05 March 2014

Does Your Syllabus Have a Trigger Warning?

So first there was this: the New Republic's article about "trigger warnings" moving from the blogosphere to class syllabi.  The subtitle, "Can It Be Stopped?" conveys the tone of the article: maybe not, says Jenny Jarvie, but it should be:
Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.
And then there was this response in Salon: "Trigger Warnings on Campus: What the Critics Are Missing." What the critics are missing, according to Katie McDonough is that "trigger warnings are an imperfect but sometimes necessary band-aid on the open and gaping wounds plaguing college campuses — rampant sexual violence, for starters. Singling out trigger warnings as the greater problem in need of addressing is, perhaps, missing the point." Trigger warnings, McDonough argues, will not solve the problems of sexual violence (among other things) on campus, but they do help to create spaces where the traumatic experiences students bring to the classroom are acknowledged.

I fantasize about a local ordinance requiring unlicensed Chief Illiniwek gear to have a trigger warning printed, in big letters, on the back, like the warnings on liquor and cigarettes. Same with the upcoming festival of binge drinking known hereabouts as Unofficial St. Patricks Day (the workaround local bar owners have devised for the unfortunate timing of the real St. Patrick's Day which falls over spring break, when students are out of town).

So while my institution benignly waves on genocide and substance abuse, what responsibilities do I have for the triggers embedded in the material I teach?

It's important to note what a "trigger warning" is NOT: it's not an explicit authorization for students to steer clear of material that might unsettle them and it's not censorship-in-advance of material on sensitive topics. Rather, it strikes me as a solution--one I had not considered--to a very real problem: making class discussion open to all participants. Whenever I teach texts that involve scenes of sexual violence or substance abuse or racial violence, I am always uncomfortably aware that some students have more personal insight into these topics than others. That material that, for some students exists on the same plane of unfamiliarity as Candide's trip to El Dorado is for other students, a pressing daily reality. I know this because students tell me, later, in office hours, why they hung back in a particular discussion, why they were reluctant to speak, why they decided to skip class that day.

The fiction that all students meet the course material in the same place is necessary for creating discussions that are ultimately about the material and not about the students. Inviting students to talk about their own experience can--most people learn the hard way--give discussion a tone of group therapy that most instructors are not trained to manage productively and that diverts energy from the course content. But it's also a fiction that gives students no framework for meshing their own painful experience with course material that touches on it. A trigger warning might not, ultimately, change anything about how a particular text gets taught, but it will frame the teaching of the text with the fact that violence it depicts is real, with real-world effects.


  1. Yes, it's important that students engage with material that can make them uncomfortable, and that pushes them intellectually, but at the end of the day, the value of that pales in comparison to the damage done by unwittingly sending a victim into a bout of PTSD. Avoiding triggers can be a very important part of the recovery process (especially in the beginning), and deliberately withholding warnings from at-risk students seems at best naive/insensitive, and at worst cruel.

  2. Leslie, I take your point about the value of trigger warnings. Would that their existence and purpose were a standard feature of graduate training.