In recent years, major news outlets and institutions have been declaring their positions on trigger warnings in higher education. Some professors at Swarthmore have been using trigger warnings long before they became a part of the national debate.
When used in academic settings, trigger warnings inform students of course material that has the potential to evoke a stressful physiological or emotional response related to a past trauma. The origin of the trigger warning can be traced to feminist internet forums where they were used to warn survivors of trauma — such as sexual assault — that a post contained possibly triggering content. Interest in trigger warnings spread to other spheres of the internet and are now being seriously considered in academic settings.
Last August, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a report stating an opposition to trigger warnings.
“A current threat to academic freedom,” the AAUP report reads, “[…] comes from a demand that teachers provide warnings in advance if assigned material contains anything that might trigger difficult emotional responses for students.”
Opponents voice concerns over trigger warnings potentially diminishing class discussion and possibilities for intellectual exploration. Earlier this month, the American University Faculty Senate passed a resolution asserting the university will not endorse the use of trigger warnings in class.
“American University is committed to protecting and championing the right to freely communicate ideas — without censorship — and to study… even material that some members of our community may find disturbing or that provokes uncomfortable feelings,” the University’s Resolution states.
Other critics claim that the warnings satiate the younger generation’s obsession with sensitivity. A piece in this month’s issue of the Atlantic, entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” attributes college students’ call for trigger warnings to a desire to be shielded from uncomfortable ideas on campus.
Swarthmore professors Krista Thomason and Milton R. A. Machuca-Gálvez have felt that employing trigger warnings hindered neither intellectual growth nor exploration in the classroom.
Thomason, a philosophy professor, has been using some form of trigger warnings predating the pervasive national conversation, and she has not found that they stunt class discussion on tough topics nor deter her from assigning material. She teaches the class “Human Rights and Atrocity,” and explains on her syllabus that some topics may be difficult to process and possibly even be triggering to students.
“The material… is very dark,” she said. “For that reason it may be necessary [for students] to engage in a higher degree of self-care.”
Machuca-Gálvez, who teaches “Drugs, Gangs, and U.S. Imperialism” and “LGBT Movements in Latin America,” also gives a warning on his syllabus about emotionally challenging material. He lets students know throughout the semester when they will be tackling assignments that describe violent or gruesome acts.
“The last thing you want to do is trigger things in the student,” he said. “[You] don’t know the students’ pasts.”
Jodie Goodman ‘15, who has been advocating for the implementation of trigger warnings for the past three years, finds that they enhance class discussion. She says they allow students affected by trauma to better handle material and participate as much and as safely as possible. Without a warning, students are at risk of experiencing symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder in class or while working.
“If the students who are most impacted by the topic at hand skip class or avoid readings because they feel blindsided by a confrontation with trauma, not only do they miss out, but also they aren’t able to contribute a very significant point of view to class discussions,” Goodman explained over email.
Goodman explained that as a survivor of sexual violence, she has benefitted from the use of trigger warnings at college. When she was informed that her class seminar would be exploring the topic of sexual dominance, she was able to prepare herself for discussing a topic related to her past trauma and contribute to the class.
“[Trigger warnings] allow students coping with trauma to approach that trauma in an academic setting in a way that doesn’t threaten their mental or physical health,” she wrote.
In her experience, Goodman finds that most who oppose trigger warnings have a misunderstanding of what they are, often believing them to be a form of censorship.
“Common misconceptions include thinking that having a trigger warning means that students will feel excused to skip readings or thinking that it ‘coddles’ students who should be pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone,” she wrote. “For the majority of students, it’s an extra few words on the syllabus that don’t apply to them, almost identical to the mandatory information about accommodations for disabilities that appear on every syllabus already.”
Thomason noted that trigger warnings are receiving particularly negative attention, especially relative to common everyday examples of censorship or viewing deterrents, like movie ratings.
While a more tentative approach to handling triggering topics in academia may be a fairly new idea to the public, many academics in a diverse array of fields have for years been treating their subjects with such caution.
Machuca-Gálvez said he first started putting a disclaimer on his syllabus years ago when students in an art class complained about him displaying an art piece which showed a woman’s breast. He then included a “warning” in his syllabus of material he felt students may find offensive.
Now when teaching classes that deal with gruesome topics, Machuca-Gálvez alerts students to materials that may be triggering. He stressed the importance of having an open dialogue between student and educator about the students’ needs.
“[A] label makes it seem like it’s something special,” Thomason said. “It’s really just courtesy.”