Trigger warnings and being responsible for your students

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. Continue reading