Works such as Hamlet by Shakespeare will come with trigger warnings for students at the Open University
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To be or not to be forewarned: Open University slaps trigger warnings for all but ONE of its texts studied on the English Literature course

  • The Open University has put ‘trigger’ warnings for texts studied on a course
  • All but one text in ‘English Literature from Shakespeare to Austen’ has a warning 
  • Classics such as Hamlet, Gulliver’s Travels and Persuasion may cause ‘distress’ 

To be or not to be forewarned is the question troubling dons teaching the classics of English literature to today’s snowflake students.

The Open University, which has the greatest number of students of all UK institutions, has now issued ‘trigger’ warnings for all but one of the texts studied in its ‘English Literature from Shakespeare to Austen’ module.

Undergraduates are informed that reading William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion may trigger feelings of ‘distress’ and ‘trauma’.

Critics branded the warnings the ‘height of stupidity’ and claimed that students could be deterred from discovering some of the world’s literary treasures.

Only Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice avoids the Open University’s trigger-warning list, obtained by The Mail on Sunday after a Freedom of Information request.

Works such as Hamlet by Shakespeare will come with trigger warnings for students at the Open University

Works such as Hamlet by Shakespeare will come with trigger warnings for students at the Open University

Students of the Open University's ¿English Literature from Shakespeare to Austen¿ module will receive warnings of 'trauma' and 'distress' with almost every text they study

Students of the Open University’s ‘English Literature from Shakespeare to Austen’ module will receive warnings of ‘trauma’ and ‘distress’ with almost every text they study

It states: ‘Apart from Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, the other set texts contain some material (including depictions of violence, assault or self-harm) that some students might find distressing.’ Other works carrying warnings include the Shakespeare plays Julius Caesar and As You Like It, the Arabian Nights collection of stories and plays by French writer Moliere.

A briefing note for tutors states: ‘It is impossible to know how or why some students react negatively to potentially distressing content, as material that might be innocuous to some students might trigger traumatic memories in others, and vice versa.’

Only Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice will not come with a trigger warning

Only Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will not come with a trigger warning

Fearful course students are also directed to a university-produced podcast ‘dealing with distressing content’, which features an imaginary scholar quizzing a senior tutor about potentially problematic works of literature. The university has three categories of warnings covering more than 30 topics likely to provoke ‘unwelcome emotions, memories and mental health issues’. These include suicide, self-harm, child abuse, racism, colonialism, divorce and common phobias such as needles, blood and spiders.

Established in 1969 to help those without formal qualifications gain degrees, the Open University may be responding to its growing appeal among younger students, with more than one in three undergraduates now aged under 25.

But critics condemned the move. Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, said: ‘Aside from the stupidity of using trigger warnings, they directly contradict the academic journey involved in reading literature. Reading literature should be a voyage of discovery where a student responds to its content in a personal way.

‘Trigger warnings short-circuit this voyage of intellectual discovery. It prompts students how to react rather than allow students to work out their own response.’

An Open University spokesman said: ‘We want our students to enjoy studying these classic novels, which is why we teach them. Most students won’t have any concerns.

‘A small number, however, may have suffered from trauma in the past and may benefit from a prior warning. With those students in mind, we think it is sensible to flag some course content and work with them so they, too, can have the opportunity to access these classic texts.’

Biographer and literary critic Andrew Lycett suggested the warnings could backfire on the university. ‘I can think of few things more likely to encourage undergraduates to read books than a trigger warning,’ he said.


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