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Oberlin College faculty fears updates to resource guide may curb academic freedom


OBERLIN — Members of a task force assigned to update Oberlin College’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide are reworking the guide after a portion relating to trigger warnings has come under fire by college faculty.

Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin College, said he first learned about the additions to the Sexual Offense Resource Guide when it was published in The Guardian, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, and other news outlets. The guide contains support resources for faculty, and among its information, suggests faculty use trigger warnings in class where material may be controversial.

Trigger warnings are often used to tell readers or viewers that the material they are reading or watching may be offensive. Warnings usually relate to violence, racism and sexual assault and other potentially offensive subject matter.

Blecher said the additions to the guide prompted faculty members to sit down with the task force to air their concerns about a perceived attack on academic freedom. Many faculty members, he said, believed trigger warnings would lead to “prior restraint” from teachers who are planning the curriculum.

“It would make it much more difficult for us to challenge our students to think about a lot of different issues … There is a serious issue here, behind these trigger warnings,” he said.

The portion of Oberlin College’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide, which has since been removed from Oberlin College’s website, read that reactions to triggers “almost always disrupt a student’s learning and may make some students feel unsafe in your classroom.”

“Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression,” read the guide, which is linked to an article on Inside Higher Ed’s website.

The guide suggested that a professor remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals or issue a trigger warning to prepare students for the material.

Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the information on the trigger warnings in the resource guide was purely suggestion, not policy. She said the guide was updated to comply with the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act of 2013, which requires institutions to educate students, faculty and staff on the prevention of rape, acquaintance rape, domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.

“I think it’s a time where most colleges are looking at their policies,” she said.

Raimondo said the task force, comprised of students, faculty and administration chosen by Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, is now rewording the trigger warning portion of the guide, taking into consideration the complaints from faculty members. She said the college would never try to censor faculty, but it wants to consider the plight of students who have been victims to sexual violence.

“We need to keep thinking about those students,” she said.

Blecher said he is sensitive to students who may have experience trauma, but he said classroom literature often contains racism and violence — something that is important to learn about in the historical sense. Warning the students of the material which will be presented won’t allow them to “read the book with fresh eyes,” he said.

“It wasn’t just a matter of the language. It wouldn’t fix this just to put the word ‘please’ in front of it,” he said.

Contact Chelsea Miller at 329-7123 or Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaMillerCT.

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