“Trigger Warning: A Novel” by Robert Klose; Open Books, 2023; 210 pages, paperback, $17.95.

On the face of it, the situation in Robert Klose’s new novel, “Trigger Warning” seems pretty far-fetched.

Professor Tymoteusz Tarnaszewski, known throughout the story as “T,” is approaching the end of a long career teaching sciences at tiny Skowhegan College in Maine. Overall T thinks of himself as having had a pretty successful, if largely uneventful professional life. He’s gotten along with his colleagues as well as anyone could expect. Suddenly, in midsemester, he is accused of “insubordination” and summarily removed from his tenured position.

If you haven’t been to college for a few decades, this might seem pretty unlikely.

T has also gotten along well with his students, whom he overall really likes. Several passages are devoted to his careful consideration of what it takes to teach well, and primary among the prerequisites are to know your stuff and to authentically love your students. In T’s experience, the vast majority of students are fundamentally good people. A good teacher can reach most of them in one way or another if he or she just approaches them with fairness, compassion, a sense of humor and the practical understanding that everybody is different. Of course, there are a few who can’t or won’t be reached. It’s frustrating, but it’s life. As the story opens in the fall semester, T encounters one of these students.

So far, all this jibes with reality.

Soon T is called into the office of the new dean on the pretext that the dean is meeting with all faculty members. But he has a whole other agenda for T. Plus he is an in-your-face bully. T is taken completely by surprise when the dean announces a student has complained about him.


This is still, unfortunately, not unrealistic.

T has to figure out on his own who the student is, which those of us from the old schools might find unreasonable, if not far-fetched. Wouldn’t the accused at least be told who his accuser is?

This student turns out to be pretty weird, even for weird students. He refuses to speak when addressed. When T tries to approach him outside class to talk, the student literally runs away. And he gets up to some other pretty strange things, like breaking into T’s car and locking himself in. And worse. T has to open a clandestine inquiry of his own to learn that the student’s complaint sprang from his rather flabbergasting misinterpretation of a passing statement of scientific fact made by T.

T’s transgression, seized upon by the college administrators, was that he did not provide a “trigger warning” about this scientific fact in his syllabus. The central conflict of the story is T’s fight to keep his job over this minor, and highly unlikely, misunderstanding. The incident ripples into T’s relationships with his colleagues, and ends up creating some strange bedfellows.

This all begins to seem like a stretch. Could a longtime professor in good standing really be summarily removed from his job for failing to provide a trigger warning about something so routine no one could possibly predict it to be offensive?

But the fact is, on the basis of my own knowledge and experience of how things have come to work in colleges the past few decades, I felt compelled to ask Robert Klose how much of this actually happened. He told me the basic situation was fictional.


On the other hand, which of the following are fictions from Robert Klose’s novel and which actually happened: A junior instructor is relieved of his teaching duties without forewarning, investigation, hearing or appeal during an ambush meeting. A department administrator leads a demonstrably dishonest student to believe he had no obligation to cite the sources of copied sentences if the professor’s syllabus did not specifically direct students to cite sources. A student tries to poison a professor’s cat with chemicals stolen from the college chemistry lab. A student insulted by the idea that Thoreau’s thought shaped modern environmental philosophy, answers an exam question by speculating that Jesus was the pre-eminent American environmental philosopher; the instructor, fearing administrative blowback, gives the student an A-minus for the course. An adjunct instructor warns a fellow adjunct that the department head told her he considers the fellow adjunct “deadwood”; later it comes to light that the department head was at the same time arranging to relieve the first instructor of her cherished creative writing classes.

To separate fiction from fact, read the book. But here’s a trigger warning about “Trigger Warning”: Its portrayal of life in academia stretches reality, but not as much as you might think. Professor T’s situation is fictional, hyperbolical, satirical and good-natured, often wry, in its stiff narrative voice appropriate to the character. But the basis for T’s bewilderment is all too real. The implications for higher education are pretty unsettling.

Robert Klose is retired from teaching at the University of Maine at Augusta. He is the author of the thematically related novel “Life on Mars” and “Adopting Anton,”  among other books. “Trigger Warning” is available through online and local book sellers.

Klose will be speaking at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, at the University of Maine bookstore in Orono.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections the first Friday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at dwilde.offradar@gmail.com.

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