Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Can you believe this! I ask you, etc.

The Mail on Sunday reports that Ernest Hemingway’s classic novel The Old Man And The Sea is the latest victim of “today’s woke standards”, with students warned that it contains “graphic fishing scenes”.

The Mail notes that successive TV and film adaptations of the 1952 classic have been awarded U and PG certificates and so have been judged suitable for children – but that a “content warning” has been issued to history and literature students at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

It also notes that the university has warned students that Homer’s The Iliad contains scenes of violent close combat”, that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is flagged because it contains “violent murder and cruelty” Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet contain scenes of “stabbing, poison and suicide.”

Let’s ignore the idea for a minute that the whole of Scotland’s geography covered by UHI might reasonably be identified by the Mail as “an area renowned for its fishing industry.” How did we get here? Where every few days, the press seem to be able to conjure up a new and damaging story about the sector issuing ridiculous-sounding and seemingly unnecessary warnings about the content of classic texts issued to snowflake students?

And anyway, how have otherwise overworked university staff got the time?

More hastings

The author of the Mail on Sunday piece, its arts correspondent Chris Hastings, has form in this area. He had another piece in the paper on the same day reporting that Newman University, Birmingham, tells students studying a module on the Bible that it “includes themes of sexual violence and abuse – in images and biblical texts.” A couple of weeks ago he reported that Leeds University had issued content warnings on children’s books including Robinson Crusoe and Black Beauty.

In late January he told readers all about Oliver Twist getting a trigger warning at Royal Holloway, with the university alerting students to themes of “child abuse”, “domestic violence” and “racial prejudice” in ways that could cause “distress”. The previous week it was Northampton and George Orwell’s 1984, the week before it was Salford and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and the week before that it was Reading and the 2,000-year-old Types Of Women, by Semonides of Amorgos.

Before Christmas he informed his readers that the University of Livepool’s English department had issued a trigger warning about its Northern English module, which examines the North-South divide, the origins of Northern English and the 19th century Yorkshire dialect as well as the relationship between dialects and social values such as friendliness by pointing out that videos on the course “contain strong language, outdated attitudes towards gender, physical violence and discussion of alcohol consumption”. He also reported that at Aberdeen, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel Kidnapped had been given a trigger warning about abduction, and (chef’s kiss for this one) reported that Warwick had reframed trigger warnings as “content notes” because “the word ‘trigger’ is itself a provocative word.”

Doing damage

It’s pretty easy to see what’s happened here. It all looks like a carefully worded Freedom of Information request fired off by Hastings (or one of his interns in the office) to every university in the UK is slowly but surely providing a rich seam of highly clickable student snowflake culture wars stories, with each response slightly more preposterous than the last.

As such, it’s fairly easy to dismiss and zone out from them – it’s the Mail, after all, and they’ve always done “PC gone mad” stories that it’s best just not to click on. But I wouldn’t underestimate how damaging the daily drip drip of these sorts of stories are when it comes to public support for the sector specifically, and EDI work generally.

Below the line, Rosjoy from Basingstoke extends the lines on the graph:

Best thing then that the students don’t read ANYTHING. Just become automatons; programmed to pass exams but no idea why.

Takeresponsibility1 from the “United Kingdom” is worried about the expansion of the sector:

The University of the Highlands and Islands !! LOL A degree from such a place is literally not worth the paper it is written on! Studying at these pretend universities is a waste of however many years you are there.

And Rayme in Manchester sets the story in the context of wider news:

In the Ukraine young people are standing up to Russian aggression. Here lots of people think they will be upset by a story. To think they wonder why they are called snowflakes.

As well as the domestic reaction, I’d also note just how global each of these stories goes in our media monitoring – with derision poured on our higher education sector and our students from commentators and news outlets all around the world on an almost daily basis.

And if we should therefore note the actual damage that’s potentially being done, we do need to ask what the question is to which content warnings are the answer, if they are worth it for the benefit being derived, and if there isn’t some other way of achieving the outcome that would have reduced the damage.

Graphic fishing

Most would agree that the discussion of “difficult subjects” is generally taken to be important in higher education if students are to be able to develop critical thinking and their knowledge of important issues and debates. But getting there is where we have a central contradiction.

Some argue that a lack of warning before difficult or distressing content can cause distress to students and result in them disengaging from the discussion, particularly because of experiences they may have had in their past. The warning enables students to “steel” themselves and therefore enables their participation, or allows them to remove themselves before harm is caused. Content warnings are frequently before watching films at the cinema, on content included on streaming services such as Netflix, and on the radio and television. What’s the problem? This is just a kind of safeguarding.

On the other hand, others argue that the warnings themselves, and in particular policies that require them to be issued, themselves have a chilling effect on difficult discussion. Those curating the content of a module might steer clear of important material that could cause difficulty; and even if they don’t, warnings encourage students to miss out on valuable discussions. Content warnings on media services are not designed to facilitate watching, they’re designed to cause parents to prevent their kids from watching – but these are adults. And descriptions can end up being laughable if applied in a uniform way.

At the edges of the Venn diagram there are likely still to be some academics roaming around that think that a surprise and “edgy” discussion on sexual assault is some kind of valuable pedagogical intervention. At the other end you have students being warned that The Old Man And The Sea contains “graphic fishing scenes”. It feels like it ought to be possible to avoid both of these scenarios and park ourselves somewhere in the middle. But is that possible?

Textual analysis

On a practical basis, two types of warnings seem to be floating around the sector in policy terms.

First there’s early warnings, usually issued in module handbooks or in reading lists, of problematic “texts” – books principally, but also poetry, films and so on. These feel hard to justify. Can’t a student pursuing a reading list find this stuff out for themselves? What if a text isn’t on a reading list? And even if students can’t find this stuff out on their own and it makes sense for content against a list of issues to be flagged, why is the flagging happening in each university in the country – and often by different people within a single university?

Isn’t that a shocking waste of resources and a guaranteed way to generate endless newspaper stories when a single, collaboratively developed database would do the trick?

The other centres on episodes of teaching – and feels much more sensible. Here an academic might give students a heads up, suitably in advance, of a discussion at a forthcoming seminar or lecture that is likely to contain difficult topics – with clear signalling on students being able to leave a room if a discussion gets too much or an unexpectedly difficult topic comes up.

That’s a strategy that appears to be about the pedagogy itself, and feels hard even for the Mail to argue with.

Either way, the trigger/content warning conundrum is another version of a wider problem – that of what we do when we start to recognise that what happens in higher education can have harmful impacts on its participants. Removing harm from the educational process appears both to be highly desirable in principle, and can end up preposterous in practice – because after all, going to university never did me any harm, and the “real world” is much more harmful anyway.

And isn’t the danger that the removal of harm by “mollycoddling” both prevents the student from developing the resilience they’ll need in the real world, and turns the rest of society against sensible measures that would facilitate those most often discriminated against or that are the victims of trauma from from being successful?

Is this what works?

Maybe one method that we might use to determine whether trigger warnings make sense would be to examine their efficacy.

In this study, trauma survivors were randomly assigned to either receive or not to receive trigger warnings before reading passages from world literature, and there was a slight beneficial impact. But the authors reckon that impact was “minuscule” compared to the effects of actual therapy, may well have been influenced by a placebo-like effect of seeing a trigger warning, and anyway the warnings caused some students to withdraw from the experiment.

In these studies, researchers discovered that warnings increased students’ expectations of negative emotions and increased their avoidance of the content – a finding that was exacerbated for those who believed warnings were protective rather than coddling. In this one, any positive effects of warnings that were found were “so small as to lack practical significance.” And in this one, warnings had little impact on learning, but they did increase students’ belief that warnings were necessary. Their use, in other words, became a kind of psychological safety theatre – that ultimately failed to offer the protection desired.

It’s therefore tempting when reviewing the evidence to conclude that “trigger” or “content” warnings are at best a waste of time, and at worst cause harm by pushing some students out of the classroom, and by raising students’ hopes that their teaching integrates psychological concerns – only to have those hopes dashed.

But maybe that’s where the debate should go next.

Professional standards and quality

For a long time, I’ve picked up a mild resistance to even thinking about mental health when it comes to teaching. Before you can get anywhere, there’s often a terse conversation about academics not being counsellers that leaves discussion on wellbeing something that is treated as extra to the classroom, and treatable on an individual basis by student services, the NHS, or by eating fruit or something.

The problem is that the evidence is piling up – that poor mental health and wellbeing amongst students is an endemic, systemic and collective issue that is as likely to be caused by and be prevented by what happens in the classroom and in the curriculum as what happens outside of it.

A few weeks back now, Advance HE published the fruits of a partnership between itself and the University of Derby, King’s College London, Aston University and Student Minds – an Education for Mental Health Toolkit funded by the Office for Students via a Challenge Competition. It makes a powerful argument – that wellbeing is related to our surroundings, our activity and behaviour, the quality and quantity of our social connections, and our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world – and so the curriculum and teaching become central to avoiding harm and driving positive wellbeing for learning.

And it’s packed full of resources and case studies, underpinned by decent research, that show the difference that can be made to students’ wellbeing and outcomes when we teach and assess students in slightly different ways – especially those at the margins and with apparently structurally worse outcomes.

Maybe it’s the case that part of the toolbox of teaching techniques ought to be the odd trigger warning – although as I say, I suspect it would make more sense for those to be focused on teaching than texts. But what strikes me is that learning how to change gear outside of the context of learning how to drive is both weird and could have all sorts of unintended consequences.

Advance HE also maintains the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) for teaching and supporting learning in higher education, describing the competences and values expected of university teaching staff in the UK. The current version doesn’t mention mental health and wellbeing at all – something the coming review of the framework must surely address.

And in England, the Office for Students maintains that regulating mental health services might take it beyond its usual remit. Maybe that’s true – but in the outcomes of the consultation on its “B” conditions on quality and standards, there’s no mention of mental health. Surely students have the right to expect that the teaching they’ll experience will have taken into account the need to promote wellbeing learning and find ways to avoid unnecessary harm?

Maybe that will still include trigger warnings and maybe the Mail will still run stories on them. But we’d have a much better story to sell to students, parents and society as a result.

One response to “Mental health is a teaching and learning issue

  1. The toolkit has a range of resources that academics can draw upon to help inform their teaching, learning and assessment processes, with reference to an acceptable evidence base, and is useful in this regard. The sector has been making adjustments for all sorts of situations, reasonably in my view, for many years. And, in general these work, without much fuss and fanfare. We will never stop the unreasonable cherry picking of selected media to criticise the sector, and insult students. It’s their bread and butter, and always will be. We do better to starve them of the oxygen of publicity.

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