Friday Fragments, May 23rd, 2014: Trigger Warnings, Embargoes, and more

Friday Fragments on a Saturday? Why not…  As I get back to blogging after the semester and dissertation, I’m trying to organize how I blog. “Friday Fragments” has a nice ring to it. Now to get it out on Friday, instead of Saturday. In no particular order, here are some things that I took note of during the week. Just FYI, I’m getting more opinionated as time goes on.

  1. Trigger Warnings. My friend David Perry wrote a great column for CNN earlier this week discussing the calls to place “trigger warnings” on course syllabi. I think he hit the nail on the head, as he so often does. My own opinion, take it or leave it, is that I study and teach war: the subject should really be its own trigger warning. But why I teach war is important too: it is to educate, to increase understanding, to help students think through complex issues of organized violence. Simply showing a lot of shocking war violence (combat, atrocity, sexual atrocity, etc.) “because that’s war” really does nothing to help educate. So, in pondering David’s column I realized that I do often find myself reflexively cautioning my students if a movie or documentary film clip that I’m about to play is particularly bloody and gruesome. Which is to say, Tim O’Brien notwithstanding, the academic study of war isn’t simply one obscenity after another, and I don’t focus on that all the time.  You don’t need to see graphic images of war to know, while you’re studying it, that at its root war is horror. But focusing on what violence looks like can be very useful, particularly if students are tending to romanticize war (which is very common, both among my military and non-military students). Medieval warfare is often romanticized, and I’ve found nothing sobers up a classroom quicker and makes them put a physical reality to the stylized narrative, than a few minutes of National Geographic’s Warrior Graveyards: The Crusades, which reconstructs the siege of Jacob’s Ford in 1179.  The same goes for Little Big Horn, or the Battle of Towton.  So, I do not, and will not, put “trigger warnings” in my syllabus; I assume that if you’re in my class on warfare, you’re not asking to be “intellectually pampered” as Bret Stephens scornfully put it in the WSJ the other day, but that you’re there to be challenged and to learn. But if something I’m about to show goes outside our day-to-day discussion of warfare, I tend to warn you. Because, and this I believe very strongly, the moment you tell the unknown student who is silently suffering the post-trauma of violence to “Get over yourself,” you’ve ceased to be an educator.  If our scholarship hasn’t taught us to be kind, we might as well pack it in right now.
  2. Remember that huge fracas about dissertation embargoes after the AHA had the audacity to suggest that perhaps grad students should be allowed to decide how best to handle their dissertations? Man, were there a lot of self-righteous open-source idiots pontificating on that one. [As you can tell, I’m still rather ticked off about that.]  It was good to read from the editor-in-chief of the U of Illinois Press that the AHA was right on target. Her advice on what publishers are looking for in the dissertation-to-book is very valuable, and generally confirms what I’m planning on doing with my own dissertation.

  3. Watch Frontline’s United States of Secrets for a depressing look at the NSA after 9/11 (press release here). In broad strokes, reminds me a bit of this 2007 column on the show “24.” Similar mentality, whatever it takes. And a confidence that you can reinterpret law as it suits you.

  4. The Met has made a huge chunk of its collections available for free on line, and even with permissions for scholarly work. HUGE thanks to the Met!

  5. If you’re interested in World War II unit histories and reports, check out the Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library, at the Command and General Staff College. Eclectic, as you may expect, but that’s to say that they have thousands of documents as opposed to tens of thousands.  I’ve managed to find the diary and official history of the 82nd Recon Battalion, 2 Armd Division, for example, thus partly closing a major gap in my class’s document packet for Operation Cobra.

  6. “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too.”  Which statement becomes contextualized in the article when you realize that a) they’re talking about STEM classes, and b) they’re not talking about doing away with the lecture (which, given budgetary constraints, isn’t going to happen for a while), but instead incorporating “active learning techniques” into the lecture format. Personally, this hand-wringing over lectures is annoying, and getting old. I already use  these “dynamic” techniques in my lectures, which by all student accounts achieve exactly what these studies say you can’t achieve in this format. Yes, Bligh’s 2000 “What’s the Use of Lectures?” lays out how they can’t promote critical thinking or influence behavior, and if it’s simply a professor reading his/her notes of course that’s the case. But that’s not how good teachers lecture to begin with.  And for every study that disses the lecture, one can always reply with the 2010 Harvard study that declared the lecture a fine tool for enhancing student performance. Not surprisingly, most SoTL folks don’t like referencing that study…

Ok, rants done.

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