Tag Archives: college teaching

“The Dawn Watch – Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff, published 2017


This book surprised me. I expected it to be “heavy”. The scholarly notes run to 43 pages.

It was totally the opposite – brisk and entertaining. I had no problem at all reading 320 pages, even allowing for the fact that (woe is me) I haven’t actually read much of Conrad. When I dipped into Heart of Darkness and saw a movie version of Lord Jim years ago, I responded more to “atmosphere” than to plot. Jasansoff discusses only a few of Conrad’s many works, and she provides enough comprehensive information that my scanty exposure didn’t matter. I’m now planning to read Nostromo, Conrad’s only novel set in the western hemisphere.

To digest Conrad’s books and short stories, written roughly from 1886 to 1924, you have to ponder various “-isms”, like

  • racism,
  • imperialism,
  • colonialism and
  • militarism

Charges of racism have led some scholars to agitate against using Conrad in the classroom. I lean towards the argument that Conrad helps drag racism out into the open, for conversation and analysis, to everyone’s benefit. It’s good to know the history of the attitudes you want to change.

Conrad’s life was adventurous. Raised in landlocked, Russian-occupied Poland, he decided on a career in the merchant marine and left home at age 16 to pursue that goal. He sailed to Australia, many Asian ports and eventually to Africa, when Congo was first being explored and exploited by Europeans. Some critics consider Heart of Darkness, about Congo, to be his greatest work. He eventually settled in England and wrote in English.

Conrad was a “global thinker” well before that concept emerged. The college where I work has established “global awareness” as one of its four guiding principles. So… I will suggest The Dawn Watch as a common reading. One book is selected each year with the intention that

  • incoming students will read it before arriving on campus and
  • faculty will be encouraged (but not required) to incorporate it into a class in some fashion, especially in courses oriented towards Freshmen.

The author must be accessible for a guest lecture (in other words, not dead). Anyone can nominate a book. I’ve pitched several, with no luck so far. The Dawn Watch is probably too long and (cringe) “too academic”. But I would love to have Maya Jasanoff on campus for a visit!

“Trigger warning” – what does this mean?

A few months ago, I encountered a new expression, “trigger warning”. It came up in an academic setting (which is where I spend I good deal of my time) and pertained to a course or possibly to a lecture, discussion or textbook in a course. A “trigger warning” tells the student that a planned activity will include “sensitive” material, material that may be upsetting. It’s like the messages on web sites or TV programs – “contains graphic material, viewer discretion advised”.

If memory serves me correctly, I think the “trigger” in question was pregnancy loss, miscarriage. Yes, there could be, in any classroom, a woman who has suffered this misfortune and finds discussion of it to be very painful.

So what does this mean in the classroom? Is the student at liberty to skip the lecture or reading? Should the student warn the teacher? “Hey, I may fall apart if we discuss this topic.” Certainly communication between the student and teacher would be a good idea. To what extent must the teacher accommodate?

An obvious example of a trigger would be war scenarios. There are veterans in our classrooms, some undoubtedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. War related topics are likely to cause them great anxiety. Worst case, a student might suffer a flash back or uncontrollable physical symptoms like hyperventilation. A teacher planning a course on, say, the American Civil War, needs to think ahead about this.

I encountered a trigger situation in college many years ago, going to see the play “Sargeant Musgrave’s Dance” with a man recently returned from combat in Vietnam. In the course of the drama, an actor pointed a Gatling gun at the audience. Afterwards, my friend offered the opinion that it had been incredibly stupid to do that, because someone might have flipped out, lost it or even pulled out a weapon.

But colleges offer many courses that can be distressing – courses on genocide, the holocaust, cancer, death and dying, slavery… Can a teacher determine in advance who is going to be “sensitive” to what? Should books be labeled for possible “trigger” content?

Education can’t be conducted in a way that makes NO ONE uncomfortable. Students need to discuss disquieting topics like race and violence. This proves to me that what we ask of classroom teachers is a great deal more complicated that appears at first glance.

What about triggers embedded in fiction? Stay tuned for my next post. And please post a comment to let me know what you think about “triggers” and “trigger warnings”!