On Why Trigger Warnings are a Bad Idea

This is a cross-post from The Geeky Press, a writing collective I run.

“Students with unusually intense responses to academic cues should be referred to student-health services, where they can be evaluated and receive evidence-based treatments so that they can participate fully in the life of the university.” — Sarah Roff, fourth-year resident in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington Medical Center, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Trigger warnings as they are being used in higher education and the humanities should be put back on the shelf, chalked up a failed experiment in empathy.Before I unpack that argument, let me briefly summarize the trigger warning kerfluffle for those who aren’t knee-deep in the humanities culture.

The idea of a trigger warning this: If you are introducing a topic that might include material likely to cause someone to experience a trauma, you are ethically required to include a warning so that people won’t experience or re-live a trauma.

The idea gained popularity on feminist blogs, where authors would let readers know if they were writing about a topics such as rape or sexual violence. It was, by and large, a courtesy that individuals who were so inclined would give their readers.

On the surface, this idea of warning people about potentially disturbing content feltright. I know very few people who want to be surprised by a violent rape scene in a movie, or a gory death in a television program, or a discussion about debilitating addiction.

The problem came when thefeelingthat came from the courtesy of individuals became dogma accepted as a scientific truth. Todaya growing number of voices, including several student bodies, are pushing for universities to include trigger warnings in all course material.

Professors, writers, and other artists are rightfully concerned about the impact of trigger warnings on academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. However, there’s a bigger problem: trigger warnings don’t work.

“I am also skeptical that labeling sensitive material with trigger warnings will prevent distress,” Roff wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The scientific literature about trauma teaches us that it seeps into peoples lives by networks of association.”

Understanding the Trigger Warning Argument, or My Addiction to Triggers

Before I go forward it’s important to take a moment to clarify that while I don’t think trigger warnings are being used in a scientifically sound way, I do believe that triggers exist.

Why Boys Can’t Read

This is a cross-post from The Geeky Press, my writing collective.

As the mother of 3 boys aged 9, 12 and 18 I can see direct comparisons with state education here in the UK and the increasing underachievement of our young males. Its my belief, and has been for many years, that young boys are floundering in our political correct schooling system which favours non-competitive sports and teaching methods and exams which inadvertently discriminate against males. — Jane Turley, “Reading Underground: The Question of Male Reading Habits and the Rise of Illiteracy

As I’ve toiled over the opening graphs of this essay about boys and literacy, I found myself sifting through the work on various women writers in order to find a starting place that may mitigate gendered attacks. Theres more than a subtle irony in this fact: I’m a writer, a man, and a trained reading instructor, yet I’ve held off writing about the subject of boys, literacy, and teachingbecause I fear the gendered backlash.

We live in a good, but complex, time in debate. So I write thisaware of two facts:

  1. Whenever a white dude writes that he’s afraid of “gendered attacks,” the assumption is that nothing good is coming; and
  2. It’s possible that backlash will be well-founded.

Still, I’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge all of these forces before writing about a topic that is likely to cause a stir. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to find women writers such as Jane Turley and Allison McDonald who have argued — in various ways — the points I seek to make here.

The fact that so many women are writing about the topic is heartening, but the issue stillfeelslike one that should be taken up by more men.

As We May Teach: Small Group Discussion, Google Hangouts, and Online Classes

Three years ago, I became the director of Ball State University’s Digital Media Minor, an interdisciplinary program meant to teach students a variety of digital skills. At the time, we offered our courses in traditional classrooms; however, I believed that it made more sense to teach these digital skills in digital environments and so I lobbied to turn our program into an online-only minor.

Just ahead three years. After much struggled, we’d finally achieved our goal. All of our courses were now offered online. We even had a few years of data to help understand what was working and what wasn’t. As I began to reflect on the experiences of my students, I had a rather uncomfortable epiphany this past summer: My online courses did a terrible job teaching students how to think logically and apply critical thinking skills.

The reason: Self-directed courses (and let’s be honest, most online courses are self-directed) can’t introduce new, intellectually stimulating ideas and discussions.

Certainly I’ve tried. Message boards can be interesting, but only if you run the community properly and only if you incentive smart conversation. Academic argument papers provide a forum for student-to-teacher discussions through comments and emails. Even video responses with attached comments offer that possibility.

But none of these replicated the Socratic experience of small group discussions built around ideas and topics. If we wanted students to learn how to think, we had to teach them how to ask the right questions. To do that, we needed to spend time talking.

I’d created a dilemma.In building an efficient online training experience for my students, I’d forgotten to build a methodical learning experience that would prepare them to solve problems in the business world. (Despite what my friends in Silicon Valley think, creating efficiency in a classroom is a bad thing when it’s done at the expense of a holistic understanding of how we reach the best ideas.)

As I considered what to do, I relied upon the core philosophies of how we learn:

  1. Ideas are best articulated through writing
  2. Students need to be exposed to alternate viewpoints (not from the teacher)
  3. Students need to have ownership over their learning environment

Using those three basic ideas, I ditched quizzes (I never gave tests) and papers and replaced them with a holistic, practical based approach to ICOM 210: Introduction to Social Networks, a course meant to teach students how to use social technologies to collaborate and work together to solve problems. (Think Google Drive or SETI@Home.) You can see the full syllabus here.

On Teaching without Tests, and Changing Learning Behaviors

As a teacher, I spend a great deal of time contemplating what learning means. On a basic level, we can likely agree that it involves increasing an individuals knowledge and enabling that person to apply that knowledge in a new way.

Where it gets a bit murkier is when I begin to try to measure my students learning, which is both a practical requirement of my job and an analytical tool to determine if Im helping my students achieve what they want.

As Ive tried to set up metrics for measuring learning, here are some of the questions Ive asked myself:

  1. Is the purpose of my class to increase what a student knows as fact or decrease the amount of information they didn’t know existed?
  2. If it’s the latter, does punishing them for failure discourage their ability to search for things they don’t know?
  3. What is a memorization test meant to measure, and how does that recall impact a students ability to “know” a piece of information?
  4. Is there a better way to encourage reading than a quiz?
  5. If the goal is to foster higher-order reasoning skills, what types of interactions encourage students from the start to consider learning in that way?
  6. What do we know about how you change behaviors?

Is the purpose of my class to increase what a student knows as fact or decrease the amount of information they didn’t know existed?

Several year ago, I came across the best explanation of the purpose of school. The piece, Nobody Knows What the F*** They Are Doing, was written by Steve Schwartz, who is neither a teacher nor a social scientist.

How We Teach Writing (Part II): Empirical Evidence on Removing the Teacher and The Invictus Writers Project

Three years ago, I started The Invictus Writers project for two reasons:

  1. While my professional background is largely in long-form and magazine writing, I’m quite often considered a “tech guy” wherever I go. If I want the opportunity to work with young writers, I generally have to create those; and
  2. I find classrooms to be a highly restrictive way to teach writing, which is a collaborative art that requires as much individual attention as it does group workshopping.

I’ve started writing a series on pedagogy that explores how I’m approaching that second problem in more traditional settings. You can read the first part of the series here, and the second part here.While there is more writing on that topic, there is an assumption within that series that suggests creating a public space for student work is necessary to increase student involvement.

The Invictus Writers project was conceptualized precisely as a way to remove the teacher as the primary motivator, and replace that with “the audience” as primary motivator. That required the project to have as many front-facing, student-led initiatives as possible. For Invictus, we have two:

  1. The Invictus Writers blog, where I ask (not demand) the participants to write about the writing process. They are asked to share their fears, uncertainties, and successes as they work on the project; and
  2. The Invictus Essays and Books, where the final student work is given to readers in a variety of formats, i.e. ePub, free PDFs, print book.

I don’t have any empirical evidence to suggest that my writing project is a success. I don’t give grades (and only once was this taught as a class), I don’t solicit formal feedback, I don’t have an alumni association, and I don’t have an advisory board.I have writers who write, and who share their knowledge and process with the world through the blog and through private letters within the group.

The only empirical evidence to suggest that we’ve successfully created an audience are the metrics I’ve cobbled together.

How We Teach Writing (Part 1): What Every Writing Program Should Teach, But Doesn’t

Last week I wrote a post (“Constructivism, Transmedia Thinking, and Why the Classroom Doesn’t Work”) that explored some of the reasons that I struggle with teaching creative arts within the confines of a structured classroom, and used examples of projects I’ve run outside of that environment to bolster my point.

This week I wanted to explore a second part to that argument, which is this: Constructivist teaching experiences work best when the outcome is applied research aimed at solving a real-world problem.

The term “real world” carries with it a stigma for some academics, who rightfully fear that learning shouldn’t be tied to commercial forces. In many cases, I completely understand and respect that argument. There’s enough research to suggest that learning can happen in unstructured, ungraded environments to argue that every learning experience shouldn’t be tied to a deadline-based, results-oriented project.

However, I do believe the creative arts suffer from a dearth of real-world experiences that teach students how to work and operate as a professional. We graduate too many writing students who have no idea how to get a job, how to freelance, or how to utilize their skills. We don’t teach them how to build an audience, or how to put a value on their work.

In the last few years, I’ve started thinking about how we might begin to solve these problems.

How we learn: a recap

In my essay last week, I argued that constructivist learning can be broken down into a single formula and premise:

  • formula: learning = science + practical application + sharing
  • premise: classrooms are an unsustainable way to teach creative arts

If these two ideas hold true, then I have the obligation to explore ways to work around the academicclassstructured model while not exploiting my student’s desire to graduate collegeandreceive an education.

Fortunately the university has a system for this purpose: the independent study, in which a student is paired with a professor to work on an individual project (although our university limits the number of independent experiences available to students).

With that in mind, I’ve spent the last few months mulling over a year-long independent study class that combines the salon aspect of The Invictus Writers, the idea of a public grading system, and a way to share what we learn.

This idea isn’t fully formed yet but I’m getting close enough that I wanted to share it.

A modest proposal:Kickstarter, The Long-form Story Class

For the past few years, I’ve considered how to incorporate the idea of a public evaluation, real-world problem solving, and a student-driven project into a writing class. Too often we run writing classes like a salon, with peer evaluations, discussions, and writing done within the confines of the classroom environment.

Constructivism, Transmedia Thinking, and Why the Classroom Doesn’t Work

I’m one of the few professors that I know who has a degree in education.

In 1994 I earned my B.A. in Communication Education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. What made that program so interesting for me was its grounding in the science of learning and the application of that science in practical settings.

Certainly studyinghowto teach doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. Still I found my classes fueled what was then (and continues to be) a lifelong fascination with the factors that help us learn and the factors that work against us.

In my senior year, Dr. Alan Frager led a seminar that made students responsible for understanding the science learning, applying that knowledge in real world situations, and sharing that knowledge with my fellow classmates. Each week we would work one-on-one with students at area secondary schools. We would diagnose their reading problems, search for answers in the scientific literature, and participate in weekly roundtable presentations about those students.

I don’t remember a class in which I was more committed. While my secondary teaching career lasted only two semesters — one as student-teacher at Western Hills High School, and one as an English teacher at Winton Woods Middle School — I used the methodologies from Dr. Frager’s practicum in every one of my classes.

While I left the teaching profession in 1996 and took an 11-year detour as a writer before returning to the classroom full time in 2006, I never stopped reading about how we learn.Along the wayI’ve come across some amazing ideas in books such asAcademically Adrift, How Learning Works, The Paradox of Choice, The Wisdom of Crowds, and The Invisible Gorilla.

One fact stands out as I’ve read: the formula for learning I experienced in Dr. Frager’s class is one that I’ve seen discussed in various formats in all those works:Science + practical application + sharing = learning.

The Science of Big Group Learning

Ask any college student and they will tell you this: Group work sucks.

The reason: In a group of four people, the workload generally breaks down like this:

  • 1 person does nothing, who angers…
  • 1 person who controls everything, who annoys…
  • 2 people just trying to survive the process.

Put students into groups, and you immediately see the agonized looks on their faces.

“How are you going to grade this,” they ask.

“It’s one grade, and I don’t want to hear about any problems in your group,” the professor responds.

In all honestly, how these small groups are run are both a crappy way to teach and learn.

Group work is important, though. There’s very little that is done in creative industries that doesn’t involve group work. So we can’t just abandon it.

What I’ve started to work on is creating better learning groups. I’ve done this by eliminating small group work, and replacing that with large group work. Rarely will I use the 4-person group. Instead, I’m looking for ways to get an entire class working in parallel to solve on problem.

Here’s my latest (and best) example:

I have 19 students in my Trans Star Wars class. Two are designers, and 17 are content creators with experience in writing, photography, and filmmaking.

The project:

  • We needed to create multimedia profiles, i.e. text, images, information graphics, videos, of various organizations and people in Indiana for a tablet-based application.

The decisions we needed to make:

  • Who would we profile
  • What types of media would we use, e.g. intro video files or text bios
  • What would the design of the sections look like

You can’t create a tablet media property without going through these steps. Before we got started, we needed to make a working prototype with actual content that would serve a guide for every other section we built.

The problem:

  • How do you take a group of 19 students, most of whom don’t know each other, and create a system in which everyone in the group has input without slowing down the design and development process.
  • Oh, and finish the creative process in 9 weeks.

While students were assigned to small project groups for the media creation component of the class , the bulk of what we did consisted of individual work that was consolidated through large-group exercises.

To do this, I’ve used basic Human-Computer Interaction design frameworks, e.g. the lifecycle design model, and adapted the consolidation frameworks used in large-scale usability studies.

Group Work: The Wisdom of Crowds

The Invictus Writers, or Why I Don’t Get Overly Excited about MOOCs

The National Science Foundation posts grants for people who develop informal learning spaces around science. I love that idea not because I think classrooms aren’t great places to learn (they are), but I recognize that motivated students can work outside the classroom to learn as well.

People go on about the idea of “transformative learning technologies” such as Massively Open Online Classrooms (MOOCs) or flipping classrooms or whatever else they are happen to come across on that day. Most analysis though strays very far from the science of how we learn, and focuses instead upon new delivery mechanisms. (I recommend How Learning Works: Seven research-based Principles for Smart Teachingif you really want to understand how to transform education.)

What we know works – in general – is mixing theory with hands-on learning so that students can first master skills and then transfer those skills into broader areas. This requires a mix of activities, work, and philosophy.

As I consider my own teaching, the best class that I offer isn’t actually a class. Instead, it’s a year-long writing project that (until now) students have taken for no credit. Instead, they work individually (but as a group) on personal essays that explore one transformative moment with their lives.

That project: The Invictus Writers.

The Ins and Outs of Online Teaching

Two weeks ago, Ball State University launched its Digital Media Minor as an online-only program. In the coming months, we’ll be expanding our offerings that will embrace some of the open courseware initiatives heading down the pike. For now, we’re settling in to using a homegrown Learning Management System (LMS) that delivers an education experience that is Web-based and not Blackboard-based.

People continually ask me how that transition has gone, and I’ve replied this way: the students LOVE the web interface and simple organization, but I teach in the same manner. As I’ve had this conversations a few times, I thought I would share how I go about teaching online.

Start with Objectives and Goals

Before I ever conceptualize my class, I do what I’ve always done: creating learning outcomes and goals. If I want students to synthesize an idea and demonstrate that through discussion, that doesn’t change in the online format. What changes is how I conceptualize discussion. I have to ask myself what I want the OUTCOME of the discussion to be, e.g. 10 salient points, mashup of ideas, and then figure out the best technological tool that gets me to that outcome. (In the world of interaction design, this is the Design Alternatives development stage.)

The Future of Education, Online


Last week, the president of Ball State University Dr. Jo Ann Gora gave her annual Fall Faculty Convocation. These affairs are normally noteworthy only for the mandatory attendance, but this year’s address put the current crisis in higher education front and center.

She discussed the upheaval facing the education system, the very same upheaval that has steamrolled the music, movie, film, and book industries. Our world has been forever changed, she argued, and we should get used to that:

We can bemoan the many external pressures being brought to bear on us. We can deplore the increasingly utilitarian view of higher education on philosophical grounds. Frankly, I sometimes do both. But this is the world we live in today, and we can’t just stick our heads in the proverbial sand. Our environment has changed; public attitudes and expectations have changed.

We in higher education–including all of us here at Ball State–must adjust accordingly or face some dire consequences. We are never going back. Not because we don’t want to, because we can’t. No longer can any of us plan to do the same things we’ve always done in the same way we’ve always done them.

Part I: Analog

My very first job in journalism in 1994 as a news aide at Cincinnati CityBeat should have given me some clue as to what we’d be facing in the very near future.

Each morning my news editor insisted that each morning I make the trek to the Cincinnati Public Library to retrieve old news articles from microfilm and microfiche despite the fact that I had a laptop that I could use to dial into the library’s main system to retrieve (or order) the information we needed.

Already a prickly character, she bristled at the idea that I didn’t want to go sit in the library to do my work and thus I went to the library to sit and do my work all the while wondering why I was wasting my time.

I lasted at that job for four months, but 18 years later I still remember how ridiculous I thought it was that my boss refused to allow me to use technology to do my job more efficiently just because she didn’t understand how it worked.

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If you're interested in keeping up with my writing projects, I’ll overlook your bad judgement on that and instead say thank you. A writer's life blood is readers. Without you, I'm just a crazy guy sitting in his office furiously screaming on the page for no reason. So not to put any pressure on you, but everything now depends on you
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