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Note: I am French, we do not really have the concept of "trigger warnings", except during the national TV news where there would be sometimes a warning about a violent scene.

In a video interview (in French) for the newspaper Le Figaro, Éric Naulleau mentioned that in American universities, the word field is a "trigger word" (the lecturer must warn about it). So the expression Magnetic fields" would be subject to a "trigger warning" because field → cotton fields → slavery.

The transcript of the video (from 1:56) is below. This is a casual discussion in the street with a journalist, so I removed some irrelevant side tracks/opinions to just keep the factual description.

le prof doit avertir (...) et le mot "field", "champs" fait partie des avertissements que l'on doit faire parce que vous dites "champ de connaissances” par exemple, mais "champs” c'est aussi "champs de coton" et donc c'est en rapport avec l'esclavage. Donc il y a des étudiants, des élèves qui se disent offensés ou choqués quand ils entendent "fields" parce que ça a un rapport avec l'esclavage. (...) Donc les "champs magnétiques", on ne pourrait pas les enseigner dans certains campus.

This is my translation

the teacher has to warn [that they will use some trigger words] and the word "field" is part of the warnings words because you say "field of knowledge" for instance, but "field" is also "cotton field" and so this is related to slavery. So there are students, pupils that claim to be offended or shocked when they hear "fields" because this is related to slavery (...) So "magnetic fields" could not be taught on some campuses

Is this actually the case? (either globally, or on some campuses)

Note about notability: Le Figaro is one of the top three newspapers in France, oriented "right" (but this is "French right", that would be more or less "Democrats center" in the US). Éric Naulleau is a writer, journalist, ... - someone we would at least have heard of in France.

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    Not all US universities recognize the notion of "trigger warnings", and the ones that do may not have the same list of trigger warnings. Perhaps Le Figaro was reporting about one particular incident.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 17, 2023 at 19:06
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    @GEdgar thanks for the comment - even one documented case would be fine (this particular word seems so generic that I cannot belive this could be true, actually)
    – WoJ
    Jun 17, 2023 at 19:10
  • What I have seen reported, more than once: some academic unit promulgates a list of "triggers" or "words to avoid", but then (after ridicule) withdraws it.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 17, 2023 at 19:13
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    What exactly is the claim here? Is this suggesting that there's some sort of "trigger word" rulebook that all US colleges are following? Or is it more along the lines of suggesting that two or three of the 1.5 million faculty in the US did something like this independently? Or that some students (from an even larger population) are triggered by the word?
    – Laurel
    Jun 17, 2023 at 19:42
  • Please flag any further comments that share people's political opinions. We do not care what your opinion of trigger words, this trigger word or your political opinions in general.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 16, 2023 at 11:49

2 Answers 2

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Here is something that I think has a decent chance of being what Naulleau was referring to, even though the details differ from the description. It isn't a matter of field being treated as a "trigger word" that lecturers must warn about: rather, it is a memo that was sent when a department changed its name from "Office of Field Education" to "Office of Practicum Education". The use of the word "field" in the context of expressions like "magnetic fields" doesn't seem to be what the memo is about (I suspect that magnetic fields do not have a large place in the curriculum of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work).

The memo suggests the use of "field" in the context of phrases like "field education" could be harmful or exclusionary, but does not suggest warning for the word's presence. Rather, it suggests using revised terminology ("practicum education"). This is not directly related to the topic of trigger warnings; it is more similar to arguments about replacing technical terminology like "master-slave" or "whitelist/blacklist" with alternatives that are supposed to be more inclusive.

"A USC office removes 'field' from its curriculum, citing possible racist connotations" (NPR, updated January 14, 2023, by Giulia Heyward)

An office within the University of Southern California's School of Social Work says it is removing the term "field" from its curriculum because it may have racist connotations related to slavery.

The newly renamed Office of Practicum Education, formerly known as the Office of Field Education, within the university's Suzanne-Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is making the change in order to be more inclusive, according to a memo sent out to faculty and students this week and obtained by NPR.

"This change supports anti-racist social work practice by replacing language that could be considered anti-Black or anti-immigrant in favor of inclusive language," the memo reads. "Language can be powerful, and phrases such as 'going into the field' or 'field work' may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign."

The article links to a tweet by Houman David Hemmati that gave the text of the letter as follows:

enter image description here

As the article notes, this memo received some public attention, which is why I think it's plausible that the idea of lecturers giving trigger warnings for the word "field" is a garbled reference to this. It seems some other social work programs have also made similar terminological changes; the following blog post mentions Cal State Northridge and Smith College: Knowledge is under attack, and “fieldwork” isn’t the problem (by Philip N. Cohen, May 12, 2023, Family Inequality).

Of course, there's a chance that rather than inaccurately describing this memo, Naulleau is accurately describing some other incident that I'm not aware of. As the comments have mentioned, there is no such thing as a standard list of trigger warnings that all US universities follow; this means that it would definitely be inaccurate to say without qualification that giving trigger warnings for the word "field" is something that US universities do, but it's also difficult to be 100% certain that it has never happened at all in any US university.

For a bit of background on the concept of trigger warnings in higher education, here is another NPR article: "Half Of Professors In NPR Ed Survey Have Used 'Trigger Warnings'" (September 7, 2016, All Things Considered, by Anya Kamenetz). It notes that of the college faculty respondents that reported giving warnings about content in class material, the majority did so as a matter of personal judgement, not at student request or to comply with a policy, and "only 1.8 percent said, as of last fall, that their institutions had any official policies about their use." So keep in mind that professors giving trigger warnings is not only unstandardized and far from universal, but also often not a matter of official university policy. Based on the information in the article, as well as my own experience, I highly doubt that any US university has an official policy that would prevent professors or lecturers from using the phrase "magnetic fields" in instruction, or require them to warn their students about it.

Certainly, no such policy is in place at USC. After the memo became a topic of public discussion, the interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, Elizabeth A. Graddy, stated in an email to The Washington Times that

The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words. We will continue to use words – including ‘field’ – that accurately encompass and describe our work and research

("USC to keep using word ‘field’ despite departmental ban over slavery ‘connotations’", Valerie Richardson - The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2023)

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    I would also note that trigger warnings are very rarely used in hard science courses. A Google search for physics trigger warning turns up one example of a physics professor adding a fake trigger warning as some kind of protest against the woke, and a lot outrage media articles who make uncited claims and then get angry about them. I can't find a real example of a physics trigger warning for anything, much less 'field'.
    – CJR
    Jun 18, 2023 at 12:05
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    Thank you for the very complete answer. One thing to keep in mind is that in Europe we have a strongly centralized education system (at least compared to the US), thus my initial wide scope ("US universities"). Since education is much more localized in the US, it is indeed too wide of a scope, something I modified in my question.
    – WoJ
    Jun 18, 2023 at 13:33
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    @WoJ You may be conflating how things work in France with how things work in Europe in general. In many European countries, higher education isn’t any more centralized, than it is in the US.
    – TimRias
    Jun 18, 2023 at 22:35
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    @WoJ Beyond TimRias's point, the US has about 75% of the population of the EU, and the US states each have populations higher than Malta and less than that of Spain. US universities are organized by a state level, and for judging centralization, it's best to compare a US state to an EU nation, for something of comparable size.
    – prosfilaes
    Jun 18, 2023 at 23:29
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    I kind of am raising my eyebrows at the Cal State Northridge statement. I wonder whether a single student had objected to the use of the world "field," unlike objections to "blacklist" and "master-slave electronics," which certainly had some degree of popular opposition. For that matter, they chose to reference Joyce McMillan on social work as a liberating rather than oppressive force, rather than quoting anyone on "field" or "fieldwork" being bad terminology. Had any scholar of racism even recommended doing away with the term "field" or "fieldwork" before that?
    – Obie 2.0
    Jun 19, 2023 at 4:40
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It appears to be a specific, not limited to universities, ban on phrases such as 'work in the field', 'field work', etc.

It's not a ban on use of 'magnetic fields', vector fields, and so on.

The State of Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also banned the term 'field workers' in January 2023.

enter image description here

I can find no evidence that inclusive language guides have identified 'field work' as a phrase that is harmful to the descendants of slaves, before around the beginning of 2023.

The word 'field' has also been identified as harmful for a different reason. Oxfam says that it is offensive to refer to a visit to an Oxfam project as a 'field visit', when they would not refer to a visit to New York as a 'field visit'. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/10546/621487/4/gd-inclusive-language-guide-130323-en.pdf They say this is 'colonial'. So instead of saying a 'field visit to Botswana', we must now say a 'visit to Botswana'. This appears to be obfuscatory, as the word 'field' gave information, that it was a visit to a site where Oxfam is doing work, whereas if we just refer to 'visit', it's no longer clear if we were attending an international conference, an active project, or whatever.

The claim that the phrase 'field work' triggers the descendants of slaves who worked in fields does not seem to be that widely held. USC is noted for a previous extreme response to normal phrases, such as when they suspended a professor of business communication for saying 那个, which is pronounced similarly to the word 'nigger'. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/09/fight-against-words-sound-like-are-not-slurs/616404/ It is likely therefore that bans on referring to 'field work' are not that common in US academia.

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  • This doesn't seem to be an attempt to answer the question at the top of the page. Parts of it are responding directly to a previous answer, and parts are just editorial opinion rather than sticking to the facts. The two parts that are closest to being relevant are the references to the Michigan State and Oxfam guidance, but these are only thinly connected to the question, which is a claim specifically about universities.
    – IMSoP
    Jul 16, 2023 at 13:03
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    which parts are you saying are editorial opinion? The last paragraph? From here: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=57734 Quite relevant and credible in this context. The first sentence answers the question quite clearly, that it's: a) about phrases similar to 'field work' specifically, not 'magnetic fields' and similar b) not confined to universities
    – thelawnet
    Jul 16, 2023 at 13:10
  • "This appears to be obfuscatory..." - pure opinion. "It appears to be quite recent" - why is this relevant? "... does not seem to be widely held" - not backed up with any evidence. "USC is noted for..." - not really answering the question, and its relevance is actually undermined by your own finding of other examples. Those examples are in fact the only thing that this answer gives on top of the existing answer by paradisi, which already gives clearer citations for the USC example, and its context.
    – IMSoP
    Jul 16, 2023 at 19:59
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    ' This appears to be obfuscatory..." - pure opinion' If you remove an adjective that held meaning, that is obfuscatory. That's not 'pure opinion', it's fact. "why is this relevant? " It's relevant to understanding the context beyond the French blowhard, which is whether 'field work' is widely considered offensive. "not backed up with any evidence.' What kind of evidence could you provide that a particular position is NOT held by others? Clearly we can only prove who DOES "Those examples are in fact the only thing that this answer gives on top of the existing answer" Ok
    – thelawnet
    Jul 17, 2023 at 9:42

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