by Deane Morrison
The question seems simple: Should professors warn students that a course contains material that may trigger a traumatic reaction in some of them?
In the past year or two, the halls of academe have echoed with debates over so-called “trigger warnings.” One side—often represented by students—has advocated for them in order to protect those who have been traumatized by rape, assault, combat, or other experiences and ought not to be forced to relive them.
The other side says such warnings may inhibit teachers from covering disturbing but important aspects of the subject matter, or that they are unwarranted shields that keep students from facing hard truths about life that they must learn to deal with. Some opponents label it “coddling” students. So what’s going on?
“Students aren’t being coddled—the rhetoric is being manipulated,” Angela Carter, a doctoral student in feminist studies at the U, told an Oct. 29 gathering at the U’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). “Triggered means to be returned to a traumatic moment. It’s not [just] being offended or sitting with unpleasant truths.”
For example, writers on the subject seem to agree that a rape survivor should not be required to watch depictions of the crime on film. But when some students at Duke University recently objected to reading Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic memoir “Fun Home” because the author was a lesbian, their objections would not meet this definition’s criteria for being excused from reading it.
Trigger warnings are a contentious subject, but U of M instructors have ways of dealing fairly with it.
College classrooms are supposed to be places where students broaden their minds by tackling difficult, if not contentious, issues. The question is not how students can sidestep such issues when they are depicted in, for example, graphic films of forcible sex or torture, but how students can confront those same issues without paying a painful personal price.
Pasting a movie-style warning like “contains graphic sex, violence, adult language” on a course description would do little good. For one thing, no warning can cover all the possible triggers that may traumatize students.
“For example, rape may be recognized as a valid trauma, but daily dealing with unconscious or conscious racism has not been given the same acknowledgment,” says IAS Director Jennifer Gunn, an associate professor of the history of medicine. “I think part of the political polarization of trigger warnings is that there are people who grudgingly recognize certain kinds of experiences or injury but dismiss others that are equally painful to those experiencing them.”
Also, warnings alone can’t guide students toward alternate routes to engage in discussions of difficult material and thus achieve learning and growth. In other words, the simple choice to give or refrain from giving a warning up front presents a false dichotomy.
A little guidance goes a long way
Instead, the goal of trigger warnings—sparing already traumatized students needless pain—can be achieved by acknowledging that students are adults and letting them manage their trauma, while making sure they can access and be responsible for learning in their courses.
Jigna Desai, whose courses include Politics of Sex—which contains material dealing with oppression, violence and trauma—encourages students to come to her if they need support.
A professor in and chair of the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, Desai says trauma is complicated, and people manage it in complex ways. Students must engage with material, she says, but they can do it on their own terms if trauma is an issue.
“I go through my syllabus on the first day,” she explains. “Students take the class knowing it’s full of discussions of oppression. I tell students it’s an interactive class, and say, ‘If you’re having difficulty, take care of yourself [e.g., by leaving during painful scenes in a film] and come tell me what accommodations you need.’
“Students don’t say [things like] ‘I can’t read this because of my religion,’ and so on. They’re not trying to opt out, but to opt in. Students may leave [during a painful presentation] but they’re not excused from the class. They still have to, for example, write essays about, or reflect on, the material.“
Who shields the instructor?
Another point brought up at the IAS event was that students sometimes have the power to exact punishment on instructors who may be vulnerable on account of belonging to a different racial/sexual/economic class than the students. For instance, Shannon Gibney, an English instructor at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, was reprimanded when some white male students took exception to her teachings about structural racism and white privilege in our society and charged her with making the classroom uncomfortable for them.
No remedy for those kinds of conflict has emerged, but at least individuals are feeling their way toward resolving them.
“It’s really about pedagogy and structural inequalities, and who is able to claim trauma in a university and how we address that,” says Desai.