Trending in 2020: To Teach or Not to Teach “Triggering” Texts

I confess. I still teach Sherman Alexie’s books. I value the quality of his work and the power it has on adolescent readers too much to give it up. That declaration has created confusion, consternation, and even condemnation by some fellow teachers who heretofore thought I was at least passably “woke.” How can I be a feminist and teach the works of such a serial abuser?  You probably still watch Woody Allen movies, they sneer.

Similarly, despite the reasonable reconsideration of the dominance of Shakespeare in literature curricula, I am not swayed by the argument that his plays shouldn’t be taught because they are “triggering.” From my perspective, both the rise of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement have reshaped and perhaps diminished the landscape of the politics of teaching literature.

Given the powerful rise of #MeToo movement, it has become, for some, a politically incorrect choice to teach the much-maligned Sherman Alexie. Or Junot Díaz. Or David Foster Wallace. Or Garrison Keillor. Even the Holocaust survivor and author of Night, Eli Wiesel, has been shunned by the movement. These developments make left-leaning scholars like me strange bedfellows with New Critics as we may again need to evaluate the relative value of literature as it exists apart from the author. Can we separate the art from the artist, the writer from his book? I made a career out of eschewing the New Critical insistence on removing considerations of the author from the text (Appleman, 2014). Along with generations of progressive literacy instructors, I focused on the reader’s responses or other ways of viewing texts. I viewed biographical criticism as one of several legitimate theoretical lenses to read and interpret literature. I even ridiculed those radical New Critics who claim that the author’s life and times had nothing to do with the relative literary merit of his work. Now I want to keep reading and teaching The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and ignore everything I learn about Sherman Alexie. Am I a hypocrite?

In addition to the #MeToo movement, the call for trigger warnings has also prompted the removal of texts from the classroom, the curriculum, even the library. The call for trigger warnings, pre-reading cautions that literature might trigger previous trauma, complex memories, or unhealed wounds, clearly has its merits. After all, we teachers have our own version of the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. Yet it is almost impossible to read literature, that unflinching mirror of the human condition, without touching on the kinds of issues that many students ask to be shielded from: death, violence, heartache, childhood and adolescent trauma, illness, and sexuality.  Examples abound of the chilling effects of trigger warnings on the teaching of literature. Teachers at every grade level are reconsidering the place of Shakespeare in the literature curriculum as they juggle complaints about violence and sex. A prospective English major who asked for assurance that nothing she would read would upset her was thoughtfully counseled to consider another major. A women’s studies professor who included The Bluest Eye on her syllabus was confronted by her students even before her class began. We won’t read this book under any conditions, they told her. It has incest in it, and that is triggering.       

Can literature be read without triggering, or, in fact, is part of the role of literature to trigger, that is, to wake and engage our complex set of emotions?  While it is, of course, imperative to consider our students’ well-being and to teach sensitively, I shudder at the thought that this strain of politics will banish some texts into silence.

Rather than banish those texts, perhaps we could adopt Gerry Graff’s (1993) instructions to teach the controversy. Christina Torres, despite her misgivings, still teaches Shakespeare, but encourages her students to trouble the text:

Teachers must be upfront about the problematic aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. We must call out the misogyny in The Taming of the Shrew, the racism in Othello, and the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice…. Students deserve to interrogate, disagree with, and even dislike Shakespeare’s plays. (Torres, 2019)

In a thoughtful essay that describes his preservice students’ resistance to Sherman Alexie, Jeff Spanke ruminates on the cost of not including problematic texts:

In opting not to engage with the text, our class became a text unto itself: a narrative not too dissimilar to the one we read for that night. Competing histories, conflicting values, minority voices, power and privilege and hope and loss, all coalescing for a precious moment in the social construct of school. Yes, through their frustration, my students reminded me that I can always point to other books to discuss. But that night’s class also reminded me that our frustration might be the point of discussing books. (2018, p. 107)

As I have argued elsewhere (Appleman, 2014), literature can help our students learn to read and resist ideology, a purpose that has never been more important. Literature provides a site of inquiry like no other for exploring the human condition. As part of that exploration, we can help students learn to read both texts and worlds with a nuanced and critical eye. We can teach them to discover how power and privilege are inscribed all around us so they can become the enlightened witnesses that bell hooks (1994) calls for and that we so desperately need in these particularly troubled times.

Yes, I am a feminist, and yes, I am outraged by what I have learned about Sherman Alexie’s actions toward women, but I am not going to stop teaching his texts. I want to have the conversation, not the silence.


Appleman, D. (2014). Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. London: Routledge.

Graff, G. (1993). Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts can Revitalize American Education. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

Spanke, J.  Magnificent things and terrible men: Teaching Sherman Alexie in the age of #MeToo. English Education, October 2018.

Torres, C.  Why I’m rethinking teaching Shakespeare in my English classroom. Education Week Teacher, October 2019.

Deborah Appleman is the author of Words No Bars Can Hold: Literacy Learning in Prison (W. W. Norton, 2019). She lives in Minnesota and is the Hollis L. Caswell Professor of Educational Studies and director of the summer writing program at Carleton College. Since 2007, Deborah has taught language, literature, and creative writing courses at a high-security prison for men in the upper Midwest.

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