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  • Confession and Catharsis in the U.S. Academy: Trigger Warnings, Coalitions, and Academic Audiences
  • Courtney Bailey (bio)

During the spring semester of 2014, an untenured faculty member at my selective liberal arts college (SLCA) teaches, for the first time, the introductory course to our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program. As the semester progresses, she increasingly hears complaints from students about having to read, watch, and engage with “triggering” material. No longer the “I’m not a feminist but . . .” students of the 1990s and 2000s, many of these young adults come to my college as self-identified feminists primarily informed by online sites, blogs, etc. They are bright, social justice oriented, and savvy about rape culture. Some of them demand that the instructor not only issue trigger warnings (TW) for all course material, but provide alternative readings and viewings for every single piece listed on the syllabus. The instructor comes away from the course perplexed: why do these students in particular balk at tackling systems of privilege and oppression? Shouldn’t they be the ones advocating for including such material throughout the college’s curriculum? Do they have a point worth further consideration?

I am a tenured faculty member in my college’s Department of Communication Arts with strong investments in feminism, queer studies, critical race studies, rhetoric, media studies, and critical/cultural studies. I have strong ties to our recently redesigned Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program, and I serve on the program’s interdisciplinary Steering Committee. After hearing our colleague’s story, the Steering Committee created several email chains [End Page 83] exploring the various facets of the TW debate; we devoted part of our 2014 summer retreat to the topic; we collected and circulated blog posts and news media articles; and we drafted several memos to the administration offering recommendations for diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus. I tell this story because it illustrates in particularly vivid ways both the promises and the pitfalls of the TW debates currently circulating throughout academia.

As seen in the mobilization of the WGSS Steering Committee and its allies, many social justice oriented initiatives on my campus embrace coalitional politics in two striking ways: 1) by regularly bringing together students, faculty, staff, administrators, and representatives from the local community, and 2) by fostering connections among groups devoted to a range of marginalized identities. These initiatives frequently position themselves against the reactionary landscape of contemporary U.S. dominant culture. As articulated in my SLAC’s statement of community, they strive to “challenge and confront” the bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination that emerges from the campus climate. Hyper-aware of the continued existence of sexism, racism, and homophobia as systems of oppression and privilege, they consistently advocate both structural and cultural changes and therefore represent critical worldmaking practices.

Despite this potential, I have unfortunately witnessed a widening gap between critically minded folks and those who would appear to be their natural allies: other social justice oriented students, administrators, staff, faculty colleagues, and diversity officers. This gap occurs at the very moment my college triumphantly embraces diversity and inclusion as core values. I argue that this gap arises, at least in part, precisely because of the college’s embrace of diversity and inclusion as core values—or more precisely, its embrace of a neoliberal vision of diversity and inclusion. A pervasive belief system in contemporary U.S. culture, neoliberalism favors self-governance or “governing at a distance” over direct forms of state intervention like the ever-dwindling social safety net.1 Assuming that all citizens start on a level playing field, it emphasizes each citizen’s individual responsibility for avoiding risk, maximizing their own potential, and making the right choices necessary for personal happiness.2

My article offers the concept of the “confessional-therapeutic” as an especially productive way to tease out the neoliberal stakes underlying the TW debate.3 I take inspiration from the work of scholars like Lisa Duggan, whose pivotal 2004 book The Twilight of Equality traces neoliberalism’s cultural and economic ascendance over the last few decades and its consequences for contemporary progressive social movements.4 In a blog post on trigger warnings, Duggan characterizes “the general...


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