Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a ‘trigger warning’ for the readings in future.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Addendum: Thanks to all for your comments. I’ve deleted the email text I had originally reproduced here and replaced it with a paraphrase.

Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.


Nevil Shute’s _On The Beach_ And Normative Epistemology

The first reading in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class this semester–which focuses on the post-apocalyptic novel–is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach. I expected, more often than not, moral, ethical, and political issues to be picked up on in classroom discussions; I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the very first class meeting–on Monday–honed in on an epistemic issue, more specifically, one of normative epistemology: What should we believe? Are beliefs that comfort us–but that are otherwise without adequate evidentiary foundation–good ones? Can they ever be? Under what circumstances?

Dwight Towers, the American Navy submarine captain, is one of those unfortunates who have, thanks to nuclear war, lost their all–their homes, their families–in the northern hemisphere. In Towers’ case, this means his home in Connecticut, and his wife and child. Indeed, this loss provokes his host in Australia, Peter Holmes, to take the precaution of arranging extra companionship–as distraction–for him when Holmes invites Towers to his home for dinner. But Towers does not seem to regard his family as lost. As he attends a church service, Shute grants us access to his thoughts about home:

He would be going back to them in September, home from his travels. He would see them all again in less than nine months time. They must not feel, when he rejoined them, that he was out of touch, or that he had forgotten things that were important in their lives. Junior must have grown quite a bit; kids did at that age.

Later, Shute does the same with Moira Davidson, his new-found female friend in Melbourne, who has seen the photographs of his family in his cabin:

She had known for some time that his wife and family were very real to him, more real by far than the half-life in a far corner of the world that had been forced upon him since the war.  The devastation of the northern hemisphere was not real to him, as it was not real to her. He had seen nothing of the destruction of the war, as she had not; in thinking of his wife and his home it was impossible for him to visualise them in any other circumstances than those in which he had left them. He had little imagination, and that formed a solid core for his contentment in Australia.

Towers makes this explicit:

“I suppose you think I’m nuts,” he said heavily. “But that’s the way I see it, and I can’t seem to think about it any other way.”

These reflections bring us, as should be evident, to the CliffordJames debate. I have taught that debate before–in introductory philosophy classes and in philosophy of religion. The discussions–and judgments–it provokes are often quite illuminating; Monday’s was no exception. The novelistic embedding available here, of course, also enabled a segue into the broader ethics of ‘coping strategies’ and escapism like, for instance, Moira Davidson’s palliative heavy drinking.

I  expect this issue to recur during this semester’s discussions; I look forward to seeing how my students respond to the varied treatments of it that my reading list will afford them.

Back To Teaching – I

On Wednesday, I return to teaching after a one-year hiatus (on sabbatical). Here are the–admittedly skimpy and sketchy–course descriptions of the three classes I will be teaching this coming fall semester. I am looking forward to them. I’m sure my enthusiasm will soon be tempered by encountering my university’s mind-numbing bureaucracy (and the dubious pleasures of grading) but for now, it’s good to be able to anticipate my forthcoming encounters with students and classroom discussions.

Philosophy of Religion

The philosophy of religion queries the foundations of religion and religious thought. Its central questions are among the most enduring in philosophy; they may be engaged by both theists and atheists, and involve the major branches of philosophical inquiry such as epistemology, logic, metaphysics, and ethics.

Among the most important of the questions raised in the philosophy of religion are: What is the nature of religious belief?  What is the relationship between faith and reason? Does God exist? If so, what is (its/his/her) nature? Does morality require religious belief? What is evil? What problems does it create for arguments for the existence of God? What is the nature of religious experience? Is there a difference between religious belief and religious feeling? What are religious language’s distinguishing characteristics? What is the relationship between religion and science?

We will examine these in the context of several philosophical and religious traditions, finding sources in philosophical and literary texts.

Social Philosophy

In this class we examine social theory and social thought—beginning with the Enlightenment and continuing on to twentieth-century postmodernism. The issues we tackle include equality, social justice, gender relations, political structures, family life, ethnic relations, and political economy. We will read philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, economists, novelists; all contribute to grappling with the complex questions facing societies and those who interact within them.

Philosophical Issues in Literature: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Literature offers us a lens through which to view the human condition; it enables a literary grappling with metaphysical, epistemological, logical, ethical, aesthetic, and political issues of philosophical interest and significance. In this class, we will read several works of post-apocalyptic fiction to facilitate an exploration and discussion of some of these issues.  What is the ethical and political and aesthetic vision these works embody? By imagining a radically altered state of existence, they allow us to speculate about the changes in the world and the humans who live within it; they permit a safe exploration of alternative modes of living, ethical and political systems. Of especial relevance to us is the following question: Why are the concept of the apocalypse and human responses to it of such enduring interest to novelists and philosophers?

The following is the reading list:

As the semester progresses, I hope to blog here about the material I teach, drawing upon reflections triggered by my preparations for the class meetings, as well as the actual discussions in the classroom.

Tomorrow: a report on my first day back in class.