Trigger Warnings

There’s been a fair amount of discussion of trigger warnings recently (well, for months now, but especially over the last few weeks) in the media. As the academic year begins, and syllabi are on our minds, the debate is unlikely to go away. My own view is that this entire conversation has been poorly (perhaps, not accidentally) framed. We would do well to avoid false dichotomies that undermine the interests of both purported parties to the debate. That is, the division on this issue appears to be largely between professors and students. It’s the case of Academic Freedom, Intellectual Tradition, and Good Sense, et. al. vs. Entitled, Sensitive, and Zealous Student Activists Who Need to Toughen Up — except, I don’t think it really is.

The AAUP’s report on trigger warnings raises a number of concerns regarding trigger warnings. Among them, concerns of conflict with academic freedom insofar as faculty may be pressured or required to include trigger warnings on their syllabi against their own pedagogical judgement, concerns that students will be encouraged to lodge complaints if a course covers material that they find offensive, concerns that faculty will be held responsible for student trauma, concerns that trigger warnings serve to stifle discussion, and so on. It is interesting that trigger warnings elicit such a plethora of worries and spark intense disagreement when the practice of advising discretion or offering notice of content is more widespread. Lindy West suggests that “trigger warning” might be operating something like a dogwhistle now:

Back in early July, comedian Jimmy Fallon tripped on a rug in his kitchen, caught his wedding ring on the counter as he fell, and suffered a gruesome injury called a ‘ring avulsion’– basically, a medical term for ripping your finger off. Fallon spent 10 days in intensive care and came close to losing the digit, which, unfortunately, most ring avulsion sufferers do. Explaining his massive white bandage when he returned to his late-night show weeks later, Fallon warned: ‘If you Google it, it’s graphic. So don’t Google it’ . . . Odd that the anti-free-speech brigade isn’t up in arms about announcements such as Fallon’s – surely he, too, is “coddling” his audience, withholding valuable ‘exposure therapy’ for avulsion victims and infringing on Google’s free expression. It’s almost as though, coded as feminine and largely associated with rape victims, the antipathy toward trigger warnings is about something else entirely.

Even if West is right, not all of the dissent on trigger warnings is reducible to bias.  I think the most pressing concerns, though, are not in fact concerns about trigger warnings themselves, nor are they fundamentally concerns with student requests for them. They are, rather, at root concerns borne out of the corporatization of the university. Where administrators view students as customers and respond to conflict on campus by way of risk-assessment both faculty and students are worse off; but this isn’t students’ fault and it doesn’t entail that students have no place in discussions about curricula and pedagogy. In fact, this self-same administrative strategy  has greatly contributed to the traumas associated with sexual misconduct amongst students, one of the most salient phenomena requests for trigger warnings are a response to.

As we grapple with administrative creep — with this risk-averse financially-minded way of living together as an educational community increasingly being woven into the fabric of university life — I think it would be a mistake for faculty and students to forget that the sharpest division in the trigger warning debate is an artifice of someone else’s making. Students are (rightfully) frustrated that public relations, athletic titles, and protecting the university brand so often come before student safety.  Likewise, faculty are (rightfully) frustrated  with administrative overreach into their classrooms, their research, and the very structure of faculty governance. When we consider the background dynamics of the trigger warning debate, it seems to me that there is more in these frustrations to unite students and faculty than there is to divide them. Without the fear of administrative creep, disagreement regarding best pedagogical practices would surely remain, but what issue is free from disagreement in higher education? It’s in the context of the neoliberal, corporatized, university that controversy encourages censorship (self-censorship, or otherwise) and that trauma can be exacerbated in unique and challenging ways.

As Aaron Hanlon explains, trigger warnings themselves are meant to encourage greater engagement with a broader range of material rather than discourage it.

I use trigger warnings in the classroom as a way of preparing students who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder while also easing the entire class into a discussion of the material. The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

Trigger warnings are not the end of controversial material in the classroom; they are a new beginning. A way for faculty to reach out to students, who might otherwise struggle, as partners in an intellectual journey into risky territory. They may well have their pitfalls, but perhaps some of the surrounding frustration has been misdirected.

7 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings

  1. Just wanted to chirp in (it’s been a while!) and say that I was really glad to read this post, so thank you. I’ve been pretty worried/dismayed about the way the conversation about trigger warnings has proceeded this last while, and I think the points made here and by West are very important. I’ve been something of an outside observer in this debacle–I don’t really have a horse in the fight–but it’s seemed pretty clear to me that it’s proceeded under fairly widespread misunderstanding, and some of the shifts in the discourse have looked pretty deliberate. And those observations have seemed pretty absent, overall. The fact that others have noticed it too is a welcome realization.

  2. I am not sure how I feel about this. Advance warning would be polite, and I would put it on my syllabus, but everything could be a trigger.

    For some people it is violence, others it is rape, for others it is incest. Yesterday I was showing a video on cannibalism. I am concerned that every time I introduce a topic I would have to give warning.

    Should I just put a large warning stamp on the top of the whole thing saying that this class might be disturbing if you are a person?

  3. tarabound, here’s one suggestion that actually isn’t very far off from that:

    I think this basic strategy — a general statement on the syllabus, giving an example in class (e.g., parental bereavement) so that students understand what you mean, and then letting the students look through the syllabus on their own time in more detail so they can determine what readings or lectures they might need extra preparation for — is good.

  4. Thank you. Something like that might work really well. I will see how it goes over next term. I already have a warning on there, telling the class that the topics will be controversial and that they are expected to be polite when disagreeing with me or their classmates.

  5. noetika, tarabound: That seems right to me. Another thing that’s perhaps worth mentioning in this context, even if it’s kind of obvious: the day we go through the syllabus is a good time to warn students about the kind of material that will crop up some days, so that they have a sense of what to expect and when. When you get to the week(s) on torture, for example, you can warn them that some of the accounts are graphic and horrific, or that you’ll be watching Taxi to the Dark Side and that it’s a really, really, really difficult watch, but important. Or when you’re introducing the class, you can mention that some of the slides you show will feature artworks that depict naked bodies, or that some of the articles we’ll read for next time use some offensive terms. Or whatever, for whatever content you think such a warning is useful. Or one can do it at the end of the class period before embarking on the topic.

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