In September 2016, I composed a blog-post here on Archaeodeath in response to the Daily Mail attacking Dr Gabriel Moshenska at UCL regarding his use of a written content warning (here intermittently also called ‘trigger warnings’ (TW) on his undergraduate module ‘Archaeologies of Modern Conflict’.

I fully defended Dr Moshenska in his conduct and stance, pointing out the logic of a content/trigger warning given the content and audience of his teaching. I then went on to discuss the issue itself: when is it appropriate/ethical to pre-warn students of potentially disturbing content within modules or particular classes?

I made clear that Dr Moshenska’s contents warning was there to back up the broader pedagogic and ethical stance of his module. I reviewed the broader context in which these content warnings operate and the many visual, verbal and written ways in which sensitive issues are framed in good practice in HE teaching, including the warning and cautious discussion and visualisation of human remains from archaeological contexts. I did this through outlining my own experiences and identifying the many stages and fashions in which students are prepared for mortuary subjects. I identified these framings as eleven-fold, even if students are not given a specific written content warning for my classes.

I conceded that students must be challenged and engaged with complex issues surrounding disease, dying, death and the dead through mortuary archaeology, but not in a fashion that should sit outside of a professional and ethical duty of care to the student. We cannot anticipate all eventualities, and content warnings themselves must be appropriate and measured so as to not be ‘triggering’. Yet content/trigger warnings sit within a host of strategies and practices to, as far as possible, prepare and guide students in relation to potentially upsetting subjects. Rather than ‘cosseting’, this is showing professional and effective teaching practice.

Professor Tony Pollard wrote his response to the 2016 trigger warning stories in The Conversation, making a similar set of points but specifically for conflict archaeology where (for examples) recent mass graves recovered in former conflict zones are deeply traumatic to excavate, analyse and discuss in class.

Let me be clear: in the intervening time I haven’t seen any sustained or specific discussion of this issue, let alone any ‘pressure’ or ‘demands’ or ‘agenda’ upon me as a University educator to adopt any specific stance on content warnings.

My approach has been to uphold a nuanced and responsive stance across my archaeology modules at undergraduate and taught postgraduate levels which touch on a wide range of potentially sensitive issues from suicide and infant death, to warfare, genocide, murder and torture, human sacrifice, judicial execution and death by natural disasters from plagues to famines. I focus upon verbal discussions rather than written statements, and words and texts as much as warnings regarding images per se.

In part, I concede this is a strategy to protect myself against being the sole target of a hit job from the right-wing press as much as a dislike or objection to written content warnings per se.

Most crucially of all, I haven’t seen any reaction against content/trigger warnings, or evidence that they insult or patronise, infantilise or upset students. Given all else going on in UK HE, content warnings are really not a main priority for attention for either staff or students.

The 2022 Trigger Warning Outrage

Following weeks of Freedom of Information requests circulating UK HEIs, it was clear journalists were preparing another story on ‘trigger warnings’ and related matters. The timing in relation to the current industrial actions within the HE sector and the wider economy, and the many troubles facing PM Boris Johnson’s shambolic administration, are worthy of note.

Through conversations across the sector, I was aware that many were nervous that they might be targeted with derision and/or abuse in the media. For some colleagues who teach incredibly sensitive subjects and feel any external attacks might directly damage their careers, this has caused serious concern and anxiety.

On 7 June the story broke in the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Daily Star and Daily Express, with claims that archaeologists were being ‘woke’ for warning students of images and videos relating to human remains on a range of undergraduate teaching modules. The specific assertion that this constituted the ‘infantilisation’ of students was made by one Professor Alan Sked and backed up by a rentamouth Tory backbench MP. This was tied to accusations levelled at another discipline reported earlier in the year at my own institution.

A synthesis of these various stories appeared on LBC and I will share a link to this story alone.

Some mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists responded, but many did not. Most organisations stayed quiet too.

Given my 2016 statements, I felt obliged to speak out. My response was a Twitter thread linking back to my 2016 post and set out my work on the ethics and politics of mortuary archaeology and the need to safeguard students and afford respect to mortuary remains.

I also composed a series of TikTok videos explaining the issue, mocking the faux-outrage and identifying that this is nothing to do with what is happening in UK HE at all. Content/trigger warnings, I argued, were part of an appropriate range of methods to frame and contextualise educational strategies regarding past and contemporary mortuary practice.

Ironically, the first video, which contained a screen-shot from the Daily Telegraph’s tweets on this story, was covered by a ‘Sensitive content’ warning: a trigger warning about trigger warnings being discussed in which when human remains were visualised! Oh the irony!

@archaeodeath

Reply to @beevesoftime Higher education academic teaching and research must be ethical and respectful, it’s about the dead as well as the students

♬ original sound – Archaeodeath

I decided to hold off on a blog-post in case it somehow fuelled further outrage against those ‘named and shamed’ in the media – Dr Colleen Morgan. Now Dr Morgan has published her own response, I want to now share mine. Read Dr Morgan’s response here.

Moshenska and Morgan focus on their specific experiences and the politics behind this right-wing desire to be ‘triggered’ by trigger warnings. What is lacking in their perspectives, and that of Pollard which addresses conflict archaeology specifically (or indeed my 2016 post) is any coherent stance or statement regarding the value of trigger warnings in the specific context of discussing mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology as well as related other historical subdisciplines.

This is indeed a further point: why are individual academics facing these attacks without support? It is clear that universities and organisations will not support individual colleagues targeted by attacks in the press and from other academics, including those based on defamation and misinformation.

Therefore, mortuary archaeologists and bioarchaeologists as well as those specialising in related fields such as conflict archaeology, forensic archaeology and anthropology, museum curators, death studies and genocide studies scholars etc, are best working together to create a robust stance regarding content/trigger warnings to support each other against such contrived attacks both from inside and outside the academy: because it is clear they will come around again in future as a cheap and easy way to deride higher education academics and contrive culture-war headlines.

Therefore, it seems inappropriate to stay quiet and instead to expound on my TikToks and present notes towards a stance on content warnings in bioarchaeology and mortuary archaeology when it seems local and national organisations will not speak out on this topic.

Before I do, check out the videos at last year’s DigiDeath conference where this topic was repeatedly raised. Watch the videos here.

@archaeodeath

Reply to @jupiterbaal Woke archaeology? #woke #archaeology

♬ original sound – Archaeodeath

Notes on Content Warnings

Trigger/content warnings have been a growing trend in US academia and increasingly adopted in the UK within select subjects and areas across disciplines during the last decade. Here are key notes towards how the discipline of archaeology in UK HE, and related transdisciplinary fields of teaching and research, might respond to public and press interest in this topic;

  • We refute the characterisation of content/trigger warnings in UK HE as an infantilisation of students as part of an imagined and fictitious ‘woke agenda’;
  • We fully defend the right and choices of individual academics who make their own informed pedagogic decisions regarding if, how and where to include content/trigger warnings in their teaching;
  • To date, there is no agreed institutional or cross-institutional ‘policy’ or ‘agenda’ to promote and impose content/trigger warnings in UK HEIs;
  • Content/trigger warnings are a relatively low priority issue compared with the serious issues facing UK HE including the discipline of archaeology, affecting staff and students alike, including:
    • real-term pay cuts for staff;
    • the casualisation of staff;
    • high workloads for staff;
    • the cuts to HE staff pensions
    • pay inequality for staff, especially on grounds of gender, ethnicity and disability;
    • the challenges faced by students regarding tuition fees and other financial and welfare issues
    • the mental health crisis affecting students before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic
    • concerted attacks against academic teaching and research seeking to erode and diminish the role of experts in the academy and in public life, including those regarding the human past and issues relating to human rights and human mortality.
  • Psychological research with trauma victims in the US has recently suggested content/trigger warnings might not be effective and could in some cases cause harm in themselves. Yet these researches have not been applied in pedagogic settings and not in the context of mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology;
  • Content/trigger warnings have benefit not only in preparing and supporting students within mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeological modules and programmes, but also in modules where such subjects and materials might be less obvious from titles and summaries (as in the instances at UCL in 2016 and York in 2022 which have sparked outrage and derision);
  • Content/trigger warnings are not applied as blanket statements, but are tailored and responsive to specific issues faced in particular modules, relating less to the images and discussion of human remains per se, but to disease and violence and other sensitive themes including infant death, disasters and conflict zones.
  • Content/trigger warnings cannot be evaluated in isolation, but can take a variety of forms – written and verbal – alongside a host of other strategies to support and frame sensitive topics for HE students;
  • Content/trigger warnings in mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology might not only relate to the discussion and representation of human remains, but also to material cultures, monuments, buildings and landscapes linked to ‘dark’ archaeology and heritage, as well as visual, written and oral testimonies of past events;
  • Content/trigger warnings have become one element of our strategies to provide duty of care to students who might be facing mental health issues and specific bereavements and traumas;
  • Content/trigger warnings also establish a baseline for teaching in global archaeology and are appropriate for use in a multicultural society and in the context of an international student body, in which different faiths and cultural traditions intermingle and interact. This has special pertinence in showing due respect and dignity to both past human lives and stakeholders, including Indigenous descendant communities;
  • Beyond our established duty of care to students, content/trigger warnings impart the expectation of professional and ethical approach to not only handling and visualising human remains and mortuary contexts, but also discussing a range of topics pertaining to human mortality;
  • Content/trigger warnings may justifiably apply to the full range of pedagogic practices from field schools and field trips to labs, workshops, seminars and lectures;
  • Content/trigger warnings remain contentious and debated in academia and merit open discussions and debate.
  • Content/trigger warnings require coherent and sustained research regarding the scale and character of their current uses, potential benefits, and possible limitations or harmful effects.

I’m quite sure there are further points we might add, but is this a helpful start? I look forward to views.