Professor discusses dealing with sensitive material in classroom


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Photo by Yingjie Hu |

Carlos Ulises Decena, associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies, shares ideas for his book “Circuits of the Sacred: Preliminary Thoughts on Eros, Spirit and Pedagogy” at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building. 


A large question for educators in gender studies and race is whether to talk about “trigger warning” issues like race, religion and gender because some students might have painful life experiences surrounding them and the classroom might become a place of debate and growth by encouraging discourse on these topics.

Jasbir Puar, associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers, said professors cannot talk about subjects like sex, race, power and gender in a classroom without actually examining how those dynamics play out in the environment.

“Questions about power and identity and authority in relationship to the classroom can’t be taken for granted,” she said.

The event, which took place yesterday in the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building on Douglass campus, was the first in this year’s Women’s and Gender Studies Graduate Program’s “Convivial Conversations Series.”

The conversation dealt with what it means to have intense content in a course and how to responsibly conduct a classroom according to student reactions toward sensitive material. 

Katherine Gray, a graduate from Smith College who earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and is now a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers, discussed the evolvement of her thesis paper titled, “Streaming, Media Intimacy, and Trauma in the Queer Classroom.”

“As the contemporary use of trigger warnings moves offline from digital queer spaces into university classrooms, institutional debates around ethnicity have taken on two recognizable things,” Gray said. “This includes queer disputes and misunderstanding and the necessity among undergraduate students for care in the context for corporate university systems.”

Difficult topics that do not reinforce a student’s existing world perspective are necessary for learning, she said.

Gray spoke of the complications regarding whether to include trigger warnings in academic settings. She said not all requests for trigger warnings come from students who have had painful and unfortunate life experiences. Some do not want to discuss these issues because they are not accepting of different perspectives on topics like race, religion and gender.

 She also spoke about whether to completely remove or edit this material from the classroom setting or if the academic setting is the place for these issues to be discussed.

Gray understands she is a stranger to the students she teaches and, therefore, must take the responsibility to handle all controversial topics with care.

The department needs to be asking its undergraduate students to politicize their comfort and discomfort, she said.

Conversely, Carlos Ulises Decena, an associate professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies, presented ideas for his third book in his paper, “Circuits of the Sacred: Preliminary Thoughts on Eros, Spirit and Pedagogy.”

Decena said there are multiple layers to the discomfort that needs to be politicized. Because he realized there might be aspects of his students’ lives he does not understand, Decena said he talks to them about their limits.

He said some students are willing to take risks and some are not.

“It is in all these uncomfortable movements that the notion of education as something more than the provision of commoditized knowledge lives,” Decena said. “I came into this business to transform and be transformed.”

The moment students are challenged to step outside of their comfort zones by being pushed in the classroom, Decena said, is when the outcomes become unpredictable.

Decena and Gray are curious to know how to respond correctly to those who request trigger warnings in a university setting.

The debate embodies the knowledge of understanding how to be careful with a student’s emotions and personal beliefs and also to embrace the idea that a classroom is a space to challenge the self and intellectually grow.

“Perhaps [by] managing to grasp a bit better how pushing at my students and myself to know differently we might get a glimpse of those other worlds that we can activate to connect us to our history,” Decena said.  


Natasha Tripathi

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