Let me begin with two stories. In spring of 2013 I organized a semester-long, undergraduate ﬁlm series at George Washington University titled “Acting Up: Queer Film and Video in the Time of AIDS.” At semester’s end, after participants had watched nine ﬁlms about the AIDS epidemic—among them classic AIDS documentaries, activist videos, and mainstream Hollywood productions—I chose to conclude the series with the AIDS documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here. Silverlake Life documents a year in the lives of Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman, a gay couple living in Los Angeles in the late 1980s who share an HIV diagnosis. At the time I made the selection, I did not realize that Silverlake Life documents one of the most devastating lived experiences of the AIDS epidemic ever ﬁlmed: during the course of taping, Tom, the initial documentarian, becomes gravely ill and dies on camera while lying in bed after a week-long convalescence. Reviewing this scene before our oﬃcial screening, I found myself overwhelmed by intense feelings of anxiety. On the one hand, I felt a deep responsibility to expose my students to the aesthetic and political work of this daring documentary, and on the other, to protect them from witnessing forms of suﬀering that might traumatize them more than illuminate the social history of AIDS. When we convened to discuss the ﬁlm, many students expressed how devastated they were by what they had seen. Rather than shutting down conversation, however, the depth and intensity of their viewing experience galvanized an extraordinary conversation about the ethics of documenting the lives (and deaths) of people with AIDS. What they witnessed expanded the very possibilities of what they could feel about issues of collective concern such as the AIDS epidemic, while also trans-forming their ability to reconsider productive encounters with pain, suffering, and trauma. In my fear of negatively impacting students, I had forgotten both their capacity to respond with generosity and openness to traumatic images as well as my own careful curation of nine previous ﬁlms and the attendant conversations held around them, which had laid a groundwork of shared aﬀective openness to diﬃcult content.
One year later, as a newly minted assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I taught a large lecture course on American fantasy. In the fourth week of class, I screened The Wizard of Oz as part of a unit on the Hollywood musical, and I devoted a lecture to a gay and lesbian interpretation of this classic ﬁlm. I highlighted the movie’s camp aesthetics, its gender play and drag elements, and its derailing of traditional heterosexual romance plots. As a gay man well versed in queer media scholarship, I took it for granted that this was a pleasurable but patently obvious interpretation of a ﬁlm that I assumed most people recognized for its exuberant and visually spectacular gayness. Yet as I spoke, I sensed a visceral tension build in the room. Half the students seemed mesmerized by the possibility of a queer aesthetic underlying the movie, while the other half frowned at me in silent fury, outraged by my daring to desecrate the presumed innocence of a childhood escape. The seething resentment of this latter group was conﬁrmed for me when, weeks later, my teaching assistants disclosed that numerous students had expressed feelings of anger and frustration that my interpretation had “ruined” their pleasure in a beloved ﬁlm of their youth. This circumstance prompted me to confront my students the following week: micro-phone in hand, I strolled the room and asked students to account for their feelings of discomfort. I wanted them to explain why their personal pleasure in The Wizard of Oz hinged on the diminishment of alternative viewing possibilities, including unexpected queer delights in transparently “straight” narratives. Students were clearly jolted out of their complacent belief that no one would hold them accountable for their perspective, or that their view might have political or ethical consequences: yet the resistance of some to being called out was counterbalanced by a dawning consciousness among others about how taken-for-granted their way of viewing and consuming popular fantasy stories could be.
I recount these two pedagogical scenarios because they illuminate a central, yet often uninterrogated, aspect of the contemporary national debates around trigger warnings: namely, the slippage between actual experiences of psychological trauma triggered by violent or disturbing media content (what the very concept of the trigger warning was originally intended to address), and the generalized feeling of discomfort aroused in students when they encounter objects, scenarios, and ideas contrary to their worldview. No doubt, just as these two deﬁnitions of triggering are not identical, the two classroom experiences I recount were not the same: in the former, my students had been prepared to witness and respond to traumatic content through a semester-long engagement with ﬁlms about the AIDS epidemic (and they had discussed these movies in an intimate seminar setting that allowed for a sense of trust between participants); in the latter, students responded negatively not to traumatic course content, but to a line of thought that oﬀended their sensibilities in a large lecture setting where individual discomfort has fewer outlets for public airing. Yet it struck me that what really distinguished the two scenarios was less the speciﬁc forms of triggering or the distinct logistics of each pedagogical environment, but the subsequent reactions that students had to being made uncomfortable: in one setting openness to interrogating their aﬀective responses to the world; in the other, a defensive posture against perceived threats to their point of view. While the results of each teaching experience surprised me, what I had wanted out of my course material was, in a sense, to intentionally trigger my students—not in the traditional understanding of triggering as having a negative psychological impact, but in the sense of jolting their sensory experience of the world by creating the space where unpredictable and unsettling aﬀective responses to course content might provoke our dialogues. Clearly, students in my American fantasy course felt triggered in some amorphous but no less impactful way by my lecture, but they lacked a critical vocabulary or even the inclination to question what it was they were feeling when they recoiled from my ideas. In the wake of these experiences, I wondered how I might make visible the pedagogical strategy of eliciting a range of potentially discomforting aﬀective responses from students and, thus, lay bare the pleasures and insights of such discomfort. I wanted to know: if we wish to change the way our students respond to a chaotic and unpredictable world, how should we teach them?
In this essay, I put forward a pedagogical model I call “aﬀective curation,” that centralizes the value of intentionally eliciting, or “triggering,” uncomfortable aﬀective responses from students in the class-room in order to develop new strategies for retuning, rerouting, or altogether altering students’ sense perceptions of the world. My interest is to ﬁnd productive ways that we, as teachers and scholars, might take students’ feelings more seriously and animate lively and productive discussion about those feelings while also holding students accountable for their emotional responses toward a range of ideas, objects, and realities. … My belief is that the capacity to engage more fully with the vast range of aﬀects available to any given human being is a central aspect of a liberal education that current debates around trigger warnings often obscure, either by centralizing questions of psychological health that bracket feeling states as oﬀ-limits to rational deliberation, or by diminishing the value of emotional responses to course material by suggesting that feelings have no place in the classroom. Against both these lines of thought, I wish to explore what it might mean to infuse the contemporary debate around trigger warnings with that seemingly old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising project of taking feelings seriously, of perceiving one’s aﬀective or gut-level responses to the world as a form of knowledge that can be accessed with unpredictable but potentially ethical and democratic results.