There’s been a fair amount of discussion over the past few months about whether or not faculty members should put trigger warnings on their syllabi or annouce them prior to particular assignments.
I’ve read a fair amount of complaining from older people who think young people need to toughen up or who argue that a big virtue of going to college is being challenged to get outside one’s comfort zone. But I think this misses the point, at least partly. As someone who teaches courses on human rights and conflict, as well as courses on the history of political thought, I think I can see things both ways.
My sense is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this sort of thing. Here’s the wrong way:
At Oberlin College in Ohio, a draft guide was circulated that would have asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses. The guide said they should flag anything that might “disrupt a student’s learning” and “cause trauma,” including anything that would suggest the inferiority of anyone who is transgender (a form of discrimination known as cissexism) or who uses a wheelchair (or ableism).
“Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” the guide said. “Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.” For example, it said, while “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe — a novel set in colonial-era Nigeria — is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”
Here are some thoughts about the right way:
First, I wouldn’t ever put a trigger warning on a political theory syllabus. Students read things in those courses that challenge them and I make a whole bunch of arguments in those courses that I don’t actually believe in order to elicit reactions from students. I want to make them a bit uncomfortable because I want to challenge them to think critically about their own beliefs and opinions. I can imagine that Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, is just one giant trigger for a fair number of people for a whole bunch of different reasons … but I maintain that feeling offended or disturbed by reading Nietzsche can be interesting, engaging, and even beneficial to students.
That said, in my human rights courses, I’ve often told students that I’ve assigned something that might be upsetting to them, that they should be aware of the content before they begin, and that I’m available to speak with them about the topic at any time. I’ve often advised them to read slowly, to take breaks, to check in with their friends and classmates, and to consider utilizing the various resources on campus if they feel overwhelmed by the material. Reading about torture, genocide, or sexual violence can be deeply disturbing — and not only to people who have experienced these abuses; it’s important to let students know what awaits them in the week’s reading so they can prepare themselves both emotionally and intellectually for the challenge. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that discussions on these challenging topics are more thoughtful when students were warned that their reading might be emotionally taxing.
The upshot: I can’t imagine that we need trigger warnings on everything we do in college, but I think we all know there are some topics where some advance warning is in everyone’s best interest.