Trigger Warnings in Maximum Security Prison

Trigger-warningI must say, I am enjoying the fact that at the moment I have no lectures to prepare, no papers to grade, and no classes to lead. The past couple of weeks, I have written another two chapters of my forthcoming book on exceptionalism, and things are looking good for a productive remainder of the summer in terms of my research.

But just because I haven’t been in the classroom for a month now doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the past year and thinking about my classes for next year. I have a really full load in the fall–one graduate course called Makers of the American Mind, and five undergraduate courses: Western Civ I, Contemporary Worldviews, Issues in American Culture, History of Philosophy, and Principles and Structure of American Politics (which I have made primarily into an intellectual history of the Constitution). Fall is going to be busy–but with any luck, my book manuscript will be finished so I can focus on teaching.

Three of my classes–Western Civ, American Culture, and American Politics–will be at the prison. This will be my fourth year teaching out there, and I’ve been following the hubbub on trigger warnings–see here, herehere, and here.

It seems to me, that if there is anywhere one should be careful about creating a stir in the classroom, it would be in a room with forty convicted felons with no guards present. But to be honest, in the six semesters I have taught courses in the prison at Darrington, I haven’t given much thought in setting up a particular topic with a trigger warning. Perhaps I should–for example, in my American politics course, we devote six hours of class time to slavery and the civil rights movement. Lynching is one disturbing sub-topic (among many) I cover, and I have never encountered a problem with the students. In fact, many of the inmates have expressed their appreciation to me for not watering down the African American experience since 1619.

Still, I think it shows some common decency to at least think about how students may react to traumatic events in the past. I mean, I have no idea what the students in my prison courses have experienced in their lives–but I do know that many, if not most of them, reacted to their life experience by destroying other people’s lives, both literally and figuratively. And gaining trust among the inmates at Darrington is a much taller order than in a traditional classroom. Inmates are suspicious and contemptuous of authority in many cases, and building trust is key if I am going to be successful in educating these men.

I’ve learned a lot about teaching, being in the Darrington Unit. While I think that it is easy for folks to get upset about the over-sensitivity of college students, freedom of speech, and a host of other issues surrounding the idea of trigger warnings, I still think that a bit of care and thought toward undergraduates and their backgrounds and feelings can go a long way.

2 responses to “Trigger Warnings in Maximum Security Prison

  1. charlotte graham

    I enjoyed reading your blog. My husband is a sophomore at Darrington unit at the seminary. I don’t think he’s had any classes with you yet (He hasn’t mentioned any history classes yet). I want to tell you that I enjoy your willingness to teach these men at the prison. These are men that society has thrown in the trash, basically, and expects nothing out of them whatsoever. I appreciate your treating them like human beings and giving them respect and understanding. I am sure it’s a daunting task. May God bless you for it.

  2. Thank you Charlotte!

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