Should Academics Be Censoring Their Lectures?

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In a recent article, there was a discussion about the recent controversy surrounding triggers and censoring within university lectures. Some students are calling out academics for their unnecessarily triggering and distressing lectures, and are claiming that there needs to be more censoring in order to make accommodation for those students particularly triggered. But should this really be the case?

At one university in a recent lecture on the Hungarian Holocaust, the lecturer presented the class with an image of an emancipated Hungarian Jewish woman liberated from a death camp. One student yelled out ‘stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised’. The student complained of distress caused by the image, and the lecturer was told by an administrator to be more careful when discussing such a ‘sensitive subject’. Academics are now increasingly beginning to feel like they have to mind their words and censor their lectures.

A recent statement by the University of Newcastle’s school of English literature, language and linguistics, suggests that teachers should help their students ‘prepare themselves to study challenging material’. They specify that this can include material involving rape, suicide, graphic violence and other related topics. Yet the word ‘challenging’ is an interesting one to use; shouldn’t the word sensitive instead be more appropriate? ‘Challenging’ could be interpreted to not only mean emotionally taxing, but also academically difficult. The language we use to discuss potentially distressing topics is changing, and now apparently ‘challenging’ topics should be handled in a different way to non-challenging topics. Previously, a text or concept that is difficult to understand would have been considered challenging, yet now those topics that are sensitive or distressing are also considered challenging to study.

Admittedly, I don’t agree with censoring academic work because of potential triggers or distressing topics. What I believe should be in place instead is a stable and helpful support system throughout universities to help students deal with those topics that are distressing. The Holocaust lecture that was interrupted by a distressed student didn’t need to be interrupted. Instead, perhaps an effective warning that there was going to be an unpleasant and graphic image shown, would allow students to decide that they did not want to see that and so look away. This means that those who are triggered and upset don’t need to be, and those who want to delve into potentially sensitive material are still able to.

However, I also understand that it is not acceptable to simply ask students who are triggered by certain images to ‘look away’, but having in place an effective warning system could prevent a fair percentage of those students from being upset. If a student is able to have a sensible discussion with their lecturer or tutor about sensitive subjects, and is able to choose not to focus on that distressing aspect, it means that academic work does not have to be censored for those that do want to study sensitive topics. Obviously, a warning system is not always going to be enough, as a lecturer’s idea of what is sensitive may be different to what a student considers triggering; this is why an effective support system is then needed. If a student is triggered by a specific topic, lecture, image or discussion, they should know exactly who to turn to and who to talk to about not being in that situation again. People should never be afraid to talk about their triggers, and in return people should not judge others for what upsets them.

By censoring academic work, we run the risk of going too far. In the worst case scenario, we could lose academic discussions and research because of the potential triggers, and that simply isn’t right. Certain histories and discussions don’t deserve to be buried because they are distressing. Some students will want to study and research topics that are sensitive, that are upsetting, because they themselves are not upset by it. For example, a student at Durham University complained that they were expected to sit through lectures with detailed discussions about Lavinia’s rape in Titus Andronicus. In this case, clearly a warning was needed that a very sensitive and possibly upsetting topic was going to be the focus. But some students may find this aspect of Titus Andronicus worthy of further research and study, and they shouldn’t have to have that lecture censored or cancelled completely. It’s a difficult case of finding the medium between two sides.

The term ‘sensitive’ itself creates an interesting division between those ‘sensitive’ subjects and those that aren’t. It creates moral boundaries within discussions. There is no clear line over which topics cross over into being considered ‘sensitive’, and it raises questions like ‘sensitive to whom?’ and ‘why?’. Really, the only answer, is that anything can be sensitive to anyone, and it is impossible for academics to judge every instance of a potentially sensitive topic correctly and perfectly. For example, it has been rightly pointed out that there are very few powerful literary texts that do not ‘disturb a reader’s sensibility’. See again, the point about Titus Andronicus.

The number of discussions deemed ‘sensitive’ can be expanded all the time. However, even if a particular discussion is deemed ‘sensitive’, this should not in any way affect the literary discussion surrounding it, or lose any integrity at all. It should be treated the same as ‘non-sensitive’ discussions, just simply with an effective warning system in place. Those obvious topics that are upsetting should be treated with effective caution, but even a simple note that there’s a distressing image could be enough to save one person some trauma or upset.

It’s a difficult boundary to decide, and the ‘sensitivity’ of a topic can vary from person to person. But academia should never be censored. Instead, a proper warning system and an effective support system should be place for those that are upset by sensitive and triggering topics.

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Sub-Editor for the Wessex Scene 2016/17 and 17/18. English and History student

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