Warning: this English course may be hazardous to your emotional health

Who knew mythology could come with a warning?

At Columbia University, a student bravely unveiled her disappointment with the content in her Literature Humanities class. She felt unsafe when her class started covering 250 myths through poetry in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”

“Metamorphoses” heavily captures moments of sexual assault – a woman by her sister’s husband, a mother and a nymph by Zeus, and a woman by a prince, resulting in her suicide.

Myths are full of taboo subjects. In fact, incest, rape, and zoophilia pop up frequently in mythology.

Anton Losenko's painting of Thetis, a sea nymph, and Zeus
Anton Losenko’s painting of Thetis, a sea nymph, and Zeus.

The almighty Zeus married his sister Hera, and their parents Cronus and Rhea were also married siblings. Poseidon sexually assaulted a virgin Medusa – yes, that Medusa – in the temple of Athena. Medusa received a “well earned” punishment of Athena turning her hair into snakes. Zeus seduced Leda, the daughter of Thestius, in the form of a swan and raped her.

Who cares? It’s just a myth, right? They’re not real.

The student who stepped forward against Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” happened to be a victim of sexual assault, and to her, the feelings these myths evoked were very real.

To show support for their peer, Kai Johnson, Tanika Lynch, Elizabeth Monroe, and Tracey Wang wrote an opinion piece for the Columbia Spectator explaining why they believed teachers should put trigger warnings on their material and should take workshops to help them handle these sensitive topics.

A painting of the Rape of Proserpina (a character in Metamorphoses) by Hans von Aachen
A painting of the Rape of Proserpina (a character in Metamorphoses) by Hans von Aachen.

The three students wrote in their piece, “Students need to feel safe in the classroom, and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities.”

The same argument on whether or not students should be censored to strong material also applies to the traditional fairy tales Disney usually made their money off.

In the original version of “Cinderella” by Wilhelm Grimm and Jacob Grimm, the stepmother cut off one of her biological daughter’s heel and the other’s toe. The step-sisters would later have their eyes pecked out by doves at Cinderella’s wedding. The 1950’s Disney version made about $88 million.

In the original version of “Sleeping Beauty” by Giambattista Basile, a visiting king has intercourse with the unconscious princess, and she awakes to find she’d given birth to twins. The king’s real wife then tries to have her cook the twins. The 1959 Disney version made at least $36 million.

In the original version of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, the little mermaid didn’t win her prince – she could either kill the prince to get her tail back or turn into seafoam. The 1989 Disney version made at least $100 million.

Graphic by Nhi Le
Graphic by Nhi Le

So, should a class’s content be given a trigger warning?

In the SAS World Literature class, students study myths and monsters by reading texts like “Beowulf” and John Gardner’s “Grendel,” which is a retelling of “Beowulf” from the monster’s perspective.

Some SAS students said they don’t think teachers need to warn students. Seniors Meenu Selvakesari and Kristi Tan said that students are more mature considering the stuff that comes up on the news.

“It’s a matter of how much responsibility an 18 or 19 year old [should] take for their own education,” said Marsh. “When I’m teaching younger students and there is self-harm or suicidal thoughts or violence in the story, I do warn them. I do think it’s [a teacher’s] responsibility to prepare students with context for the literature they’re about to read.”

In the article from the “Columbia Spectator,” the students proposed that the Center for the Core Curriculum:

  • provide “suggestions for how to support triggered students” to the faculty
  • allow students to “communicate their concerns [anonymously]” when uncomfortable
  • create a program where teachers can learn how “to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities”

Those against having trigger warnings on material argue that the suggested solutions might “infringe upon the instructor’s academic freedom.” By removing material, students aren’t exposed to the realities of the world and will only focus on the good, making them unprepared to face the bad.


Author: Nhi Le

Nhi Le – aka Nikki – joins The Eye for her third and final year as a senior. She enjoys comic books, crime novels, and an excessive use of verbal irony.

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