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Trigger Warnings — What Am I Supposed to be Upset About Exactly?


For whatever reason, whenever when of those overheated articles about campus p.c. and mollycoddled students appears, a mention of trigger warnings and the alleged inability of students to deal with any uncomfortable material are very likely to show up. As Aaron Hanlon points out, this doesn’t make any sense:

As I’ve explained elsewhere, however, 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.

It’s true that giving a warning runs the risk of students avoiding or disengaging with the material out of fear of being triggered (in my three years of teaching, students have come to office hours to discuss sensitive material, but not one has left class or failed to turn in an assignment because of a trigger warning). If a student disengages, however, a professor still can (and should) follow up in a couple of ways. One is to have a private conversation with the student about the material, away from the pressures of the classroom; another is to take the student’s response as an occasion to check in with the student and make sure they have access to campus mental health resources. Few of the media voices catastrophizing trigger warnings seem to understand that professors’ interactions with students in the classroom and during office hours are some of the most important ways of catching mental health (or time management, or substance abuse) issues in our students that may need further attention. While the purpose of trigger warnings is not to screen for mental health problems, being attuned to how students are reacting to material, and prompting them to react to the hard stuff, can help us catch problems before they become real catastrophes.

For those of you who are imagining scores of students using professors’ trigger warnings disingenuously, as a way to get out of class or a reading assignment, this isn’t (for most of us) our first rodeo. Students use deception all the time, but an office hours summons is really all we need to determine whether the student might need help from a mental health professional, or was just trying to game the system. In most cases, however, when you warn students that something might be emotionally challenging or explicit, most of them do exactly what we do when someone tells us to watch out for something lurid: they become even more curious.

Yes, precisely. Trigger warnings are a means of teaching potentially difficult material, not a means of censoring potentially difficult material. I suppose there may be cases in which trigger warnings on a syllabus can be used by students as an all-purpose excuse not to engage, but that’s not a problem with “trigger warnings” per se. There’s nothing inherently censorious about them at all.

I, personally, don’t use trigger warnings on my syllabus — but if it works for instructors and their classes and students, fine with me. We don’t use them on this blog, but if they’re a felt need to another kind of blogging community — fine with me. Unless they’re imposed as a one-size-fits-all solution — and as Hanlon says, this is vanishingly rare — I don’t understand what’s supposed to be objectionable.

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