By Angela Borders
October 8, 2018
Trigger Warnings in Classrooms
As the new school year is underway and students are starting to dive into course material, a topic of discussion may be coming up for lots of them: trigger warnings. Whether you are a fan of trigger warnings, hate them, or have never heard of them, this blog is a good opportunity to learn more. I will be discussing what trigger warnings are, where they came from, and the pros and cons of using them in the classroom.
What is a Trigger Warning?
Put simply, a trigger warning is a heads up, or warning, that the content about to be discussed may trigger difficult emotional reactions, or bring up difficult memories. This can be said verbally, shown in text, and in online media shown through hashtags.
Where did they come from?
If you want an in depth look at the history of trigger warnings, check out this Buzzfeed article, but what I’m mainly going to focus on is how they got going in the era of social media. Like that article talks about, warnings about triggering content have existed way before the internet (think of our film and TV rating systems, warnings before news broadcasts containing adult content, or even just personally using verbal warnings before getting into gruesome details when talking with others about heavy material). However, something shifted dramatically when trigger warnings became a mainstay of social media and online forums. They opened up a much needed discussion about whether content needed to come with a warning label, and also, how best to do that.
Some platforms, like Tumblr, allowed users to blur or block completely, topics or material tagged with certain topics deemed too triggering. Others, like twitter encouraged the use of hashtags. Livejournal, Facebook, and lots of online forums, blogs, magazines, and so on were all adopting the tool of warning users, whether with a hashtag, a label, or just an upfront warning. Actually, we just started our own Twitter account and discovered that Twitter offers a function that lets you filter defined keywords out of your feed.
And then, as it often does, the trend started to take hold in the “real” (read, offline) world. A huge debate about whether other forums of discussion, especially schools, especially college classes, needed trigger warnings began.
Why is this especially relevant to college?
College classrooms have long been thought to be a place for free expression, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas–often conflicting and sometimes intensely conflicting, ideas. College has been held up as a place to exercise free speech, to build critical thinking skills, and to not be silenced by any political or personal ideology. And it is! …sort of…
The trouble is that defining exactly what that all means, and how to best cultivate and coordinate it is very tricky. Want to be sure to hear all sides? Even when some sides encourage or participate in hate speech? Want to give everyone a fair chance to be heard? Even when what some people have to say literally contains threats against people in attendance?? Yeah…. needless to say, this is all complicated and requires a lot of case by case nuance.
And I have very much seen this all first hand, being a college instructor. I have had to deal with hate speech (on very rare occasions), and get to help moderate heated debates about all kinds of issues. Abortion? Yup. Death penalty? Yup. Gun control and school shootings? Oh you betcha, it came up the first week this semester! All of this is kind of terrifying and awesome and overwhelming, but it’s also pretty great. And all this is to say, you bet I have a trigger warning in my syllabus. So now let’s talk about why.
The Pros of Using Trigger Warnings in Classes
Whether it’s for a college class or not, many educators have started putting trigger warnings on everything from their course syllabus to certain assignments to certain readings, and here I’m going to talk about the good that does.
It has the opposite effect of censorship; it opens discussion
By laying out all the cards on the table and saying “hey here are some things that may come up for you in this class/this assignment”, trigger warnings allow everyone involved to mentally prepare and openly discuss those feelings/thoughts. They allow people to feel safe to confess the difficulties they may be having, and encourage others to understand those difficulties, even if they don’t share them.
It helps lower anxiety all around
By giving students the time and space to mentally prepare for the content or topics, they have the ability to exercise self care and/or ask for any needed accommodations. For example, I once had a student who struggled with deep anxiety issues, and because it was announced ahead of time that the class would be holding group discussions about a topic she felt anxious about, the student asked if she could sit by the door and step out if needed for a quick break. It turned out the student never did need to step out, but feeling safe to do so eased her and helped her end up participating way more in discussion than she would have otherwise.
It encourages empathy
For some students, trigger warnings may feel silly or unnecessary, and they might not even understand why someone would need such a thing. However, talking openly about why trigger warnings are helpful to others, or could be, can open their eyes to how different someone else’s experiences can be. Thinking about things from another person’s experience like that definitely encourages critical thinking and empathy.
The Cons of Using Trigger Warnings in Classes
There is a lot of debate out there about whether trigger warnings are really necessary, and even debate about how they could be harmful. However, most discussion of them being harmful ranges from overly negative to just downright crazy. There is plenty of derogatory stuff about building a generation of “snowflakes” who can’t handle what life has to throw at them, but aside from that, there isn’t much showing any actual harm to those who would most benefit from them–people suffering with anxiety or PTSD. One of the biggest arguments against them though, is that using them doesn’t mirror “real life”.
No Trigger Warnings in the “REAL World”
This is an argument that I obviously don’t really agree with. For one thing, yes there ARE trigger warnings in the “real” world (which, side bar, I have never really liked that phrase, or telling students that because they are in school they don’t live in reality). Like we talked about before, there are warnings on lots of materials, be it news, adult entertainment, etc., in other places in the world besides academia. Are there also plenty of places where difficult content doesn’t come with a warning? Yes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that because they don’t exist everywhere they shouldn’t exist anywhere.
Another common argument against trigger warnings is that, in the case of warning students ahead of time about difficult material in a text (like a novel, short story, or play) that it will “spoil” or alter the way the student experiences the reading/material. Now this one we can see the science behind, but there is just as much evidence to the contrary:
So that argument doesn’t quite stand up. Especially given that how exactly trigger warnings are handled is totally varied. Letting students know difficult content is ahead doesn’t have to be the same as telling them exactly how the plot will shape up or what exactly the characters are about to do.
So that really only leaves that initial comment that somehow trigger warnings will make students “weak” or that they could lead students and educators to just avoid difficult content out of fear. But this idea puts way too much power in the hands of fear. And it ignores what the whole goal of college is in the first place: to learn. To build critical thinking skills, communication skills, and technical skills, is the overall aim of most academic institutions. Because that is at the very heart of what educators, and hopefully students, are striving for, something as small as giving a heads up before particularly difficult subject matter comes up simply can’t have that much power. Not without the entire educational structure changing dramatically.
So what does your syllabus say?
For anyone who’s curious, my trigger warning (or “class disclaimer” as I prefer) is gone over on the first day of every class I teach, and reads as:
“It is of the utmost importance that the instructor both challenge students (sometimes, yes, well out of their comfort zones), but also that students feel supported, safe, and respected. This requires that both students and instructors be respectful, open minded, and willing to discuss topics, material, and opinions that they may find uncomfortable, unpleasant, and/or painful. Please be mindful of these facts, and that our course is for adults and demands adult behavior. Also, please know that the instructor is very much open to discussing any personal concerns via e-mail and/or office hours.“
After reading this aloud on the first day, I always spend some time going over examples of times students have needed special accommodations (and how to seek them out if needed), how they were helpful, and I open the door to discussing trigger warnings, college discourse, and student expectations. Time and time again, students say that while such warnings might not be needed for many or even most students, they agree that if there is even one person who it helps, it’s worth it.
For one last place for food for thought on this topic, I want to point to a video from a great channel on youtube, the Idea Channel, from PBS: