A long while ago, I had an idea for a blog wholly focused on the variety of issues that come up when one is a trans teacher, both from a teacher standpoint as well as the cold reality of the common, unspoken, discrimination from education professions many of us experience. It kinda fell through the cracks when my life upended into itself, but I might bring it back in lesser form somewhere because I keep on running into things I have views on or people blathering on from a standpoint of ignorance about things I experience on the direct lines as an educator. And today is no exception.
Today’s rant/ramble is based on a long tweet thread by author Ana Mardoll, writer of the book Poison Kiss
Xie wrote a long chain about the fear-mongering surrounding accommodations in university courses for students who are triggered by certain aspects of learning material (typically depictions of physical abuse, sexual assault/rape, suicide, etc… in literature classes) and had a lot of very good points mostly surrounding how we already make accommodations for students who have to leave the class during a lesson due to physical ailments such as the flu as well as students with physical disabilities that keep them from engaging fully with lessons owing to missed absences and other needs for accommodations.
Xie also notes that those complaining about Trigger Warnings are also anti-science, ignoring how things like exposure therapy actually work, how PTSD works, what a trigger warning even is, because much like with trans issues or abortion, people really don’t like that the science of it all is more or less settled on the side of the marginalized and does not agree with their conjectures.
And I roll trans issues, specifically things like bathroom access and scary “social transition” stuff such as names and pronouns into this “debate” about trigger warnings, because it all comes from the same place.
Namely that certain marginalized groups are existing in public in a way that is no longer easy for a person to ignore and this infuriates those who refuse to acknowledge said people and want to make even the slightest efforts to grow up sound like a draconian punishment on their moral and legal right to be an asshole to people without consequences.
And it doesn’t mean that these groups didn’t exist before hand. There’s always been trans kids and young adults and kids and young adults who’ve experienced rape or abuse and mentally ill kids and young adults. We’ve always existed in physical form, but for the longest time, a dominant group member could remain justifiably ignorant about our existence because there was strong social barriers and sometimes even legal barriers about talking about our existence or being visibly present.
And it’s really this piece that ends up driving a lot of these social panics, same as it does for folks that get all up in arms about “PC culture run rampant”, white people’s “right” to use the n-word, or “conservative censorship in universities”/”anti-free speech among liberals” in the form of people using their own free speech to criticize and protest speech they see as harmful.
Basically, those raised on an unequal playing field feel it is their “rights” to have inequality extended forever, where the minority groups they abuse aren’t allowed to fight back or even criticize their actions or call them mean names like “bigot” or “harasser”. And a lot of that anger stems from things used to being one way and now they have changed and now that social expectation that used to encourage folks to remain silent now has started to shift in the direction of viewing as assholes people who don’t grow and accept that people outside the normative exist.
And I don’t say this casually.
But rather out of direct observation of the panic and their distortions of the real issues and real requests of the students making them.
Like, let’s take trigger warnings. I’m a big fan of them and don’t just use them in my teaching, but in casual conversation. In fact, I first started adapting to using them in casual conversation before I incorporated it in the classroom, because of two things.
1) I know a lot of people from really fucked up backgrounds who’ve experienced a lot of bad shit. Trans folks who’ve been beaten by their family, women who’ve experienced multiple rapes and abusive partners, people of color who’ve experienced hate crimes and physical assault.
And 2) I am very politically minded and most topics I tend to cover or want to converse about tend to be really big and scary and potentially triggering, such as transphobia, hate crimes, discrimination, rape, abuse, and so on. I’m a feminist and have been for a long time and a lot of my interactions with other people tend to be on these feminist wavelengths where a lot of the topic of discussion is flatout depressing but interesting to me nonetheless.
And the combination of these two made trigger warnings necessary, because they gave my friends a head’s up on whatever dark road of conversation I was going down and allowed them the time to prepare or bail out as necessary. And because lacking those trigger warnings meant I was more worried about covering any topic for fear of hurting a friend unnecessarily during a casual conversation.
Because a trigger isn’t someone going “oh me, oh my, this person conversing is too REALZ for my delicate female affections, I shall cry trigger so as to censor his FREEZE PEACH.”
It’s basically a phenomenon where you really aren’t there anymore because you’re back in a flashback of whatever traumatic thing that happened to you is, experiencing it like it’s happening now. When I’ve been triggered, I shut down hard, just filling with endless chains of self-hatred, with the feel of my rapist against me and the world I was inhabiting a second ago might as well not even existing.
I can’t focus on whatever else is going on around me because I am essentially not there and I can end up losing days to this, as a trigger tends to make it easier and easier to slip into that space and can flood me with all the emotions of fear and pain and self-hatred that filled such events.
It’s not a matter of exiting out of conversations I don’t want to have. It’s that I’m exited out of conversations I do want to have (most of my triggering events tend to occur when I’m with groups of friends, luckily) by my brain essentially shutting down.
And that sucks. But trigger warnings allows me to prepare first or recognize that no, I don’t actually have the spoons for this topic today, but I’d love to discuss it on a day I’m a bit more functional. And that moment of preparation is key as it allows me to shore up my defenses so I’m not blindsided by a topic that’s just gonna put me in a foul mood or an emotional tailspin.
And in practice, the trigger warnings means I get to have more conversations about pretty dark topics because everyone is able to emotionally prepare as needed as part of their general survival in a world where these topics come up.
In the classroom, I follow this practice, giving kids a heads up when topics are veering into the depressing and potentially triggering. It takes 5 seconds. No really, because all it is “And so as we look at, content warning: sexual assault… (pause for beat) sexual assault data”.
And this is useful and necessary, because I work in a private school where many of our students have dealt with heavy traumas where they might be being physically abused at home or be survivors of rape, or have traumatic experiences with accidents or lost family members to gun violence.
And in practice, using trigger warnings means more of my students are engaged during those conversations or topics instead of drifting off and becoming unresponsive for the rest of the class (the frequent result that occurs when teachers don’t use trigger warnings and I know this because I’ve had fellow teachers ask me how to get X student to engage in classes and then I found out they had been triggering the student without warning and hadn’t realized).
The whole thing barely interrupts my flow as a teacher. And is so small on my end that it doesn’t even eat into class time, unlike when dealing with a student in crisis mode who fundamentally can’t learn because they are in a bad triggered state.
And it’s very similar to pronouns for trans kids. Like, most of my trans students have needed or wanted to explore scary “SOCIAL TRANSITION”. By this I mean, they want to try out new names or new pronouns and maybe want to dress a certain way at school.
And it’s extremely easy to accommodate that.
Here’s what I do. I have an email I send out letting the other teachers know three things, what name a student prefers, what pronoun they prefer today, and what pronoun and name should be used in communication home to parents as not all our kids are out to their parents.
And there was a time when I was sending out that email every day, because we had a genderfluid student whose preferred pronoun changed nearly every day between she and they.
And then the earth opened up, swallowing us all into hell… or teachers just adapted. It just became a routine, teachers would check the email, use those pronouns when talking to the student, use different ones in communications home as needed, and we’d keep an eye on campus to make sure no one was bullying the kids in question. With bathroom access, we just swapped out some single-access bathrooms on a floor for two gender neutral toilets so we didn’t even have to deal with any stress on that front and we just trucked on.
And it really wasn’t the end of the world. The students are happy, because unlike most places, their identities are being respected and they feel safe and the overall impact on instruction is near zero. Like, seriously, the biggest impact is that one of our bigender students explored with pronouns for awhile and eventually settled on ce/cir/cirs.
And that’s an uncommon pronoun. So all the teachers spent some time practicing, not much more than half and hour and now everyone pretty much lets it roll of their tongue with ease. And the impact on the student has been immense. This particular student has struggled a lot with suicidal ideation over the years but has openly said that school is the safest place ce knows and ce feel accepted as cirself here. And that’s important to us as educators. It makes us feel good about our job and our work.
And these are both things that are so minor, so unobtrusive as to not really involve more than mere seconds in the classroom, and yet we get endless thinkpieces bemoaning the “scariness” of these changes. And most are based on either ludicrous scenarios that simply don’t happen or on fixating on some corner case and going all slippery slope on it. So let’s tackle the latter one first.
OH ME OH MY THE SLIPPERY SLOPE!
So, detractors of trigger warnings like to fixate on an extreme case that can happen because arguing that they don’t like spending five extra seconds throwing in a head’s up before covering an intense topic makes them seem like assholes.
And that extreme case is: “What if you drop the trigger warning and a student leaves the classroom instead of engaging in the discussion”. Largely because that trigger warning lets them know that no, they don’t have the spoons for this today (maybe things are too raw, maybe it’s a bad mental health day, maybe they recognize that their defense on these things isn’t great or it isn’t a safe space to have a conversation on this*).
*And this last one is key. Because no one with traumatic experiences is going to risk their mental health if they expect that they’ll just get dismissed and that ignorant conjectures repeating toxic myths are going to be privileged over them. And that’s a failure of a teacher or moderator to control and is going to be responsible for more walkouts than anything else. Like, if something is making me angry and I know I’m about to blow up and yell at people and the room does not feel safe for politely correcting the record about someone else’s bullshit, I exit the room, let myself rant outside so I don’t disrupt the conversation and then either come back or move on to a different conversation. And this is not the same as a trigger warning. This is picking your battles and recognizing when you’re about to be a disruption to everyone else and removing yourself before that occurs.
Well, here’s the thing. In that extreme case, you’ve already lost the student. The only question left is to what degree you’ve lost that student. Like, if you didn’t give that trigger warning and instead jumped right into a triggering topic, that kid is going to be mentally gone. Because they didn’t have the spoons for it.
Worst case, they break down in the classroom, disrupting everyone’s lesson and making them less likely to attend future lectures because of the embarrassment of it. Second worst case, they blow up on a student and now you are de-escalating a heated argument instead of continuing in your lesson plan and everyone will be kind of less engaged because they’ll just be fixated on the argument and their personal feels. Third worst case, they shut down completely, go into a panic state, and absorb nothing from the lesson and are stuck in that hell for a period of time.
And fourth worst case and more commonly, they walk out anyways. Like, kids aren’t dumb, they get their mental health, they know what they have spoons for, and they don’t want to break down in front of everyone anymore than anyone else. So they’ll slip off to the bathroom, have a good cry, and maybe come back later, maybe not and now you’re tracking that student down or in college, hoping they come back to the next class.
Like, I’ve been in discussion groups that didn’t have content warnings or good moderation and the room’s felt unsafe for my experiences. And when that happens, I bail. I leave the panel or the discussion, go outside, rant for awhile in anger and frustration and go to a different panel or discussion group or just go home. It happens fairly regularly in ace discussion groups because I do a lot of atypical things for ace people so I tend to get erased in discussion groups a lot in ways that piss me off.
And that’s not even a trigger. That’s just fuck this shit. And I’ve been in lectures where the topic being covered is being covered wrong. It happens a lot in panels on gender or lectures on gender by ignorant cis straight white guys when you’re a trans person. And the panel or lecture ends up being a wash to deal with because all you can end up thinking about is how much you hate the ignorance of the presenter rather than anything else they said.
Point being with all this is a student who’d walk out at the trigger is a student you were going to lose no matter what.
If you do a trigger warning, now that student knows you care about their experiences and so is more likely to come in engaged in the next class. Like, we’ve been there as teachers where a student is being affected by home shit and is only like 20% there even though they are physically in the classroom. They’re too busy thinking about all that stuff instead. You show that kid openness, you give them the impression that you are safe to talk to, maybe they talk about it and that allows them to engage for the rest of the class because they feel they have support.
It’s the same with trigger warnings. If I have a student bail on me because that’s not a topic they can handle on that day, by giving them the trigger warning they are more likely to be willing to return to that topic on a later date rather than just asking to not even deal with the subject. And they are more willing to put in the work necessary to deal with a tough subject because they know I’m not gonna be an asshole to them about it.
Similarly, detractors of SO SCARY “social transition” like to fixate on locker rooms and bathrooms as if there isn’t already discomfort for the trans student in using those and as if that trans student would be safer using a bathroom where they are signaled out as not being approved by the school thus giving a free pass to bullies to target and harm them.
Like, just letting them use it, letting everyone know that yeah, we support accommodating kids, trans kids exist, deal with it, shuts stuff down real quick.
As noted, we went to gender neutral toilets for a floor and we cracked down hard on transphobic bullying. Within several months, everyone adapted and got over it. The students saying the way X student was dressed was weird got over it and eventually helped defend that students pronouns to others who misgendered them. The students complaining about the gender neutral toilets got used to them and just view them as the toilets that they are.
When we remove the official forced gendering and its enforcement, then the complaints about it tend to cease, because that enforcement has always been artificial and weird and it quickly becomes apparent that some kids being trans really isn’t the end of the world that parents assured them it would be.
And they get this, which leads to the slippery slope part.
Oh, what about kids adopting all sorts of outlandish pronouns and switching all the time. Well, we’ve had kids with neopronouns and kids with fast switches owing to gender fluidity. I sent out more regular emails. Done. For identities that were less common, I attach a link to a comic from an artist with that identity explaining what that identity meant for them or an article about the identity. The teachers take 5 minutes to read it and I serve as point person to answer questions as needed from them or the students. It’s all total cost me maybe a total of two hours of prep time over the course of the last year. Not a big deal.
Oh, but what about the slippery slope of trigger warnings. What about people having triggers of spiders or the letter b, how do you adapt to that?
Those triggers are uncommon, but if you recognize that trigger, you throw it in, it takes an additional five seconds and now you’re not losing a student whenever you cover spiders. Again, done, not that big of a deal. Also, this shit is bullshit, because rape triggers and abuse triggers are common because those issues are common. It’s good practice to always have those warnings, because you’re likely in any classroom of over 10 students who have at least one student with those triggers because they’ve had those life experiences.
But yeah, expanding it out for less common triggers won’t eat up your entire lesson. And you’ll earn a student who will be extra engaged because you acknowledged their trigger even if it seemed weird or unusual.
And now the conspiracy theory excuses
So, many detractors of both trigger warnings and “social transition” quickly realize that they have no legs to stand on. So many times, they’ll turn instead into full on conspiracy theories to try and distance themselves from the bigotry actually underlying their objections.
No, they cry, we don’t have a problem with trans kids and their pronouns or using trigger warnings so that kids with traumatic experiences, we have problems with… uh… er… that is to say… think of something… People faking those things to get stuff? YEAH, that’s the stuff.
You’ve probably heard these arguments a lot because sexists and transphobes love throwing them out there to make themselves seem less like cartoon supervillains for decrying things as minor and unobtrusive as trigger warnings or respecting people’s pronouns.
They go, oh, what about a kid posing as trans to slip into the girl’s locker room or bathroom (and it’s almost always “fake” trans women that these people freak out about, showing the backwards chauvinistic world they’re coming from). And what about a kid faking a trigger in order to claim that they can’t read any of the reading material or be assessed on it.
So, let’s go into these two slabs of bullshit shall we.
1) No one is going to go through all that effort just to intrude on a space where they might see the vaguest hint that someone is going to be undressed unless they are doing so specifically as a protest against the existence of trans people.
No, seriously, gender dysphoria is real and no one is going to go through being misgendered and the gauntlet of violent stares you get when you are visibly trans, being singled out as non-normative and a “freak” by the school, and all the anti-trans harassment that comes with all that just to maybe almost see less skin than they would see in most PG-13 movies or any bikini girl photo search on google.
The kids have the internet and they have porn at their fingertips and understand school blocking systems better than the people running them. That’s frankly too much effort for a creeper to bother with when there are much easier ways to see nudity that’s actually nude.
Additionally, creepers who get off on the violation of boundaries tend to also be heavily wrapped up in toxic masculinity and so are very unlikely to go through all the effort of putting on girly clothes to get off on violating spaces when they can do just as much damage and get in less trouble simply walking in through the unlocked front door and doing their creeper thing.
And that’s why the only people we see who are fitting these right-wing stereotypes of what men would do if this “trans madness” gets passed and we respect kids’ pronouns in schools, tend to be right-wing anti-trans activists who are deliberately walking into women’s restrooms to protest the existence of trans people.
In short, when the people raising the conspiracy theory are the only ones fulfilling the conspiracy theory, you can dismiss the genuineness of that concern real fucking fast.
And there’s a similar conspiracy theory for trigger warnings because right-wing ideologues are nothing if not derivative in their tactics insinuating that kids will claim fake trigger warnings to get out of assignments which has two flavors of what the fuck.
2a) This doesn’t happen, because trigger warnings aren’t actually a change in curriculum, it’s a heads up about planned curriculum. So kids aren’t actually going to be using them to get out of assignments, because trigger warnings aren’t actually about editing assignments to be respectful of the triggers of your students. It’s the verbal equivalent of throwing a warning tag on a mattress.
2b) So let’s talk modified curriculum or assessments. Cause as a teacher, I love these. I live for a student who for whatever reason wants to do an alternate assessment or project that ties more directly with their interests instead of a standard written assessment.
And I’ve done a bunch of different topics and especially love to throw these out as finals or midterms because it allows kids to engage deeper with the curriculum.
And I’ll do the extra work to make those a reality and will even do things like oral assessments for students who have severe test anxiety and can’t quite perform at their best in a traditional assessment. And because of this, I’ve been told by bosses that I’m one of the most requested teachers at my school and I tend to cover more material at a higher level than many of my fellow teachers and have actually given seminars to fellow teachers on how to expand curriculum options.
And the end-results are awesome. I had a student who was an artist do anthropomorphizations of each planet in the solar system and they ended up putting so many good touches into the design based on characteristics of the planets that I didn’t even notice them all at first (like Earth actually had accurate percentages of green and blue on her dress based on the percentage of water on the planet and Mercury had an off-the shoulder dress and mismatched pants to show the difference in temperature between the hot and cold side). I had another gut, clean, bleach, and construct a chicken skeleton as a final anatomy project.
Now, there are on occasion students who think this is a free pass to not do any real work on the final or midterm or on a particular assessment. Those students are wrong and I tell each student this. I grade alternative assessments harder than I would traditional assessments, because I’m taking the extra time to design and provide support for these alternate assessments. And the kids get that and only twice have I had to come down hard in the grading of an assignment because a student tried to test the waters of what they could get away with (those same students tried to play the same games with the traditional assessments, giving one word answers to short responses questions and snarky non-answers to long-form questions so it was not exactly an isolated incident).
You can incorporate that for trigger stuff. Providing alternate assessments or books for students that are just moving too slow owing to triggers on a book covering a particular subject. My fellow teachers have had to do it on occasion for English assignments. And well, it doesn’t have to be a big thing and you can grade it harder for the extra work on your part to have to be familiar to both books.
It’s also not something that’d go away if they didn’t do that. Like, you have a kid triggered by a book about a rape survivor and they’re moving slowly through it. They’re going to be disconnected from the discussions and unable to keep up with reading quizzes if you don’t accommodate them, so it ends up, do you lose the student and have them flunk that section or do you offer them a lifeline?
Most kids appreciate the lifeline.
And again, if you have some anti-trigger-warning asshole trying to bullshit their way out of doing work, well, they tend to back off when you show them the actual expectations you have for an alternate assessment and how you plan to grade it.
Said student is also going to try to disrupt the class no matter what.
Like, any women studies professor or gender studies professor can tell you about “that guy”. “That guy” occurs at least once in any class and they only attend because they view the major as bullshit and so have made it their mission to try and disrupt everyone’s learning experience and be as big an asshole to the other students as he can because he doesn’t want to engage with the material or thinking deeply about gender stuff. “That guy” becomes the bane of every other student, making discussion spaces less safe by mocking people with rape traumas or backgrounds with abuse, recycling MRA talking points, and acting like his ignorant conjectures should be seen as equally weight to the actual professors.
And these assholes love to fuck with assessments, writing essays deliberately arguing bass-akwards nonsense or just straight up refusing to complete work such as reading the novels or completing the essays, taking the F as a badge of pride for having “put those uppity feminists in their place”.
And so, yeah, “that guy” might try and latch onto a bullshit “trigger” to try and dodge out of work, but it’s part and parcel of his standard crap and one of the easiest to dodge, because you can give him a custom assessment that actually forces him to examine his behavior in its context or to research the actual science behind triggers and what they are. In short, you can give an alternate assignment that’s actually a learning experience and maybe get something out of “that guy” that you normally wouldn’t. Even if that’s them shutting up about demanding alternate assessments for the rest of the semester.
But again, even this off-the-wall example is easily dealt with by just having good habits with alternate assessments.
And again, most folks aren’t going to go for it unless they are actively protesting “trigger warning” stuff and trying to be an asshole about it.
These accommodations are minor. But the backlash is strong. And the backlash is strong because the accommodations are new. Because it’s taken us a long time to really respect, hey, there might be some kids who’ve actually dealt with shit in life, maybe we shouldn’t be dicks to them or hey, some kids might be trans.
And for a small core, any change from “what they used to do” feels bad. Feels like an imposition. Feels like oppression, because they have no experiences with oppression outside being asked to stop doing things that are oppressed.
And well, sorry, tough titties, but you need to grow up because the shit being asked for are hardly the imposition you make them out to be. No matter how you try and spin it.
It’s five seconds out of your day, adapt, move on, teach.
It’s really not that hard.