Should Teachers Have to Give Students ‘Trigger Warnings’ in College Classes?

2 years ago


After spending the last two years at a small liberal arts school on the East Coast, I have become accustomed to a certain college bubble where words and phrases like “heteronormativity,” “problematic,” and “trigger warning” are as commonplace to the college experience as all-nighters in the library, complaining about dining hall food, and worshipping the queen —Beyoncé, of course.

When I return home and start up a conversation with my father about the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms, it actually comes as a surprise to me that he doesn’t know what one is.

So, with the over-fifty man in mind, I will explain.

A trigger warning is a cautionary note that appears before a text, a play, on classroom syllabi and all over the Internet with the intention of letting readers know beforehand that the material ahead may “trigger” or bring up troubling memories and flashbacks, generally reactions relating to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trigger warnings first became known within the last few years on websites relating to self-harm, various forms of interpersonal violence, and gender-based discrimination, where discussion topics such as rape, sexual assault, and suicide were potentially “triggering” to readers.

Essentially, the “trigger warning” was created to account for people’s traumatic experiences, minimize the pain, and help maintain “safe spaces” — or, rather, safer ones for as many people as possible.

While trigger warnings have become almost ubiquitous in certain online spheres and within particular social circles, within the past two years, college students have begun drafting initiatives to implement these trigger warnings in the classroom setting.

This has been met, however, with quite a bit of backlash from forces outside of college campuses. For example, in a recent Los Angeles Times article entitled the The Peculiar Madness of “Trigger Warnings Jonah Goldberg, a known conservative reporter, calls trigger warnings a “cancer” which he believes has unfortunately begun to plague college campuses.

Although Goldberg does not seem to take any issue with professors on college campuses warning students ahead of time of content that may be “graphic” or “upsetting,” such as particularly violent or disturbing images in a film, he still maintains throughout his article that the current use of trigger warnings has become “ridiculous.”

What he finds so absurd is the fact that people cannot seem to agree upon a clear and precise definition of what a trigger warning is, where it is appropriate and to what topics it extends.

And it’s here that the current debate over trigger warnings now stands.

From the side of college students, activists for social and transformative justice and like-minded individuals, trigger warnings are not ridiculous but actually imperative. For them, trigger warnings seek to ensure maximum safety and comfort; they’ll also reduce situations where PTSD can take form.

The most recent fight in favor of trigger warnings took place at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where students have drafted “A Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings,” a document which a group of students presented before UCSB student government chapter the Associated Students to call for a broader use of trigger warnings.

In the document, the students formally requested that professors include trigger warnings in classroom materials that portray rape, sexual assault, gore, suicide and other traumatizing instances that they believe can “affect a student’s ability to perform academically.”

This resolution revitalized an ongoing debate when it surfaced in early March, although the discussion of trigger warnings first made headlines last year when students at Oberlin College made plans to implement a similar policy. At Oberlin and other colleges across the country, however, the range of potentially triggering topics was extended to include not only depictions of sexual assault and self-harm but also instances of racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and at some schools even accounts of colonialism and domination.

Although the plans at Oberlin ultimately didn’t go into effect, the two initiatives raised brought to attention the discrepancies in terms and usage between young collegiates and the generations above them, as well as between college students themselves.

But this lack of uniformity on the term “trigger warning” raises a few questions. If schools start implementing trigger warnings at every point of potential offense, how will students learn to adapt and cope with the interruptions of life, however unpleasant, as Goldberg may ask?

If the term trigger warnings continues to extend its parameters, how can the it possibly account for a multitude of reactions on a spectrum ranging from casual offenses to symptoms of PTSD?

The fact that these questions remain unanswered is what angers the devil’s advocates and conservatives who believe that the broadening scope of trigger warnings has stripped the phrase of its original intention: to warn people ahead of time of disturbing material related to gender-based violence and self-harm.

Those outside of college campuses — the non-millennials, the reporters, and perhaps more “conservative” individuals — seem to believe that trigger warnings have become overused in media. As such, they think, these warnings inhibit people from experiencing life as it simply is: messy, dangerous, disturbing and wonderful.

It is not an accident or much of a shock, then, that these people are generally the ones on news sites poking fun at trigger warnings, who end up trivializing the situations and circumstances that make people uncomfortable or feel unsafe.

As more and more is written about trigger warnings and their usage moves farther away from the traumas that influence the people’s ability to live safe, happy, and fulfilled lives, the mockery will only continue and not just from conservatives and older generations. Even on my very socially conscious college campus where trigger warnings are typed out onto theatre programs, I have overheard friends joke “Trigger warning: heterosexuals” or “I’m triggered” by daily annoying occurrences.

Despite all of the media coverage, jokes, and late-night conversations with one’s father, what seems to be lost from this hot-topic debate is that which the trigger warning both hopes to warn and simultaneously conceal: the sexual assault, the rape, the instances of self-harm, the hate speech, the bullying, the racism, ableism, classism, homophobia, micro- and macro-aggressions that people encounter on a daily basis.

In attempting to deconstruct the phrase “trigger warning,” what it means, how far it extends and more, the students across the country, the Jonah Goldbergs, the feminist bloggers, and the faculty members and reporters should certainly realize the trap of our language, in which we have spun and wrapped ourselves a difficult web.

Instead of trying to create set definitions or discuss where and when trigger warnings are truly needed, we as participants in a community should strive to create different — and better — spaces where people can engage one another’s understandings and experiences.

And these spaces may very likely be uncomfortable, challenging, and uneasy; for some, these spaces may necessitate a warning too.

In my learning and understanding, I would like to lose the term trigger warning, if only temporarily, and instead engage differently in my classrooms and other spaces. Maybe if we lose the term, we can enter into spaces which encourage listening instead of speaking, asking questions instead of editorializing and bringing one’s life into conversation.

Let us enter a space where a trigger warning enthusiast and an opponent of the idea can sit in the same room and partake in a dialogue, where one person can splay their traumas on the floor while the other listens and helps pick up the pieces.

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