Feature: Weighing benefits, harms of reading troubling works


Mia Calzolaio and Simon Schackner

English teacher Jennifer Huang recently finished the book “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen — which follows a man serving as a spy for Communist forces in the final days of the Vietnam War — with her senior elective. While the book enabled the class to have important discussions about the Vietnam war, biracial identity, and the ethics of representation, Huang was initially hesitant about including the book in her curriculum due to a graphic scene of sexual assault. Ultimately, Huang decided to teach the book because she thought the conversations she planned outweighed the brutality of the specific scene, she said.

As her class started reading the book, Huang offered a preemptive trigger warning about the potentially sensitive content, which she felt benefited their later conversation about the explicit scene. “Giving the trigger warning gave students a space to know that they needed to approach that conversation sensitively and carefully, and the discussion that ended up coming out of it felt really productive to me,” she said.

Huang’s dilemma and eventual decision to teach the book with a trigger warning is reflective of a common situation: many teachers must assess the value of teaching works or topics that could be deemed offensive and evaluate their technique of doing so.

The school’s Statement of Community Norms and Values acknowledges that the complex work students do in the classroom requires encounters with “challenging ideas, texts, and viewpoints.” For this reason, the document contains a set guidelines on how conversations about these topics are to be conducted. These points include avoiding gratuitous use of profanity or slurs, refraining from calling out any member of the community, and never shaming anyone speaking in a group meeting. The document also states that speakers should provide clear context when beginning a discussion about “material that can provoke strong personal reactions from students.”

When choosing texts for her courses, English teacher Sarah McIntyre does not necessarily avoid books that may contain offensive material; rather, she thinks about the way in which students will critically approach the matter in the books.

“I try to pick texts that are going to help students face difficult questions — difficult ethical, political, human, psychological questions, all of these big areas — and to give them a field in which to explore their own relationship to those hard questions,” McIntyre said. 

An example of one of these texts is “The Great Gatsby,” a book that represents paradoxical ideologies. Author F. Scott Fitgerald addresses racism while simultaneously promoting anti-semitism, McIntyre said. He criticizes the way in which anti-Black ideology is at the base of socioeconomic hierarchies; however, he also uses anti-semitic stereotypes, denying the extent to which religious prejudices are part of the same structure he critiques, she said. 

McIntyre ultimately hopes that through reading this book and considering how these two themes might work side-by-side, students can transfer this analysis to critique the society in which they are living.

History teacher Melissa Morales only teaches potentially problematic historical material if she believes it will allow her class to understand a topic more deeply.t She defines offensive content as text or media that has the potential to harm a reader or cause them to reproduce the ideas represented in their own lives. An example of such material that Morales teaches is Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” in which Jefferson tries to scientifically prove that people of African descent are inferior to white people. By the end of the piece, Jefferson acknowledges that slavery is degrading and that God will eventually punish the people of the United States for their acts of enslavement, Morales said. 

Morales intends for her class to understand the value of Jefferson’s inability to defend slavery and his recognition of its consequences. In order for Morales to teach similarly problematic works, they must be historically significant and influential within their time period, she said.

English teacher Dr. Wendy Steiner chooses the material that she teaches carefully and considers potentially problematic or triggering content when making these choices, she said. “I do not shy away from controversy if [it is] within the book, as long as the racism involved is being used to make a point or send some kind of message,” she said. Steiner mentioned Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” as one of these books. “It contains some offensive language, namely the n-word, because Morrison is dramatizing the traumatic horrors of slavery.”

Like Steiner, history teacher Barry Bienstock only teaches potentially harmful material if he deems it vital to his curriculum. While he believes learning about sensitive topics such as war and colonization is often essential, he tries to avoid depictions of violence as much as he can and says that the mentioning of specific violence is often unnecessary in history class. “I can talk about the oppressive nature of slavery without discussing in detail what the white masters did to their female slaves,” he said. 

Particularly with books containing potentially problematic and difficult subject matter, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson considers whether the literature is substantial enough for a class discussion. “Is the book strong enough to hold our interrogation [and] to withstand the pressure of the kind of discussion we’re going to do in class about some of that offensive content?” he said.

There are books Wilson would not teach because they do not meet this criteria. For example, Wilson does not teach “Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth — which describes a young Jewish man’s coming of age in New York City — due to the book’s raunchy nature, including Roth’s frequent use of sexual innuendos and description of sexual acts. “I don’t know how much learning in the classroom would be done that would necessitate teaching this book, where another book that is less purposely offensive could do the same work,” he said.

Steiner stopped teaching the book “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, which discusses a man’s experience exploring Africa during the late 19th century, because some of the imagery in the book depicting Africans is plainly racist. While the book is certainly a powerful work of literature with important messages about human nature, Steiner said she ultimately decided that this did not outweigh the racially insensitive parts. As years passed, Steiner felt that she should stop teaching it, she said.

Similarly, English teacher Jacob Kaplan would not teach “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, a book about an intimate relationship between a grown man and a 14-year-old girl, because of the pedophilia detailed in the text. While there are books out there that Kaplan wouldn’t teach personally, he is against preventing certain literature from being taught at all. “However, the more offensive content a book has, the more of a reason I would need to choose it,” he said. 

When choosing material for their classes, teachers also have to be careful about the messages they could be inadvertently sending to their students, McIntyre said. “Unless we teachers say explicitly to our classes, ‘I have chosen these texts because I would like to be able to talk about these issues,’ then we risk communicating to them that these are works that we only celebrate.” Trigger warnings help counteract this risk, she said. 

A typical trigger warning in Huang’s classroom is straightforward. If the class is approaching a potentially sensitive topic or scene in a book, Huang will mention the pages that contain the material in order to give students a chance to figure out how they would like to proceed through that part of the book, she said. 

Emily Marks’s (12) English teacher sends out emails prior to a nightly reading regarding any content that might necessitate a trigger warning. The class will usually acknowledge the difficult material the next day, and her teacher offers to speak individually with anyone who would like to discuss it further. 

In general, there is no universal way to introduce these kinds of texts and no finite list of topics that teachers should be sensitive to, Wilson said. However, if a potentially offensive topic is central to a work of literature, it would benefit the teacher to alert the students in order to give members of the class a chance to step out of the room if necessary.

Julian Silverman (11) said trigger warnings are important for preparing a class for a conversation for which they might not typically be ready. “Sometimes, [students] don’t feel comfortable talking about these sensitive topics, but a trigger [warning] lets us know that our teacher wants us to open up,” he said. “I know I need that sometimes.”

However, a trigger warning could also highlight a student’s uncomfortable feelings, Lucas Raskin (12) said. Warnings that offer for students to leave the classroom can be inadequate because they put students on the spot. Raskin said that as a private school with many resources, there could be a better way to connect with students about their feelings on a certain sensitive topic. 

Still, teachers must be attentive to students’ experiences reading and discussing a text, McIntyre said. “In my role as a teacher, I have a strong caretaking role,” she said. “In order to be performing that role well, I have to be attending to students’ emotional well-being.” 

Over the years, McIntyre realized students in her class could have emotional responses to a text, hence the need for trigger warnings. “I now understand better than I did in the early stages of my career that intellectual engagement does not prevent people from the experience of retraumatization as they’re reading text,” she said.

On the other hand, Jaden Richards (12) said trigger warnings are not always necessary or effective, as potentially sensitive material similar to that covered in class will not always have a disclaimer outside of a school environment. 

Furthermore, a crucial part of the student experience is dealing with difficult content, Richards said. “It’s harmful to allow a student to excuse themselves from a difficult discussion, but also, the entire class is going to have to reckon with the material anyway,” he said. “What benefit is there to put a disclaimer before it?”

Ultimately, it is up to the teachers to figure out how to approach difficult content. Contextualizing a work of literature is an important part of managing its offensive language, Kaplan said. “When offensive language comes up in Shakespeare, it is almost like a history lesson.” When discussing anti-semitism in “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare, for example, Kaplan tries to explain to his students the meaning of the offensive language and its use during the time period when the book was written, he said. 

Historical figures and documents will also often use antiquated language, specifically in reference to various racial groups, and Morales conducts conversations in advance to ensure that students have the proper vocabulary to engage in a productive conversation, she said. 

Specifically during discussions about the offensive language in a work of literature, Wilson wants his students to consider why the author is using such words and investigate their significance in the text. “It is especially important to deal with the weight of that language, historical and otherwise, of those choices that the author made,” he said.

Similarly, it is dangerous for students to simply resign to the idea that offensive language, such as the n-word, is not acceptable to use at the school without exploring why such language is harmful, Richards said. “If you’re just taking for granted the fact that there’s words that students should not say without actually reckoning with why they shouldn’t be said  — or reckoning with why they’re offensive and just refusing to address them — then [students are] going to be ill prepared when they come across someone in their lives who disagrees on that issue.”

Through reading and discussing texts as a class, students can learn an important lesson: people are experiencing the text from their own subjective positions. Ideally, the result of this community engagement is the development of empathy, McIntyre said. 

Students can also learn important lessons from dissecting difficult topics, especially in regards to violence, Richards said. “Having students discuss and understand why [sensitive material] is so torturous and terrible helps them understand why they shouldn’t replicate that in their own lives.”

While it may be difficult to face these conversations, it is crucial to do so, Morales said. “If you really want to understand who you are — who we are — and understand ourselves in this moment, we have to endure our full history.”