Under the gun: Colleges debate trigger warnings

One of the most controversial buzzwords in higher education today has nothing to do with teaching methods or student behavior. Instead, it’s the label that has sparked hundreds of essays, news articles and resolutions: trigger warnings.

The concept originated in feminist blogs as a way to mark articles about topics like sexual assault so that survivors wouldn’t be caught unaware. Proponents say trigger warnings are a way to prevent students who have experienced trauma in their past from having a strong, negative reaction to sensitive material presented in class. Opponents say that trigger warnings prevent students from being exposed to differing points of view.

The debate has raged fiercely, as a vocal swath of students, across the political spectrum, have called for trigger warnings before sensitive or graphic material in class. Some professors have added trigger warnings to their syllabuses or assignments. Others in academia have condemned the trend, saying that it infantilizes students and prevents the spread of controversial ideas — which, they say, threatens the foundation of a liberal education.

Last year, the American Association of University Professors released a report on trigger warnings, in which the group called them a “threat to academic freedom in the classroom.”

“The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the report said. “It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and … it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism and colonialism for attention.”

The report warned that associating those topics as triggers could lead to faculty marginalizing or avoiding them in fear of offending students. Trigger warnings, it said, could create “a repressive, ‘chilly climate’ for critical thinking in the classroom.”

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, who was on the AAUP committee that drafted the report, said that a year later, there is growing pressure from students to implement trigger warnings in classes.

Bertin, who clarified that she’s speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the AAUP, said in the year since the report came out, she’s found that it is “very rare” for schools to adopt formal policies to recommend or require trigger warnings. Initially, she said, it had seemed like there was a growing trend toward uniformity — for example, Oberlin College created a policy recommending professors add trigger warnings to “anything that might cause trauma,” before tabling the policy after backlash.

Now, while the issue has been discussed at many universities’ faculty councils, most have declined to issue a mandate one way or the other, instead leaving it up to individual professors.

At American University, the faculty senate unanimously approved a resolution in September that criticizes trigger warnings for fear that they shield students, which could “deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens.” While the resolution does not forbid their use by faculty, it instead encourages faculty to help students engage with sensitive or controversial material rather than labeling the material “in such a way that students construe it as an option to ‘opt out.’”

Trigger warnings started off being predominantly attached to discussion of rape and sexual assault, Bertin said. But now, she has seen other content with trigger warnings. Bertin said she has even heard of students requesting advance notice before watching horror films — “a trigger warning on scary.”

Trigger warnings, she said, are “permeating the culture at large.”

Not a partisan issue

Will Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the debate on trigger warnings has struck a nerve in the country and particularly in the higher education community. FIRE staunchly opposes trigger warnings.

And the publicity that trigger warnings has garnered, he said, has led to more students requesting their use — students on both the right and the left.

Over the summer, a student at Crafton Hills College in California objected to the graphic novels assigned in an English course, including Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. She called the books “garbage” and wanted a warning that the books contained profanity, violence and sex. Her professor originally agreed to include a trigger warning about the books in future syllabuses for the course, but later reversed his decision.

Just a few months later, a Duke University freshman protested the choice of Fun Home for a voluntary summer reading program. The student opposed Fun Home, which is about a lesbian woman coming to terms with her sexuality and includes illustrations of the woman engaged in oral sex with her partner, on the basis of his Christian faith. He said he opposed the ‘pornographic content’ and said there should have been an explicit warning about the illustrations before being assigned the book.

Meanwhile, at the end of the spring semester, students at Columbia University called on the school to add trigger warnings to Greek mythology, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The students wrote that texts like these, “wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color or a student from a low-income background.” Columbia professors did not make any policy regarding trigger warnings, although they did replace Metamorphoses with a Toni Morrison novel (a decision that was unrelated to the debate, faculty said).

There have also been multiple accounts of students calling for trigger warnings to staples in college literature classes, like F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for misogyny and violence, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, for its themes of colonialism, racism and religious persecution.

“I think that the desire to be free from the discomfort or the intellectual uncertainty that comes with encountering challenging ideas is a feeling that strikes all of us at some time or another, no matter what our political allegiance is. So if we legitimize the idea of trigger warnings, if we accept trigger warnings as a normative good or a standard practice, then we’re going to see very little material able to escape being the subject of such a warning,” Creeley said. “There’s vanishingly little content that doesn’t offend somebody.”

Even President Barack Obama referenced trigger warnings, and other limits on free speech in college settings, in a Sept. 14 speech at a town hall meeting in Iowa. He said college is a place to listen to other perspectives and be exposed to new ideas. Some students, he said, “aren’t listening to the other side.”

“Or [students] don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans, or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” Obama said. “And, you know, I gotta tell you that I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”

Still, for all the debate, trigger warnings are not entirely widespread in academia. There are few, if any, top-down policies that require professors to provide trigger warnings, and there is no hard data on how many professors have added the warnings to their syllabuses.

(As Vox wrote in an article about the issue, “there are probably more articles on the internet arguing about trigger warnings on college syllabuses than there are actual trigger warnings on college syllabuses.”)

Some, however, say they’re becoming more popular. Angus Johnston, who has had a trigger warning on his syllabus for an introductory history course for a little over a year now, said at least a dozen professors, but probably more, have adapted his trigger warning, which has been published in various forms on his blog and in Inside Higher Ed and Slate.

Johnston wrote an essay, published in Inside Higher Ed last May, that argued that while he has to raise difficult subjects in class, he has an “obligation to raise them in a way that provokes a productive reckoning with the material.”

That reckoning, he wrote, will only take place if students know he understands “that this material is not merely academic, that they are coming to it as whole people with a wide range of experiences, and that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful.”

A year later, Johnston, who teaches at the City University of New York, has tweaked the trigger warning on his syllabus to make it more focused on creating a dialogue with the student. He added an invitation to discuss any concerns the student might have before a subject comes up in class, if the student thinks the material might be “emotionally challenging for them.”

His syllabus trigger warning gives students permission to leave the room when the class is discussing challenging material and has a disclaimer that the student will still be responsible for any material missed.

Johnston said he also changed how he presented the trigger warning to his students. At first, he wrote in a blog post, he over-explained why there was a trigger warning, “leaving the impression that the course was going to be far more fraught than it actually is.”

Now, he gives a specific example of why this trigger warning might be necessary for the course: the class will discuss the eulogy Charles Darwin wrote for his daughter, who died at age 10.

Johnston said the eulogy is an important way to show how the death of a young child was not uncommon in that time period. But if one of his students had recently lost a child or a sibling, “the last thing I’d want to do is spring an essay like that on them without any warning” or a way to remove themselves from the situation, he said.

For the most part, students have reacted positively to the trigger warning, Johnston said.

“The danger is that you over-think it and over-explain it and make it seem like a bigger thing than it actually is. It isn’t really a big deal,” he said. “I think that ultimately, I want my students to have it in their back pocket.”

A trigger warning for spiders

In the spring, members of the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association were surveyed about their experiences with trigger warnings in academia. More than 800 faculty members submitted responses.

Although the survey is not scientific, Bertin said the response indicates that “this is a real issue that faculty are coping with.”

“Students demand trigger warnings for all kinds of things,” she said, adding that one respondent said she received a request for a trigger warning for content about spiders.

While fewer than 1 percent of respondents said their institution has a formal policy on trigger warnings, half of the respondents have voluntarily provided warnings — and 23 percent provided them several times or regularly.

Meanwhile, 15 percent of respondents said that students have requested trigger warnings in their classes, and 12 percent said that students have complained to either the instructor or to administrators about a lack of trigger warnings in the class.

Almost half of the respondents indicated that trigger warnings would have a negative effect on classroom dynamics, and 63 percent said they could hurt academic freedom.

Bertin said that since this is a non-scientific survey, it’s hard to tell if this is the majority view among faculty, since those who are most opposed might be more likely to have taken the survey in the first place.

Preventing vs. confronting triggers

While the main point of trigger warnings is to prevent inflicting trauma on vulnerable students, some critics, like Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, have said that trigger warnings might actually be counterproductive to those who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

In an article published in the Pacific Standard magazine last May, McNally wrote that while PTSD isn’t uncommon among sexual assault survivors, many of them recover within months of their assault. It is important for survivors to confront triggers in order to overcome their PTSD, he said.

“By practicing confronting these triggers, clients learn that fear subsides, enabling them to reclaim their lives and conquer PTSD,” he wrote.

And if sexual assault survivors make the trauma central to their identity, it bodes poorly for their mental health, McNally wrote.

Bertin said students should be aware that if they are “emotionally vulnerable,” some courses might not be appropriate to take right now.

“Teachers are saying, ‘I’m not a therapist. I can’t treat my students’ emotional problems. All I can do is teach them,’” she said, adding that she thinks there’s a big difference for teachers “being responsible for mental distress and taking concerns seriously.”

Most professors want students to know they can come to them with concerns about course content — “and then go to the mental health center,” she said.

But proponents of trigger warnings say that it doesn’t cost much of them to give their students a quick heads-up that they will be discussing a sensitive subject, and it’s kinder to students who are vulnerable to certain topics. Trigger warnings, they say, aren’t meant to exempt students from doing the work.

In a Sept. 19 opinion piece for The New York Times, Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, wrote that chances are, some students in her class will have suffered some sort of trauma in their pasts.

Trigger warnings can help students prepare themselves for reading about sensitive subjects and perhaps “better manage their reactions,” she said.

A panic attack, or other symptoms of PTSD, “temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so,” she wrote. “Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.”

Manne wrote that her trigger warnings are non-obtrusive — just one extra line in an email such as: “A quick heads-up. The reading for this week contains a graphic description of sexual assault.”

She compared the warning to the advisory notices given before movies and television shows.

Johnston said he decided to add a trigger warning to his syllabus after one of his students stepped out of class during a discussion about lynching to “clear her head.” The student, who is black, had never experienced that sort of material before, Johnston said.

At the end of the class, the student apologized to Johnston and said she almost didn’t step out of class because she was worried he would be offended. Johnston was concerned.

“I would not want her, in that situation, to stay inside the classroom when what she really wanted was a few minutes to clear her head just because she thought I would be offended,” he said. “That’s the last thing I would want to impose on a student.”

All of this debate, Johnston said, gives people a “better sense of how to handle those questions.”

The dialogue has been productive, he said, and he predicts that once the “overheated debate” dies down, there will be a fairly widespread adoption in academia.

Eventually, he said, there will be a “recognition that this is not such a big deal, it’s not a dramatic departure from what professors have been doing.”

But as the debate rages on, Creeley said its intensity shows “just how high the stakes are.”

If trigger warnings are fully accepted as a best practice for professors, he said, it will be hard to remove them and the “damage done to … a liberal education might be impossible to reverse.”