put his name on the door, and that was it – and now everyone’s suddenly really interested in him and Fred, but…”

“When I found out about this museum,” the local man chimed in, excitedly, “I thought, ‘Why on earth does Darfield of all places have a museum dedicated to a homosexual?”

“But it’s not!” the guide said.

But that isn’t what we want this museum to be. That isn’t what we want the story of Darfield to be. I suddenly felt deeply uncomfortable about what I’d just done: assuming they wanted to celebrate Maurice and Fred’s story, I’d gone into LGBT History Month planning mode, excitedly trying to make contacts where they weren’t wanted. There is, I realised, the potential for queer history movements to be unpleasantly appropriative. Who was I, a middle-class young Oxbridge graduate, to come over to Darfield from York and tell the village what the significant aspects of its history were?

What happened next drove home how problematic and misrepresentative a focus on Darfield’s past toleration of Maurice and Fred could be. The animated local man turned to me and asked, out of the blue, what I thought of Caitlyn Jenner (no, I’m afraid he didn’t call her Caitlyn). Before I knew it, he was praising Germaine Greer and voicing opinions that it wouldn’t be productive to repeat here. I don’t think he realised I was trans myself: the guide at the entrance had read me as a teenage boy and charged me a children’s entrance fee, and although I told the local man, “I think I have a more personal relationship to this issue than you necessarily realise”, I think he was too absorbed in speculation about Caitlyn’s medical history to notice my meaning. The guide forcibly changed the subject before the discussion became too heated, and Liz and I retired in shock to the cafe.

To give him full credit, the guide did come and apologise to us for the transphobic visitor shortly afterwards. But if we, as LGBT history activisits, decide that the story of Darfield is the story of Maurice Dobson and Fred Halliday’s openly gay existence in a South Yorkshire village, this is neither good history nor good activism. If we put Darfield on the map for Maurice and Fred alone, we ride roughshod over the villagers’ perceptions of their own history, and we pinkwash the complicated views of the present inhabitants.

I went to the museum of Darfield, which is named after a gay man. I tried to link the museum up with the wider LGBT History Month movement, and was rebuffed. I was subjected to transphobic comments by a local man who admired the fact “a homosexual” had lived so openly in twentieth-century South Yorkshire. It’s not a neat, linear, easily categorisable story. But it’s the story we need to be telling.

Who do we think students are?

Content: racism; other non-specific forms of oppression

There are a lot of problems with white academics weighing in on the #RhodesMustFall campaign. I very much hope this piece doesn’t suffer from all of them; if it turns out it isn’t useful, relevant, constructive, appropriate, I would really appreciate knowing about it.

Mary Beard appears to have none of the qualms I expressed above. Her column in the Times Literary Supplement last Sunday addressed the campaign. And her comments – that “the battle isn’t won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didn’t exist. It’s won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability” – have prompted me to write down some thoughts I’ve been gathering for a while.

The other thing that prompted me was a recent conversation with a fellow postgraduate student. They didn’t attend most of their seminars at undergraduate, they said, because they had panic attacks and dreaded being made to talk in a group situation. Did the university email them to ask what was wrong? No, they said: not a word from their student support team, not a peep from their tutors. So they went through university without most of the benefits of group discussion – benefits, moreover, that they had paid many thousands of pounds to access. I thought gratefully of the way the School I now teach in tackles situations like this (students who miss three consecutive seminars are always contacted) and worriedly of my own quieter undergraduates (what more could I have done?)

I think in the discourse about “coddling” students with trigger warnings (which I’ve written about before) and the right of students to no-platform speakers (which I haven’t written about, but may I direct you here) a worrying construction of the undergraduate student is emerging. Students, we hear, need to be challenged, empowered, exposed: they shouldn’t be sheltered from the Real World! But who are these students we’re discussing? Are they bouncy rubber people who arrive at university robust enough to face up to traumatic discussions and oppressive experiences, take stock of them and become better people for it?

These are eighteen-year-olds we’re talking about. The vast majority have never lived away from home before. They come to university with the baggage of puberty and the anxiety of a profoundly new situation, not to mention any additional traumas already behind them. They will spend the next three years figuring out who they are and having some of their most significant emotional experiences (I cling fiercely to learning as one of the most important things in my life, but don’t try and tell me it’s the only thing that goes on at university). They have the capacity and the drive to handle challenging ideas, confront their assumptions, and grow into more confident people. But they need and deserve support as they do it. It’s not “coddling” to recognise this: it’s something more akin to cultural relativism, or just simple empathy.

Yes, of course our aim should be to produce cheery, self-confident, unbatterable people – I say this without flippancy or cynicism.[1] But what if one of the things stopping you developing that “sense of unbatterability” is having speakers who would deny your right to exist invited to speak on the campus you call home? What if (as in my own experience) it’s being thoughtlessly exposed to a panic-inducing text in your second week of university by an academic you’re still learning to trust? What if it’s having to walk past a statue of a man who ordered the murder of tens of thousands of people like you, every day, no matter how resilient or vulnerable you’re feeling?

Firstly, there’s a world of difference between confronting issues that threaten to “batter” you in a supportive, facilitated, discursive environment, and being exposed to them without those mitigating factors (the presence of Rhodes’s statue being a case of the latter). And secondly, if we are to empower students to handle the oppression many of them will inevitably face – a profoundly worthwhile aim for any educator – we ought to also empower them to make choices about what support they need in order to do it. The advice we give to friends struggling with multiple challenges is to address, limit or remove the ones they can control: I know this, having received this exact advice during a very difficult month. If students consider their situation, work out what could make it better, and ask university staff to help them take those steps, we ought to acknowledge and reward the self-awareness that has gone into that process. To do otherwise is patronising, dismissive and (dare I say it) implies we think they can’t make their own decisions; that they do need “coddling”, after all.

[1] There is, however, an argument to be had about whether “empowering” students to just put up with symbols of racism, colonialism or any other form of oppression is (to put it mildly) a bit of a weird, perverse thing to want to do. That’s not what this article’s about as I’m not sure I’m the best person to talk about it, but it’s worth discussing.

Call for Papers: Communication, Correspondence and Transmission in the Early Modern World

It is a commWoodcut of printer's shoponplace that the advent of printing in Europe revolutionised communication and the transmission of ideas. This Northern Renaissance Seminar event seeks to complicate and move beyond the “printing revolution” narrative to consider the messy and multiplicitous facets of communication, correspondence and transmission in the early modern world. How was it conceptualised, theorised or deployed as metaphor? What were its geographical, temporal or linguistic limits? How might it be transgressive or disruptive, and who might try to circumscribe it? We welcome contributions from a range of disciplines, including history, literature, art history, archaeology, languages, and drama.

We are delighted to announce Dr Sara Barker (University of Leeds) as the event’s keynote speaker.

Proposals are now being invited for 20-minute papers. Topics to consider may include, but are not limited to:

  • Guides to written or spoken communication
  •  Reading and interpreting private correspondence
  •  Transmission of knowledge and circulation of news
  •  Swift and delayed communications
  •  Visual and other non-verbal communication
  •  Transmission of ideas and physical texts across geographical boundaries
  •  Transmission of narratives between texts
  •  The dedicatory epistle
  •  The body as communicative
  •  Secret communication and manuscript coteries
  •  Transmission of disease and infection, real and metaphorical
  •  Poetry as correspondence
  •  Geographical and cultural isolation from communication
  •  Disordered, dysfluent or unclear communication
  •  Accents and languages
  •  Miscommunication and mistranslation

Please email proposals of no more than 300 words to nrsleeds2016@gmail.com by Friday 15th January 2016. All queries should also be directed to this address. Please also include biographical information detailing your name, research area, institution and level of study (if applicable). Sessions will be held on the afternoon of Thursday 12th May and during the day on Friday 13th May 2016. The conference will also include opportunities to visit the Royal Armouries and see the early modern treasures of Special Collections at the Brotherton Library.

Further details will be available on the conference website: https://nrsleeds2016.wordpress.com/.

Trigger warnings aren’t about luxury or privilege: they’re about equality.

This post contains discussions of trauma, though without naming any explicit causes.

“Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings,” asserts Lori Horvitz in a recent comment article at the Guardian. “Why should books?” This is the third article arguing an almost identical perspective to appear on the Guardian website in just over twelve months (the others being this one by Jill Filipovic and this one by Jen Doll). Each time, they make me shake with rage to such an extent that I’m sure someone else must feel the same: surely, an article putting forward the opposing point of view will appear soon? It never does. So here’s mine.

Most articles advancing this perspective – which are far from confined to the Guardian – base their argument partly or entirely on the claim that there are no trigger warnings in the “real world”. Horvitz’s subtitle reads, “The outside world is full of triggers” – the subtext being that since these can’t be warned for, the teaching of literature should be similarly exempt from the need to warn of potentially triggering subject matter. First of all, this isn’t even true. The reason trigger warnings were invented is precisely to ensure that life comes with trigger warnings. Sure, they can’t cover everything: as Horvitz rightly points out, “any number of things, at any point of any day – the first few notes of a pop song, or the smell of french fries, or looking into the eyes of the man behind you at the bank – can trigger you.” But the growing convention, starting in feminist internet spaces, of including trigger warnings on articles is an attempt to make a small dent in that “number of things”.

Secondly – and this is more crucial – the study and teaching of literature is not a perfect analogue for “life”. In most higher education institutions, literature is at least partly taught through group discussion. This relies on, firstly, the students having carefully considered the text beforehand; and secondly, on them feeling able to share their thoughts about the text honestly and openly. This is why, when I teach seminars, I put an enormous effort into establishing the class as a space where open communication is possible. There are myriad reasons why students might not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. They might (like me) have come straight from a school environment where discussions were not a common teaching technique; they might speak English as an additional language; they might feel worried that they don’t know the “right answer”. Addressing these issues at the outset – making it clear that the seminar is supposed to be a conversational space, that everyone (including me as the tutor) gets things wrong, that it’s fine to script your thoughts before the seminar if thinking in English doesn’t yet come naturally to you – helps to level the playing field, mitigating the effects of these disadvantaging factors to ensure that every student is able to learn from and participate in  the seminar. If a student is triggered by the reading material for the seminar, that too is a disadvantaging factor. In seminar preparation, trauma and panic obstruct the capacity for considered critical response; in discussion, they obstruct the capacity to participate. This is why trigger warnings are not, as Horvitz argues, a “luxury”; they are an attempt to remove a disabling element that disproportionately effects some students. Far from being a “privilege”, they go some way towards addressing the privilege that students who aren’t triggered by the text under discussion possess.

Here’s a concrete example of what I mean. I wrestled with myself over whether to include this, because I think one of the most poisonous things about discussions of this nature is that it forces survivors of trauma into disclosing their stories in order to combat the glib assertions of people like Horvitz, creating an unhealthy power dynamic between the two sides of the argument. But I suspect it may be the only way to prove that I’m not making baseless assertions about the relation of this issue to the teaching of literature. I’ve compromised on deliberate vagueness, but I feel very strongly that I should not have had to say this at all.

In the second week of my undergraduate English course at Cambridge, we were given a poem to prepare for discussion in groups of four students with one supervisor. This poem, in explicit detail, did its literary best to replicate a traumatic experience I had undergone six weeks before starting university. I remember sitting on my bed, staring at it, fighting the urge to throw up. I remember thinking, “How am I supposed to analyse this?” I remember the isolation of not yet knowing anyone in my college well enough to tell them how this made me feel. I remember thinking, “If anyone reads out that line in the supervision I don’t think I’ll be able to breathe.” I remember wondering how on earth I was going to say anything in the supervision at all.

For those ninety minutes in my supervisor’s office, I said almost nothing. I stared out of the window and tried to block out the words my fellow students were using. I felt a new and frightening awareness of the power dynamic between me and my supervisor, which was partly gender-based (my gender identity at that point could best be described as confused; politically and in relation to this issue in particular, I still identified as female) and partly based on the knowledge that his selection of this poem had had an effect on me that I couldn’t control. If I had been warned about the content of that poem before reading it, it would firstly have enabled me to have a critical rather than a traumatic response to it. I believe passionately in the importance of first reactions for the study of literature – I frequently ask my students to pinpoint their instincts about a text, then identify the linguistic or cultural factors that shaped those instincts – but when your first reaction is panic, that critical tool is lost. (A common argument against trigger warnings on literature is that part of the scholarly experience necessitates being shocked or challenged, so let’s be clear: warning students about the content of a text doesn’t stop them from being shocked by it, it just mitigates the disabling effects that shock could have on their critical faculties.) More than that, however, a trigger warning would have represented a mark of respect from my supervisor. As it was, I felt panicky in his presence for the rest of that term, and uncomfortable around him for the rest of my undergraduate life. Over 50% of my supervisions in that first term were with him, and I barely felt able to speak in any of them.

I didn’t learn anywhere near as much as I could have, or anywhere near as much as my fellow students, entirely because of a traumatic experience that was outside of my control. Now tell me trigger warnings are a “privilege”.