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Academic content warnings: politically correct or basic courtesy?

Vice-Chancellor Robert Van de Noort

I was interested to see this morning that the University of Reading was mentioned in two media articles, in the Sun and the Mail Online, highlighting guidance we issue to academic staff about ‘trigger warnings’.

The University guidance and policy documents issued by our Centre for Quality Support and Development are well-crafted, and deserve everyone’s attention. The particular document in question provides academic teaching staff with guidelines on how they might pre-warn students about potentially upsetting or sensitive material they will encounter in their course. It is not a policy, or a rule, and was not sent as a letter to staff. It responds to questions raised by student representatives and is publicly and openly available, alongside a whole range of guidance on teaching and learning. So it is rather surprising that it should attract the attention of our national media as ‘a compendium of PC poppycock’ or ‘woke nonsense’.

The document states clearly that it was created with a view to encourage the discussion of relevant material that is difficult or controversial, not to avoid it. Our students rightly expect, in studying at a leading University at undergraduate level and above, that they will have access to all necessary texts and materials to develop their knowledge. They should have full view of the facts, however difficult or controversial, that allow them to learn and to extend their understanding. And academics have the freedom to explore complex evidence and ideas in their research and teaching with students.

Nothing I can say is likely to reduce the indignation on display in various media comment sections. But I will not see colleagues and students unfairly criticised for doing their jobs professionally and compassionately. It is not ‘poppycock’ to help academic staff to cover controversial issues while also considering the impact that those issues might have on their students. Nothing prevents discussion of issues such as rape, genocide, torture, or horrendous atrocities; but advance warning not only leads to better teaching and study, but is just common courtesy.

Content warnings are everywhere – at the start of TV programmes, in film advertisements and in media articles. They follow good evidence about how people can be seriously adversely affected by prior trauma or experience. Very often in these circumstances, people will be directed to more information or sources of support. Expert groups often praise the media for handling complex issues sensitively in this way, not simply avoiding them, thereby raising awareness and helping people come to terms with their own experiences. A university course is much more personal and intensive than a TV programme. It requires active engagement, discussion with peers, and development of deep understanding. So why would we not want to prepare our students for complicated topics in a sensitive way, rather than have them taken by unpleasant surprise?

The work of academics and students alike must be at the boundaries of human experience. Science, art, culture and business does not progress from the certain ground. We will continue to explore controversial topics and undertake difficult tasks, and we will do it with basic courtesy. There is nothing politically correct about that.

As always, I welcome the views of our whole community. Please email me vc@reading.ac.uk.

 

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