In my English classes at a community college in Sonoma County, California, I’ve been teaching the podcast S-town, off and on, since its release seven years ago. Students are overwhelmingly enthralled with the twisting plot, which begins as a murder mystery, evolves into a treasure hunt, and then meanders into examining the life and mind of John B. McLemore, a brilliant and complicated horologist (that is, a person who studies clocks).
Narrated by the unflappable Brian Reed, the podcast is a great vehicle for examining the line between art and exploitation and the debilitating grip of untreated mental illness, among other topics.
The last time I taught S-town, a student lamented that I didn’t give a trigger or content warning before they listened to the final episode, in which John engages in severe self-harm. (To ensure they felt comfortable with what was ahead, I did give them a trigger warning, but it was before we started the podcast as a whole.)
Through comments on Canvas, she told me, “I swear to you I nearly puked” while listening to the episode. She was a bright and inquisitive student. I valued that she felt comfortable enough to be honest with me, as I work hard to build rapport and trust with my students.
I empathized with her reaction, and I told her so, but I also explained that I wasn’t dismayed by her nausea. In this time of desensitization and apathy (one of John B’s major gripes), I’m actually glad she could let art move her so viscerally. I felt the same way when I read parts of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” for the first time. To be clear: I do not want my students to suffer needlessly, but nor do I want them to fear discomfort or expect other people to take responsibility for their feelings.
This is one of the reasons why Cornell University administrators recently rejected a student assembly resolution that would require faculty to provide trigger warnings for potentially upsetting or offensive material. In rejecting the motion, the school’s president and provost wrote that such a requirement would “have a chilling effect on faculty, who would naturally fear censure lest they bring a discussion spontaneously into new and challenging territory, or fail to accurately anticipate students’ reaction to a topic or idea.”
Of course, this is nothing new: Trigger warnings have been the subject of widespread debate for years now as educators across the country wrestle with whether and how to prepare students for what they are about to read, hear, see, or experience.
The Cornell student resolution said potentially triggering topics included materials discussing “sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, racial violence, transphobic violence, homophobic harassment, etc.” But these topics are very often part of literature classes, as we seek to think critically about all aspects of the human experience.
As such, I actually do give trigger warnings, usually both verbally and in writing before the start of a unit. I do this despite the fact that studies have shown such warnings to be ineffective and possibly counterproductive. Students are used to these well-meaning signifiers of care, and I want my students to feel taken care of, especially as they come of age in a sometimes terrifying world in which their bodies, livelihoods, and environments are under attack. As Roxane Gay points out in her essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” “Few are willing to consider the possibility that trigger warnings might be ineffective, impractical and necessary for creating safe spaces all at once.”
Students are used to these well-meaning signifiers of care.
Another of the tenets of the rejected Cornell resolution was that students be allowed to opt out of the potentially upsetting material. The president and provost, however, wrote, “Learning to engage with difficult and challenging ideas is a core part of a university education.” It’s hard to disagree with that.
I take seriously my role in creating a safe space in which discomfort is valued as an invitation to deep engagement rather than something to be eschewed or feared. I do this in part by assigning challenging, provocative texts that demand a mature audience. In my experience, when my college students feel heard and seen as burgeoning adults, they are more likely to meet me with measured responses.
“Trigger warnings also, when used in excess, start to feel like censorship,” Gay writes. “They suggest that there are experiences or perspectives too inappropriate, too explicit, too bare to be voiced publicly.” An English class, or any class, may not be the place for a student to work through their trauma, of course. But it can be a place where they see that they are not alone in their experiences, whether that be mirrored through literature, discussions with their peers, or an imperfect podcast with all-too-human elements.
S-town gives my students an opportunity to lean into understanding (rather than summarily pigeonholing and dismissing) someone who sees the world differently. By coming to terms with John B’s conflicting, multitudinous self — at once generous, sensitive, repressed, angry, benevolent, and, sometimes, casually cruel — they can learn to embrace nuance over fundamentalism, which is beneficial in all public discussions.
“I have coaxed many infirm clocks back to mellifluous life,” John B writes in his suicide note. “I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks and pines even when no wind was present. I’ve lived on this blue orb now for about 17,600 days, and … I know that if I died tonight my life has been inestimably better than most of my compatriots. Additionally, my absence makes room and leaves some resources for others who deserve no less than I have enjoyed.”
Despite all the ugliness that led to this moment in the podcast, I think these beautiful words are worth considering — even as they may evoke discomfort, with or without warning.
Jess D. Taylor has written for Bon Appetit, Creative Nonfiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Eater SF, Little Patuxent Review, and several other publications. For 18 years, she has taught English at both the high school and college level in Sonoma County, California, where she also edits Made Local magazine and raises her two daughters.