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Content Warnings ‘Trigger’ Controversy

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Aberdeen English Professor responds to claims of censorship

By Josh Pizzuto-Pomaco

photo courtesy of Tim Baker

A recent Times investigation uncovered that ten UK Universities, including Aberdeen, have placed content warnings on over 1,000 texts and removed others entirely from their reading lists due to ‘challenging’ material. Central to The Times critique is Professor Timothy Baker, a popular lecturer in the School of Language, Literature, Music, and Visual Culture at the University. The Times criticised Baker’s decision to provide students with alternate texts for three ‘challenging’ novels in his fourth year course Vulnerable Bodies, Precarious Lives.

Baker told The Gaudie that one of the texts mentioned in The Times article, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, contains depictions of ‘graphic sexual violence,’ suicide, and incest. As such, Baker offered his students an alternate text, Milkman, by Anna Burns, which focusses on similar themes but was less explicit. Baker was clear that students were allowed to read either book, both of which were discussed in class seminars. In fact, some students chose to read both.

Baker commented, ‘What I’m trying to get students to do is to have a broader context… to me, it is actually the opposite of censorship, it's opening out and giving students the opportunity to make more connections than they might otherwise.’

Baker said that the response from the University community and online had been overwhelmingly supportive. ‘If you look at the social media response… I think the larger community actually has no problem with content warnings… we are actually used to the idea that all of us go into every piece of media we encounter with a set of experiences… and with a set of moods.’

'We are actually used to the idea that all of us go into every piece of media we encounter with a set of experiences...'

The Gaudie reached out to McBride for a response to Baker placing a warning on her novel. She commented: ‘University lecturers treating young adults as though they are children, and encouraging them to think of themselves as children, seems to me to do intellectual disservice to all concerned while also displaying a depressingly unimaginative disregard for the transformative power of literature. Besides which, I highly doubt anyone finds A Girl is a Half-formed Thing as upsetting to read as I found it to write and I’m doing just fine.’

'I highly doubt anyone finds A Girl is a Half-formed Thing as upsetting to read as I found it to write and I’m doing just fine.'

In response, Professor Baker said: ‘McBride’s novel absolutely demonstrates the transformative power of literature, and it is for that reason that it is a central component of my course... Offering students a choice between two wonderful texts that deal, very differently, with some similar themes is a way not of treating students as children, but rather of enriching their analysis while empowering them, as is appropriate for final-year students, to exercise their own analytic and personal discretion.’

A UoA spokesperson told The Gaudie that no texts had been removed from courses at the University, but did confirm that ‘alternative texts are offered in a small number of optional courses where the primary texts have explicit representations of sexual violence which can be deeply upsetting to some students depending on their own personal experiences. Students... as critically mature adults... are empowered to make their own decision about which text to read. This approach enables us to explore controversial topics that could otherwise be difficult to address, in an inclusive and supportive environment.’

AUSA Student President Vanessa Mabonso Nzolo, added: ‘The lecturers’ decision to include trigger warnings at the start of class is an act of care, trust, and transparency, implying the acknowledgement that the acts/attitudes discussed are not accepted in the space where they will be discussed.’ She suggested students could then mentally prepare for classes. ‘Trigger-warnings reflect a belief of students’ capacity to engage in difficult conversations,’ she continued, ‘[and] mirrors the political objections in the UK towards critical engagement with white supremacy and colonial histories.’

A spokesperson for the University commented, ‘We have not had complaints about [content warnings]... On the contrary, students have expressed their admiration for our approach. Our content warnings reflect the fact that every student is different, and do not seek to tell them what they should or should not find challenging.’


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