Are ‘trigger warnings’ on college textbooks and courses a bad idea? No: Warnings don’t interfere with learning, they enhance it
The college classroom is properly the site of serious discussion of potentially traumatic topics. Trigger warnings don’t interfere with that process — they enhance it.
Trigger warnings’ origins lie in the wilds of the Internet, where they arose as a way to alert readers about content that might be traumatic.
Their premise is that a rape survivor, for instance, might legitimately prefer to have some warning before encountering a graphic description of sexual assault. Though not entirely uncontroversial, trigger warnings generally don’t spark much rancor in online spaces. Some writers use them, most don’t, but they usually pass without much comment either way.
Earlier this year, though, when college students started pushing for the use of trigger warnings in classes, their demand provoked a massive, vitriolic and overwhelmingly negative response.
Unlike most faculty, though, I found the idea intriguing. As a historian, I discuss some very dark and difficult material in class, and as a professor I think it’s important to give students a clear sense of their rights and responsibilities.
So after a bit of thinking and a bit of discussion, I came up with a trigger warning — I call it a “content note” — of my own, which I incorporated into my syllabus for the first time this summer.
In my content note I warn students that some of them may find some of the material we cover disturbing. I don’t provide examples in the syllabus, but I do when we review it together. I let students know that I’m open to discussing their reactions to historical topics during class or in my office hours, tell them that they’re free to step outside briefly if they find any content overwhelming and encourage them to talk to me privately if they have any specific concerns.
A few weeks ago, after I settled on the language of my content note, I wrote a short essay on the subject for the online academic newspaper Inside Higher Ed. The response to that piece was divided, and the way it broke down says a lot about the current academic trigger warning debate.
Most of the opponents of trigger warnings who replied to my piece didn’t find much to object to in the note. Instead, they argued that what I’d written wasn’t a “trigger warning” at all — that it was too moderate, too reasonable, too simple to fit that description. Some predicted it would be rejected by trigger warning proponents.
The opposite happened. With one mild exception, every trigger warning advocate who responded to my piece — in comments forums, on Facebook and Twitter, on blogs, or by email — embraced it.
Several said that they would be adopting a version of it in their own syllabi or suggesting it to their professors. More than one said it would have made a major difference in classes that they had found deeply alienating.
While trigger warning opponents rejected my approach as insubstantial, even meaningless, in other words, supporters cheered it as a significant and potentially transformative pedagogical tool.
Despite the unfamiliar terminology, “trigger warnings” may not represent a huge departure from what we as professors are already doing.
Angus Johnston teaches history at Hostos Community College in New York and maintains the website studentactivism.net.