Trigger warnings for mathematics professors


In Arithmetic for Parents: A Book for Grown-Ups About Children’s Mathematics, Ron Aharoni writes

Education researchers use the term “mathematics anxiety.”  There is no history anxiety, or geography anxiety, but there is mathematics anxiety.  Why?

He then provides plausible answers to his question, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.  After many years following developments at a safe distance, I have gradually been getting used to life on the contemporary American campus.   I became aware of trigger warnings more than a year after the New York Times decided that reporting on them was fit to print and months after the AAUP declared them a threat to academic freedom.   An excerpt from the Oberlin guidelines (since withdrawn) mentioned in both those reports explains the rationale for trigger warnings:

A trigger is something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual.  Reactions to triggers can take many different forms; individuals may feel any range of emotion during and after a trigger.  Experiencing a trigger will almost always disrupt a student’s learning and may make some students feel unsafe in your classroom.

Just yesterday a colleague in the philosophy department spoke of students calling out “trigger word!” in his lecture courses.  Why philosophy, I wonder, and not mathematics?  Battle Lake, MN — whose very name is a trigger — is “haunted” by algebra anxiety:

Elementary math teacher Stacy Lundquist has seen the word “algebra” set off anxious thoughts of unwieldy abstractions among her students.

In defending her use of trigger warnings in the New York Times, Kate Manne, assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell, points out that

Those undergoing [panic] attacks may be flooded with anxiety to the point of struggling to draw breath, and feeling disoriented, dizzy and nauseated. Under conditions such as these, it’s impossible to think straight.

The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are). It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.

The mathematician engaged in research normally finds it “impossible to think straight” (and not only when working with higher categories, though that is known to be an aggravating circumstance).  Can the precious but uncommon moments of clarity be attained without the dizziness and disorientation?




2 thoughts on “Trigger warnings for mathematics professors

  1. Jon Awbrey

    Some things we know pave the way to knowing more.
    Some things we know shut the way to knowing more.

    The 1st way leads from doubt to clarity.
    The 2nd way leads from clarity to stupor.


  2. John Sidles

    Speaking only for myself, history anxiety definitely is “a thing”, for reasons that the sociobiologist Ed Wilson articulates:

    “Nowhere do people tolerate attacks on their person, their family, their country — or their creation myth. […] Our leaders, religious, political, and business, mostly accept supernatural explanations of human existence. […] Scientists who might contribute to a more realistic worldview are especially disappointing. Largely yeoman, they are intellectual dwarves content to stay within the narrow specialities for which they were trained and are paid.”


    Yet pleasure is present too, for some people at least, in the anxious attentiveness that heretical creation myths call forth; MWA wonderfully evokes this pleasure in those susceptible to it.

    Another 2016 PROSE winner that calls forth this provocative pleasure is Sterling and Simon Laughlin’s Principles of Neural Design (2015). Surely there are deep levels — as yet largely unexplored — at which MWA and PND survey the same territory. Ouch?



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