Content Notes

The kerfuffle over trigger warnings (also here, here, here, here, and here) has mostly died down*, but I’ve been thinking about the arguments on both sides as I put together the syllabus for my lecture course for the fall. It’s the first time that I will be teaching a large course where I am not likely to get to know most of my students well over the course of the semester and definitely won’t be able to gauge reactions in media res. And so it’s also the first time that I have included a trigger warning (although I’ve called it a content note) in my syllabus.

[*Edited eight hours later to add: No, it seems it’s back up and raging.]

I include language about civil discourse, which I have included in every syllabus I have written since graduate school. This is grounded in Cornell’s Open Hearts, Open Minds policy and is required boiler-plate language on syllabi there. This, on top of the reverse-anthropology spiel I give at the beginning of the semester, are two useful framing tools that allow discussions of sometimes-fraught topics of identity (in their medieval incarnations, of course, but impossible for students to separate totally from the contemporary world) to flow smoothly and in mutually respectful ways in the classroom. Knock on wood, but I’ve never yet had a problem of modern religious tensions or conflicts spilling over into classroom discussions of medieval materials. Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 2.40.54 PM

But this is the first time in my teaching career, included a content note about specific material. It flags the week that we will discuss the conquest of Spain by the Arab/Berber armies because of the role that rape plays in the construction of some the narratives that deal with those events: Some of the Latin accounts of the conquest describe the rape of the daughter of the Visigothic count Julian of Ceuta by his own king, Roderic, as the reason for the fall of the Visigothic kingdom. As the narrative has developed over time, Julian’s daughter is held responsible for her father’s subsequent alliance with the Muslim armies and consequent fall of Visigothic Spain; she is given the nickname La Cava, the whore, that has stuck throughout history and in literary representations of the events that have come to shape the traditional nationalist narrative of Spanish history. It is an important moment because it shows that even from the outset, what is often portrayed as Muslim conquest and Christian reconquest is never drawn so neatly along religious lines, with Christians allying themselves with Muslims against other Christians when that better served their personal and political needs; and it is important for talking about the kinds of roles women are allowed to play in conquest narratives and the kinds of blame that can be assigned to them.

Ultimately, I came down on the side of including the content note because it seemed like the decent-human-being thing to do: If there are students who will be helped by knowing in advance what is coming, why wouldn’t I want to give them the information that will allow them to prepare themselves?

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But I also included this content note for my own comfort in delivering this lecture. (I can already envision the deliberate misreadings of this on Twitter: Prof doesn’t want to trigger herself while giving a lecture! Which, of course, is not at all what I’m saying.) It’s this: I don’t want to be the one whose springs rape-as-a-weapon-of-war on my students; I’m not comfortable surprising people with that, regardless of whether it would be a real trigger for them or no. I don’t want the rape of La Cava narrative to have an impact because of its shock value, because of its place as a crisis or turning point in a story well-told in a lecture. In other words, I want it to be shocking for what it is and how it has worked its way into the Spanish national narrative, and not for how I present it.

Critics of trigger warnings argue that their use marks the precipice above a slippery slope, and that if we as professors slide down it, we will eventually find ourselves warning our students about every last thing we do in class. While the slippery slope is a logical fallacy that exists, that doesn’t mean that one must give over one’s life to it or that it is an inevitability. For example, I’m not flagging questions of race or racialized discourse with content notes because the syllabus itself makes clear that that’s what will be discussed in class on those days. I will not be surprising anybody when I talk about the terms that people use to describe the Muslims of Spain or the ways in which the Spanish Inquisition perverted religion as a part of its own racialized ideology when we arrive at these moments in the semester:

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And I hope that by having included the one content note on the syllabus, students who might want to talk, in advance or after the fact, about the content of the history-and-literature-of-race lectures (or anything else, for that matter) will know that I am open to that kind of listening and talking.

The strength of a course is not in its ability to surprise students in any given lecture, but rather to surprise them and challenge their preconceived views over the course of the semester. Equipping them not be shocked by the sudden mention of violence goes a longer way toward that goal than the alternative. The content note in my syllabus is not there to coddle my students; it’s there to make me a more effective instructor.

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