Trigger Warnings on College Syllabi

Trigger warnings are warnings often used when an Internet post contains references to something that could cause a negative reaction (such as rape, self-harm, eating disorders). They’re common on a lot of blogs/sites, but some are going further and suggesting they be used in college classes, noting that certain material has potentially provocative content.

Others disagree:

I’m inclined to agree with those against the trigger warnings. Almost anything could be potentially triggering to the right (or wrong person). I think if you are triggered to the point of PTSD, then the onus is on you, the student, to look into it or make accommodations with the professor. But college is supposed to expose you to new and thought-provoking experiences. And putting these kinds of warnings on books that “we” have decided are offensive just seems like a step toward labeling books as wrong…it seems like a bad, even dangerous attitude for a school to have.

Meh. There are certainly books I read where I would have appreciated a heads up about some parts and I don’t even have some sort of traumatic history.

Learning is supposed to provoke you. It’s a feature, not a bug.

I heard something on NPR a few weeks ago about this. I think it was from the teacher of a Women’s something or other class. She showed a movie that had a rape scene in it and some of the students said they wished they had a head’s up about that scene. She, the teacher, suggested that giving them a trigger warning would have taken some of the power out of the scene. Also, regarding some of the other course material, it’s going to be thought provoking and ‘scary’, but that’s the class they signed up for. She said she could understand if they showed a movie in a math class and someone got raped, but that’s not what this class was. She said she might as well just put a ‘trigger warning’ at the door when they walk in on the first day of class, or maybe just on the college application.

Furthermore, she got into, and I don’t remember the details, that some of the course material might make them uncomfortable, mentally or emotionally, but no one is going to physically harm them. And she also said she wished half the class would stop saying they had PTSD.

Lemme see if I can find the interview since i probably got half of that wrong…

Here it is (hit the play button at the top). I didn’t listen to the whole thing and when I was driving the other day I heard some random 20 minute section in the middle somewhere.

At least half of being traumatized is telling yourself how traumatized you are. You can either crawl inside and live in fear of anything reminding you of something you experienced, or you can live in the world and expect that it’s going to happen and it is up to you to decide how to react to it.

As far as college classes, it fucking annoys me. We’re already raising our children as special little snowflakes and teaching everyone that power lies in offense and outrage. We really need to knock this shit off.

As a rule of thumb, if you have to call it a “trigger warning”, it’s probably stupid. If you’re showing people Terminator 2, it’s good form to let people opt out of watching someone flay their arm down to the endoskeleton. But catering to every irrational phobia under the sun? That’s just ridiculous.

Wait a minute… they need a trigger warning if material makes fun of someone in a wheelchair? Are you kidding me?

I can see how a rape scene in a movie could be triggering to a rape victim, but to extend that to racism and “ableism” is just totally ridiculous.

I hope the cafeteria has warnings too. Here are some of my suggestions
Warning: food may contain animals and plants that have been killed, mutilated, boiled and/or burned.
Warning: food service workers have historically been viewed as low class, under-educated minorities.
Warning: dining area may contain chairs unsuitable for those with disabilities.
Warning: bathroom facilities use antiquated and sexist “Men” and “Women” labels on the doors.
Warning: this fork could potentially be used to kill someone.

If the teacher posts the material to be read/viewed at the beginning of the class, anyone with trauma issues can look them up and see summaries. Then they can asked to be excused from the section that would disturb them. Listing all possible triggers is impossible (how dare you not know that I’m scared of frogs!) and I’d think some might tend towards safer material with fewer triggers. And that would be bad.

For me, math class is scary, but I don’t need a modified syllabus to know that.

We already have trigger warnings all over the place. The news regularly warns people in advance when they’re going to show something distressing. Trigger warnings in class rooms are just courtesy: “Hey, this next thing we’re going to study might be distressing to some people. Be warned.”

For example, my wife teaches classes on medieval history. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the middle ages without talking about Christianity. So before she starts she’s says: *“Just a heads up. I’m going to be talking about Christianity as a cultural force in Europe. You may find this at odds with your own theological understanding of it. Some of you might find this way of talking about Christianity to be alienating or disturbing, so be forewarned.” * Then she gets on with teaching the class. It’s just a courtesy.

The current issue with trigger warning is that a lot of people assume that if something isn’t distressing to a straight white guys, it’s not distressing to ANYONE. Straight, white, male experience is assumed as the norm rather than an exception. So people get warned only about stuff straight white guys might find distressing, but not things other groups might.

Really? This is something people do? I don’t understand it–I’ve been in tons of classes where Christianity came up (history, literature, etc.), and I’ve never been forewarned about it. Where does it end? Theoretically, couldn’t any subject be alienating?

The way I understand it, the very concept of “triggering” is watered down in a lot of circles. IIRC, it’s supposed to be for when someone experiences severe anxiety and trauma flashbacks, and/or generally reminds the person of a really bad experience from their own past — not just “this got me upset or mad.”

I was a film major, and now and then the films we screened had disturbing elements (rape scenes, pornographic content, seriously depressing stuff [Come and See, I’m looking at you])

We always were given a warning and a chance to opt out of these, which seems like a common courtesy. But I think it’s pretty stupid to mandate it. These things are common sense.

My wife is particularly considerate of her students. And as an atheist Jew she feels a bit odd about lecturing Christians on Christianity.

Sure. You can’t cover every base. On the other hand, if you know a particular student has an odd mental quirk – like a pathological fear of bees – wouldn’t it be kinder to give him a heads up if the next class happened to involve a discussion of bee attacks instead of just springing it on him with no warning?

Trigger warnings are about acknowledging that there are certain things like sexual violence or extreme racial animosity that LOTS of people personally experience, even if they’re not commonly experienced by straight, white men. So maybe they should get a heads up if these topics are going to be touched on in an upcoming class.

But what is triggering about Christianity as an abstract concept?

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a header to the effect:

“Warning: this course contains discussions of sensitive topics such as rape, sexual violence, and self-harm. If you are unable to handle or discuss these issues for any reason, please speak with the instructor or drop the course.”

The “trigger warning” language is a bit hairier, it’s possible it’s just because the meaning has been beaten into absurdity by the blogosphere, but I feel like it also makes too many assumptions about the nature of why the person doesn’t want to study a certain topic. It’s entirely reasonable to be freaked out by discussions about rape to the point that you’d rather not study them without actually, y’know, getting a PTSD trigger from them.

I’ve included a blanket statement on syllabi for years. We’re now thinking of adding a proviso that “If you are consistently triggered during your training for [counseling profession], we will help you find a new major.”

Maybe we could pay the Saharan countries to build a massive warning that can be read from space.

Warning: Planet contains some disturbing content. Use at your own risk.

Heh, Come and See is a pretty good example - gotta be the most disturbing thing I’ve seen.