There’s been a spate of articles this spring stoking a controversy about “trigger warnings” in college classes. I say stoking a controversy because I have yet to see much evidence that there is a real conflict around this, rather than some experimentation at a few campuses plus the looming interest of the chattering class, most of which enjoys both reminiscing about college and opining about the state of the youth today. For the sake of adding a bit of data to the conversation, I thought I’d share the strategy for content warnings I used in teaching this semester. (I’ll note that like all instructional practice, these are strategies I will surely tweak and revise in future semesters, and I welcome comments to that end.)
Why trigger warnings?
Trigger warnings, at least as I know them, come out of feminist and social justice blogging, where it’s become standard to add a brief alert to readings at the beginning of a post that deals with especially violent or graphic sexual content. So for example, if I wrote a piece about Jerry Sandusky, the post might begin: “Trigger Warning: child sexual abuse.” The idea is to alert readers who have undergone trauma of their own that they are about to encounter information that might set off a particularly strong reaction.
Some instructors at colleges have taken up similar practices, and according to the reporting I linked above, it seems that student groups at a few campuses have been pushing to encourage (or perhaps require?) all instructors to consider doing so.
Much of the negative reaction to trigger warnings seems to fall into two camps, fear about censorship and concern about coddling students. I sympathize with these concerns, which I think may be rooted in our shared experience of an increasingly corporatized university system where intellectual freedom may be under a slow assault. Yes, there are many ways in which universities have come to see young people as customers to be attracted and appeased, not as students to be pushed and challenged. But I encourage other instructors to at least momentarily set aside political concerns and consider the issue from a pedagogical and ethical point of view. I think that something like a trigger warning can be a useful tool for creating a classroom environment that feels safe enough for students to be able to tackle difficult subjects.
My position is influenced by having spent some years in the feminist blogosphere audience, and my reading of trigger warnings has always been that they are simply warnings so that readers know what they’re about to get into. Perhaps someone who knows that reading about sexual assault will set of a strong emotional reaction will put off reading that story on their lunch break at work, and instead pick it up again at home. Someone else may not care at all, and can click through to read right away. Posts on difficult subjects have not disappeared from feminist blogs since the advent of trigger warnings, and a skim through comments sections on some such pieces will often show readers who were viscerally reminded of their own experiences.
From an instructor’s point of view, I consider that students may be doing their homework at home–or in downtime at a workplace, in a public area like a library or cafeteria, side by side with friends or teammates in a group study session, or any number of other environments. They might be planning to go to work, or sleep, or a high-stakes exam after studying. If the reading I assigned might prompt a student to be overcome by a memory of being assaulted, to be taken with rage or sadness (whether from personal experience or not) at reading in depth about genocide, then would it be such a bad thing for the student to know that in advance and be able to plan their reading schedule accordingly?
Note that I said absolutely nothing about cutting uncomfortable readings out of my syllabus, despite that the media framing of this story sets up an opposition between assigning provocative readings and using trigger warnings.
“Safe spaces and comfort zones”: one set of practices
Basically, I see content warnings as part of building an overall classroom environment that is conducive to students feeling both supported and challenged. On the first day of class this semester, I pointed out the following section in my syllabus, which fell under the heading Student Responsibilities:
This course covers a broad range of material, including topics that may be sexually explicit, politically controversial, or simply strange enough to make some students uncomfortable. You are not expected to agree with every perspective presented in class (indeed, I don’t agree with every author on this syllabus!). You are, however, expected to read carefully and with an open mind. Disagreement with course materials, fellow students, and/or your instructor is welcome as long as it is thoughtful, grounded in evidence, and shared in a constructive way.
This being an intro-level Gender and Women’s Studies course, we spent the first two weeks reading and discussing the evidence that gender and sex are socially constructed, which then set up a brief lecture at the end of week two about praxis. I pointed out that if it’s true that sex and gender are constructed, if that one’s biology and gender identity often have a complex relationship, then it actually becomes quite difficult to generalize about “women” or “men” as a category, as some students had been doing in their comments in class (“Ugh, we all know what a pain getting your period is!”)
I asked the class to help construct what I called a “safe space” in the classroom by trying to use language thoughtfully, using inclusive language as much as possible, avoiding making assumptions about what experiences their classmates shared, or working from stereotypes instead of evidence. I then explained that I wanted to distinguish between a “safe space,” where everyone feels welcome in class and able to share their ideas, and a “comfort zone,” where people hold on to their pre-existing ideas and never challenge themselves. I want this class to be a safe space, I said, but I want you to get out of your comfort zones. Being uncomfortable can sometimes be an important part of learning new ideas and new ways of thinking.
Several students commented that they liked this idea, aiming for safety as opposed to comfort in the classroom. I referred back to it occasionally throughout the semester when we covered topics that were a bit uncomfortable for some, whether that was due to graphic content or perspectives that they really disagreed with. For the most part it seemed to help get the class in the right mindset. By the end of the semester many of them had remarked at different moments that a certain reading or assignment had gotten them thinking about a new idea, or to take more seriously a point of view they didn’t agree with. I’ll count that a success!
Using trigger warnings
I don’t actually use the phrase “trigger warning” in class–it strikes me as problematic because it assumes a certain kind of PTSD reaction which readers may or may not have in response to particular content. But I do agree with the general idea of letting students know up front when they’re about to engage with topics that may be especially troubling, like rape, sexual assault, or graphic descriptions of violence. So in addition to the general statement about content in my syllabus, I posted statements like these along with readings that dealt with those topics:
“All three of this week’s readings deal in various ways with race/nationality, gender, and forms of violence, including sexual violence.” [For book chapters about mass rape during the Partition of India and the treatment of women IRA in prisons.]
“This reading includes graphic descriptions of sexual assault.” [For an article about (lack of) prosecution of sexual assault on college campuses.]
My goal was simply to alert students to certain kinds of content, not to predict what reactions they might have. For the first set of readings that dealt extensively with rape and violence, I also posted a generic offer:
Friday and in week 10 the readings will deal with sexual violence against women. This is an important topic but can be a difficult one. Please contact me if you don’t feel you’ll be able to discuss these subjects in class so that we can work out an alternate assignment.
No student took me up on this. We’ll see if anyone does in the future.
Notice again that nowhere did I remove difficult subjects from the syllabus, or even imply that certain readings were optional. My goal instead was to convey three things to students:
1) That I care about their general well-being and want them to be in an environment in which they feel safe exploring difficult subjects.
2) That it’s important for them to explore difficult subjects.
3) That I respect them enough to let them have some control over when and how to approach those assignments.
All in all, I suppose I could sum up my approach this way. I agree that we as instructors have some responsibility to challenge or “provoke” our students. But if we’re going to do that, we bear some responsibility for the reactions we provoke. At the very least, we need to make sure our students’ discomfort has a purpose, and we have to set them up to be able to learn from those provocative materials.