In one Elon University classroom, a novel examining the systematic rape of thousands of Muslim women in the Balkans comes with no trigger warning.

Safia Swimelar, an associate professor of political science and policy studies at Elon, makes no apologies for how she teaches “S: A Novel About the Balkans.” She said facilitating conversations about the book’s graphic content are difficult, but well worth having.

Though she hasn’t seen much at Elon, the coddling culture at some liberal colleges and universities has a chilling effect on conversations, she said.

“I don’t want to assume that half my class is going to be affected or offended,” Swimelar said. “What’s the point to come here if it’s just a repeat of high school, a repeat of grade school?”

The long-simmering debate over the line between creating an environment in which it is safe to learn – derided by pundits as political correctness gone awry – and debating sensitive topics sans-trigger warning has emerged as a pointed divide on college campuses. Some say trigger warnings are about protecting students. Others say they keep students so protected that they never challenge themselves in an intellectual sense.

A recent op-ed from the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind” criticizes sharply the tendency of schools to “scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” Longtime comedian and Seinfeld star Jerry Seinfeld made scores of headlines when he said he’ll no longer perform on college campuses for fear of offending someone.

Donald Trump has drilled into a deep grassroots conservative following by blasting a “PC culture,” calling it a “big problem” in the United States.

The anti-PC wave has ran into a rebuttal in ardent defenders of trigger warnings and protecting students. Shots have also been firedat the very comedians, like Seinfeld, who have made their position clear to begin with.

At Elon, administrators understand the thin line they walk between encouraging dialogues that can be difficult and ensuring the classroom is a safe space for everyone to learn, said Rex Waters, dean of student development at Elon University.

“It can be tough to navigate,” Waters said. He added, “The university provides a great space for people who are passionate about learning to have a good place for that kind of dialogue.”

Link to a Storify on political correctness.

But there’s a difference between creating a safe space and stifling dialogue, said Caitlin Flanagan, a contributor to The Atlantic, where she in 2014 wrote “That’s Not Funny,” an examination of how a liberal college culture has caused comedians to carefully tailor what they say to an audience of young people.

Too often, the hypersensitivity goes to far, she said – even extending to the least-expected corners of campus.“Should trigger warnings be given in science classrooms?” Flanagan said. “There’s all sorts of things that happen in science and mathematics and so forth. The idea that people in the humanities have to get trigger warnings is an interesting question.”

Elon senior Jared Kindy, a business major, said at Elon he hasn’t experienced as much political correctness as he expected coming into college. But being a business major – an area of campus more associated with Excel formulas than controversial conversations – is probably a part of that, he said.

A mural inside Elon University's philosophy building. Photo by Michael Bodley

A mural inside Elon University’s philosophy building. Photo by Michael Bodley.

The classroom isn’t always the best place for tough conversations about race and gender and the like, the senior said, adding that it can be difficult to feel comfortable enough to speak freely under a professor’s watchful eye.

“Sometimes, when these things get brought up, you have to think about your surroundings and your place in the classroom,” Kindy said. “These conversations aren’t always easy to have.”

Southeast of Elon University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill deals with a similar dilemma when it comes to the role of trigger warnings in the classroom.

Andrew Perrin, a 15-year professor of sociology at the university, said he sees “appropriate uses for [trigger warnings] and times for them but I think that they need to be pretty rare.” He’s never used a trigger warning in class, but Perrin said he would consider one on a rare and case-by-case basis.

“If I’m not teaching something that’s making students question what they thought before, then I’m not doing my job,” Perrin said.

As college campuses continue to evolve in keeping with culture, conversation has veered more to the left, said Jay Field, a longtime Elon University Physical Plant employee. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said.

“I remember the 60s, and it was more about raging against the establishment, which I think actually colleges and universities have become more toward the establishment,” Field said.


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