In a recent post, Dr Gabriel Moshenska of UCL’s course on 20th/21st-century conflict archaeology – ‘Archaeologies of Modern Conflict’ – has been derided in a Daily Mail article: Warning to archaeology pupils that ‘bones can be scary’ sparks fresh fears over cosseted generation of students.
Notwithstanding my jealousy that I have yet to acquire a similar badge of honour to Dr Moshenska’s in being criticised by a right-wing tabloid. Equally notwithstanding that this is a perverse case to focus on given that Dr Moshenska’s course focuses on a particular cocktail of potentially disturbing mortuary archaeology with forensic dimensions . The course in question is presumably focusing (seemingly from the lecture titles in only 1-2 lectures out of 10) on very recent, mass, potentially fleshed/semi-fleshed, conflict death (among other themes in conflict archaeology). These points aside, such a course will undoubtedly attract students internationally (given UCL’s high profile and reputation) from modern conflict zones and those with military experience. In this context, the Daily Mail think they’ve picked a soft target but actually they have made themselves (as usual) look dumb and I would suggest they have missed the point.
Still, the Daily Mail article does touch on (indirectly) a legitimate subject that merits further discussion. Namely, for courses involving mortuary topics more broadly, when is it appropriate/ethical to pre-warn students of potentially disturbing content within a module or particular class? Should lecturers litter each lecture or seminar with trigger warnings every time they discuss or visualise death? Which categories of subject/image about death are disturbing and which are less so?
Let’s start off by stating clearly that accusing Dr Moshenska of ‘health and safety gone mad’ for being professional enough to warn students of particularly disturbing content is ridiculous. Whether at the start of the course, or at the start of particular lectures, a verbal warning of content as part of an Introduction, is an integral and appropriate way to engage and prepare students. The point is not that the content has disturbed anyone, and Dr Moshenska states clearly that no student has complained or had difficulty, but as a precaution, and as intellectual preparation for students, this is a fair and appropriate measure. His course handbook clearly states that a ‘Contents Warning’:
At times during this course we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class, you may always do so without penalty. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually. If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of the course.
In other words, for those of you who haven’t been at a UK university, it is never the case that students get marks, let alone penalties for course attendance (I’m not sure about UCL, I only speak about universities I have worked), and I don’t know what institution would penalise anyone for simply stepping out to the corridor for fresh air, to answer an emergency phone call, or to visit the lavatory. Dr Moshenska is simply assuring students (including international exchange students who might be unfamiliar with procedures) in no uncertain terms that there is no penalty or pressure to endure personally traumatising issues. More importantly, he then invites discussions as part of the course, since any disturbing or traumatising dimension will be appropriate within the course. This second point is key, since he is turning the ‘uncanny’ into a subject of centrality to his module: a subject about which Dr Moshenska has published in peer-reviewed academic contexts.
What do I do? I’ve been teaching courses on ‘death and burial’ in one fashion or another for 17 years in four different UK HE institutions. I don’t teach human osteology, but I do teach all manner of topics from human sacrifice and conflict archaeology, early medieval cemeteries, later medieval burials and tombs, and theories and methods in mortuary archaeology from prehistoric times to the present. And yes, I’ve taught students suffering from dying and just-dead relatives, friends and partners, and those who have served, fought and/or suffered in conflict zones.
I litter my lectures with discussions and images of archaeological finds and mortuary contexts that might, out of context, disturb anyone. Long before I knew they were called ‘trigger warnings’, I have made sure that I always explain and justify, prepare and contextualise the content of my lectures and seminars on mortuary archaeology. I never jump in and gratuitously use images or concepts, and if I do so, or indeed deploy dark humour, I do so not to shock or offend, but to challenge (intellectually) the student group and I always try to explain the contents of the image/issue’s use.
I don’t pre-warn on most occasions regarding images or issues, but it is important to make the point that university staff are always receptive to students who face problems or difficulties, and their circumstances might have changed and they might not be able to have predicted their response to course content. The Daily Mail won’t understand that there are a number of layers to preparing students for course content in mortuary archaeology at most universities, including:
- Course title and synopsis can guide students clearly about potential content;
- Module handbook with week-by-week lecture topics given students the detail, weeks and months in advance (here is the equivalent to Dr Moshenska’s ‘Content Warning’, although I confess I’ve never included such a warning);
- Assignment questions will also alert students to the issues and questions they are facing: these will be discussed repeatedly in class;
- Students usually have a range of essay questions and other assignments set, so they are never forced to engage with a topic that is particularly disturbing to them and can explore their own interests within the parameters of the module;
- Teaching staff will be available in person in office hours to talk through any issues;
- Teaching staff will be on email to respond to any concerns or queries about content that is upsetting students;
- Each student with have a Personal Academic Tutor to discuss any issues with course content or delivery;
- Students get to fill out module evaluations and report via their set reps to Staff-Student Liaison Committees, if they have a worry;
- At my University, students are not penalised for failing to attend, or leaving, a single class; attendance issues are unlikely to be affected unless the entire course becomes a problem for the student;
- In individual classes, students are free to arrive late or leave early if a personal emergency or the nature of content is a problem: no-one is ever trapped in a lecture theatre against their will;
- If the student has a particular personal circumstance that has arisen between selecting the option and starting it, they might have the option to transfer to another course.
All of this will be lost on the Dail Mail and, perhaps, many of their article’s readers.
Of course, mortuary archaeology involves exploring ‘alien’ cultures as well as our own, and, for some, it brings us face-to-face with uncomfortable images, practices and ideas. It reflects and explores times and places with very different ideas and practices surrounding death to our own, broadly secular Western medical understandings of mortality. Conversely, archaeologies of death and commemoration are also concerned with problematising and exploring the emergence of our own weird and wonderful deathways. Teaching this should extract student’s from cosy cliches and banal euphemisms. It should be intellectually challenging; exposing students to the diversity, complexity, similarities and differences in how communities and societies in the human past and present deal with mortality, dispose of the dead and commemorate their passing and legacy. Students should encounter disturbing and troubling topics, transforming and affecting their thinking and perspectives as a result. Hopefully, as well as engaging students with how archaeology investigates human societies through their mortuary remains, it will make them reflect on their own beliefs and experiences regarding death.
Should it traumatise and upset? Of course not, and I think that it doesn’t because of the range of strategies and practices that are set in place to ensure students can manage their own experience and respond to the content.
The problem for a lecturer is that almost any dimension of archaeology, not just grisly, fleshy, violent, mass, child, disaster and conflict deaths, can trigger emotions and recollections of personal experience. A particularly distant, fragmented piece of human bone, burial or monument, might stimulate an emotional or psychological response from a student or students out of all proportion to that anticipated by a lecturer. Much of this is beyond the lecturer’s control and (I would argue) cannot be regarded as her/his responsibility.
Still, a good lecturer does have responsibilities to be ethical and sensitive. They should be aware and responsive to the student’s engagement with topics, and how they might be personally affected by the topics addressed. I’ve had to talk through issues about students who are carers for terminally ill husbands, students whose children, siblings, parents or grandparents have died, as well as students who face violence and life-threatening illnesses of their own. Being aware of such dimensions, and talking through concerns with them is not ‘cosseting’, it is being a professional and it is showing effective teaching practice. Whether conceptualised as ‘trigger warnings’ or not, mortuary archaeology is disturbing and will be disturbing, but it shouldn’t be contrived to upset and traumatise.
Courses in mortuary archaeology must tackle human mortality head-on to be effective in equipping students with the theories, methods and practices to investigate past deathways. However, any good teacher can do this without stuffing fresh corpses down student’s throats or picking at the scabs of students’ own personal tragedies.
All this aside, if the Daily Mail are taking shots at Dr Moshenska, I guess he must be doing it right.
NB. See also this response by Professor Tony Pollard of the University of Glasgow, who comes from the perspective of conflict history and archaeology rather than mortuary archaeology more broadly.