The English Graduate Student Association Women’s Caucus: On Safe Spaces and Feminist Pedagogy

Last quarter, I had the pleasure of attending the Women’s Caucus Winter Event in the English Department. On International Women’s Day, the Women’s Caucus hosted an event during which graduate students and I discussed several topics related to women in education — from sexism to feminist pedagogy to creating safe spaces for victims of sexual assault. What I thought was especially interesting about this event was the focus on the inclusion of trigger warnings when teaching texts that include scenes or mentions of violence, rape, and sexual abuse, among other sensitive topics. Prior to this event, I hadn’t even considered how helpful trigger warnings could be for victims of sexual assault — mainly because I had not seen any trigger warnings appear in my own classes — and how much this small addition to lectures and syllabi could help victims of sexual assault or abuse. We discussed the importance of including trigger warnings for students who are not only victims of sexual assault, but have also experienced other things that they may find triggering in classes.  

Another aspect that surprised me was that the speaker, a graduate student instructor, mentioned that including trigger warnings in lecture has become a hot button issue that academics are discussing across the board — in academic institutions, like UC Davis, and online. Many instructors are unsure just how many trigger warnings should be included in lectures and lesson plans, and when they should be included. Nonetheless, the graduate student instructors expressed an overwhelming amount of support for the inclusion of trigger warnings in class syllabi and lectures. I wasn’t shocked by their support; instead, as an undergraduate student I felt extremely supported by the graduate students in the English department who agreed that creating a safe space in the classroom was instrumental in ensuring that students could learn and be successful in academic environments. 

What was most enlightening was that the graduate student instructors and TAs emphasized that they want students to reach out to them if students found something triggering; there is no need to keep quiet. Professors and graduate students are not mind readers. They may not know that a certain topic is triggering to you and/or other students. It is therefore very important to open the lines of communication between graduate student instructors and undergraduate students, as well as between professors and their students. Based on this event, this is my advice to you: don’t be scared to send that email to your professor about the rape of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, for example, because most professors and TAs want to make your learning experience, as a woman, as a victim of sexual assault, etc., a comfortable one. As an undergraduate, I know that I have had the misconception that emailing my professor about some of my personal needs may be bothersome — that perhaps it is not important to tell them that something triggered me in class, or that something happened in my life that might compromise my ability to learn that quarter (like a death in the family). 

I was reminded at this Women’s Caucus event that it’s important to not be scared to open the lines of communication about topics that make you uncomfortable or make life difficult, because ultimately it helps professors, graduate student instructors, and TAs understand their students better and cater to our needs if they are able.

Although trigger warnings remain a hot button issue in academia, one thing has been made clear to me: your TAs, instructors, and professors want you to learn and feel safe in your learning environment. If you don’t feel safe, let them know. They want to hear from you. They want to make your experiences and your peers’ experiences good ones — but they can’t do that without your help.    

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