Anyone following archaeological news lately may have seen a spate of articles concerning ‘trigger’ warnings for students attending archaeology lectures. The general gist of the reporting, first in the Daily Mail but also picked up by the Spectator and others, more recently the Independent, was that students were being pre-warned of sensitive content in lectures and allowed to skip classes that they might find particularly difficult. The articles ridiculed lecturers practising this, arguing that this was stifling academic discussion and just another example of how modern students are mollycoddled. The comments section was particularly unpleasant, with internet users delighting in ‘political correctness gone mad’ and spitting abuse at the ‘special snowflakes’ of today’s youth.
Through my twitter feed I saw things unfold from a different perspective. Gabriel Moshenska, who was the original subject of the Daily Mail article, posted a series of tweets about the content of the article. Archaeologists quickly began to come to the defence of Dr Moshenska – including colleagues and past students – and this great article was published on the conversation. I don’t know Dr Moshenska myself, but the issues raised in this debate have really struck a chord with me. I’m a bit late to the discussion, but here’s my experience of ‘sensitive’ archaeology, as a student and increasingly as a teacher.
“Bones are scary” – well, yes, in fact, they are. In my early days of working with animal bones I would occasionally find human bones within faunal assemblages. I strikingly remember the first time I held up a skull fragment and thought “…wait a second, that’s not animal”. I was unprepared for holding part of someone, despite being used to handling animal bones. I soon got over my initial shock, but later during my MSc I was often affected by the humans I was handling. What you’re really doing as an osteoarchaeologist is asking “who are you?” to someone who can’t answer back. This feeling of “getting to know” the skeleton on the bench is made more poignant if you learn of traumatic injury, disease, markers of childhood malnutrition or, in the case of Moshenska’s module on Conflict Archaeology that he talks about in the article, the knowledge that the individual was buried in a mass war grave. It can be difficult to remove yourself from the ‘person’ and instead look at the ‘evidence’ – and I would argue that that’s not always helpful anyway.
Students who take modules such as these know what they’re getting in for, even if they might find parts of a module unpleasant. When I signed up to take Forensic Anthropology in my second year I was concerned about seeing images of trauma, particularly on fleshed individuals. My lecturer at the time was pretty unhelpful actually, suggesting perhaps I switch modules. I persevered, however, and despite some shaky sessions I passed the module with flying colours and, two years later, my MSc in Bioarchaeology (Human Osteology). Had I been put off by my lecturer’s unsympathetic reaction I might never have had the confidence to study my masters! A student’s past experiences or even just squeamishness should not prevent them from studying what interests them. That, in fact, stifles academic discussion in itself.
From a different perspective, as a postgraduate teaching assistant, I now think carefully about how students might react to content in my classes. My first experience of this was during a compulsory introduction to zooarchaeology session for liberal arts students needing to fill their ‘science’ quota. A student did not want to touch the roe deer skeleton that they were tasked with reassembling. I knew that the bones had a faintly unpleasant smell (a result of being not archaeological and kept in a sealed box), but I had not considered that some students would not want anything to do with them, for a variety of reasons. In following sessions, I ensured I had gloves or alternative tasks so students could still get the most out of the class.
What I’m saying is that by giving warnings about graphic content and thinking about the ways that sessions might affect students universities are actually keeping their courses more open and more relaxed. By being inclusive lecturers allow concerned students to follow their interests despite potentially ‘triggering’ content without fear of retribution if they leave or miss sessions. I’m lucky in that my only negative experience with studying human bone is a mild squeamishness and a sense of sympathy with the deceased, but you never know what kind of experiences students have had in the past that may affect them. A ‘trigger warning’ does not change course content, but it gives students the opportunity to deal with sensitive issues as they choose.
What’s particularly frustrating is the people writing the articles and the horrendous comments can not have the depth of archaeological knowledge, experience or empathy to see why these sorts of things are so important – and yet it is their view that is passed on swiftly to the public.