by Elana Spivack
“Trigger warnings” — disclaimers posted or given before presenting potentially disturbing content — have found their way to syllabi across campus. Feminist bloggers first included these brief warnings before posts detailing sexual assault or violence to inform readers who might have trauma-related panic or anxiety “triggered” by the subject matter. Their use has escalated nationally, especially within colleges and universities. Students at schools including Kenyon, Oberlin College and Rutgers University have implored professors to include the notices.
Currently, there is no policy in place to regulate the use of trigger warnings at Kenyon; professors use them at their discretion. At the end of last semester, the Sexual Misconduct Advisors (SMAs) sent an email to the faculty vouching for the use of trigger warnings in syllabi for content regarding sexual assault. “When victims of sexual assault are unexpectedly affronted with triggering material in class, learning becomes a challenge,” the email read. The SMAs suggested outlining assigned readings and discussions about rape, emailing warnings before discussions and clarifying that students may leave class during a triggering instance. Still, the letter entreated professors to continue teaching difficult material. “In no way do we suggest that we should ban the discussion of sexual assault in the classroom,” the letter said.
SMA Nathan Durham ’17 explained the campaign. “We’re calling it ‘content sensitivity,’” he said. He supports the initiative for the sake of safety in learning. “In an academic environment that is conducive toward growth and maturity and critical thinking, safety is a key component.”
Professor of Spanish Linda Metzler also supports trigger warnings. In the past, she has provided a blanket statement cautioning students of potentially provocative material, but with the rise of trigger warnings, she now outlines specific disturbing scenes, such as scenes of torture or abuse, before each viewing. “I hoped it would serve the purpose of empowering my students in their attempt to confront material that is particularly alienating or disturbing,” Metzler wrote in an email to the Collegian.
Especially at a liberal arts college, learning can push students out of their comfort zones. Provost Joe Klesner says he values teaching uncomfortable topics. “In education, one of our real goals is to get students to realize the nature of the world,” he said, “and so, I think it would be wrong of us not to take on topics that are challenging, … that are issues in which people have been hurt.”
Klesner underscored the importance of sensitivity, but also qualified that professors often do not want to prematurely reveal any serious parts of their lesson. He argued not every negative account merits a trigger warning, referring to a New York Times article from last May (“Warning: the Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm”) which reported on a petition by students at Rutgers University to place a warning on The Great Gatsby for misogyny and violence. “The case for trigger warnings is … the potential for some kind of real pain to be inflicted or revisited,” Klesner said. “If The Great Gatsby makes it into that list, there’s not much literature to read.”
Furthermore, professors cannot anticipate every triggering discussion. “You can easily drift from one topic to the next,” Klesner said. “Suddenly you would have to say, ‘We can’t go any further because I haven’t given you a trigger warning.’”
Professors also voiced reluctance and concern about determining when lessons might require warnings. “It’s difficult to know what will trigger anyone,” Professor of Drama Jon Tazewell said. “I think it’s useful to be able to put [a trigger warning] into the syllabus … but that doesn’t necessarily prevent anybody from being triggered.” He noted that triggers can be unique to each person, saying that victims of post-traumatic stress disorder often suffer attacks brought on by triggers that are not directly related to their trauma. While it is valuable to provide a warning before disturbing content, professors cannot predict what triggers each student.
Sterling Nelson ’16 agreed with this notion and suggested that students should take initiative in dealing with a triggering situation that a professor could not anticipate. “I think you know yourself the best,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Hey, for me, this line has been crossed, I can’t do this anymore.’ Be an advocate for yourself.”
SMAs note that professors should caution students about potentially traumatic or anxiety-inducing content, but that they should not censor it. “There’s a difference between censorship and sensitivity to what other people feel,” Durham said, “especially when you’re talking about things as serious as sexual assault or violence and abuse.”
The issue remains as to how students can participate if they waive participation in a distressing work assignment or discussion. “For the most part, people who have been sensitive to trigger warnings … still do their best to engage with the material,” Durham said. Metzler proposed alternative assignments.
Even if students participate in alternative assignments, some believe trigger warnings still harm education.
One professor, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed opposition to such disclaimers in the context of a liberal arts education. “I think there are no benefits and considerable harm [in providing trigger warnings],” the professor said. “I think it would be much more helpful to all students if we took the time to thoroughly explain what liberal education entails and to prepare them for the discomfort, disorientation and indignation that are a necessary part of an education that truly frees the mind.”