Teaching Trigger Warnings: What Pundits Don’t Understand About the Year’s Most Controversial Higher-Ed Debate

When Kyla Bender-Baird was an undergraduate a decade ago, a gender studies lecture she was attending ended with an incident she’ll never forget: a visiting professor played a rape victim’s graphic 911 call. Then the class was dismissed and, she says, everyone went home dazed and had “messed-up dreams” that night.

Although the professor apologized at the next session for failing to place the recording in appropriate context and give students adequate time to process it, Bender-Baird kept the incident in mind when she became a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, teaching sociology courses to undergraduates. Now, she includes a note at the end of her syllabus,that reads, in part:

It is my goal in this class to create a safe environment in which we examine our assumptions… Discomfort can be part of the learning process as we are challenged to shift our paradigms. I invite you to sit with this discomfort. However, if the discomfort starts to turn to distress, I want you to take care of yourself. You can withdraw from an activity or even leave the classroom.

Since Bender-Baird added this text to her syllabus, only one student has walked out of her class, simply slipping out when she opened a discussion about “reclaiming the N-word.” Whether the student felt triggered by the word or simply couldn’t bear having the same conversation yet again, the incident ended there.

Bender-Baird doesn’t use the label “trigger warning” for her disclaimer, since it’s unobtrusively placed at the end of her list of resources and segues into contact information for the counseling center. Yet it falls under the umbrella of cautionary notes encompassed by that loaded phrase, which has increasingly become the chief symbol of a tug-of-war on American campuses. “Trigger warning” — arising from PTSD psychology and popularized in feminist spaces on the Internet — refers to an advance notice for any content, usually violent, that might prompt a flashback, panic attack, or episode for survivors of trauma.

Intellectual heavyweights have decried trigger warnings in widely circulated pieces. In a New York Times op-ed published in March, Judith Shulevitz bemoaned the focus on “safety” on campus: “While keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else,” she wrote. Much of the academic Internet seemed to agree, particularly after the publication of an op-ed by four Columbia University students arguing that Ovid’s Metamorphoses was triggering and that classes needed to respect diverse identities. The backlash was intense on all sides of the political spectrum: right-wing columnist Kathleen Parker called students “swaddled,” while feminist Lori Horvitz worried they were “coddled.” Biology professor Jerry A. Coyne said the students’ request smacked of “Big Brotherhood” and “cocooning.” The real world doesn’t come with trigger warnings, he said. On the other side, radical writers like Malcolm Harris have argued that the real problem is the Western canon itself: “Why should students have to endure gender- and race-based contempt from their required reading list?” he asks.

The debate has mostly been framed as students vs. faculty, hand-holding vs. freedom, political correctness vs. mind-expanding curricula. But educators who choose to utilize these warnings in their classrooms often see more nuance in the issue. “We have to take [students demanding trigger warnings] seriously… because being more acutely aware of how students are responding to challenging material is just better and more responsible pedagogy,” wrote Aaron R. Hanlon last week. Faculty in this camp say that they’re committed to academic and intellectual freedom, but also to honoring students’ experiences, in particular the often silent presence of rape survivors — a trauma-prone group — among the college-aged population. Rather than debating whether to teach troubling material, as much of the anti-trigger warning contingent fears, they say they’ve moved on to asking how to do so in a respectful way.

Trigger warnings arose out of the psychological concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder “triggers” — experiences or events that cause a trauma survivor to re-experience an incident, go into avoidance mode, or “numb out.” While the theory evolved in the wake of the Vietnam War, the use of “trigger warnings” is very much a result of the feminist Internet, and the atmosphere of the 21st-century political climate. In a recent piece about trigger warnings, Jeet Heer noted that today’s students are products of a post-9/11, War on Terror mentality. “PTSD is, in a crucial sense, a theory of memory: It posits that for certain people the memory of a trauma always exists, lying just below the surface,” he wrote. “A theory of this sort will naturally lead to a heightened vigilance.” Heer failed to mention the growing media and government attention to the campus rape epidemic, but that, too, is part of the trauma-saturated cultural picture in 2015.

Though, in recent years, “trigger” has become one of those frequently used terms that begin to lose meaning, understanding PTSD helps us understand why a classroom setting can be so fraught for some. “People who go through a trauma, the main thing they’re reacting to is a loss of control,” says NYC psychotherapist Bea Arthur (no relation to the Golden Girls actress). “Any other opposing force is going to be hard to accept, especially if it’s an authority figure.”

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Caroline Heldman, a professor in Occidental University’s politics department, learned about trigger warnings the hard way the better part of a decade ago, when students began experiencing PTSD-related episodes in her classes. “There were a few instances where students would break down crying and I’d have to suspend the class for the day so someone could get immediate mental health care,” she says. In a sense, Heldman says, she introduced trigger warnings in order to keep the long tail of trauma outside the doors of learning, rather than ushering it in.

“Trigger warnings allow me to have a conversation, to say, ‘This is not a class about your personal life,’” Heldman told me. “This actually helps to make the class more academic. And it has the benefit of letting students prepare for what might come.”

From a trauma-suffering student’s perspective, the opportunity for preparation is key. “What happens if I’m warned that something has images of domestic violence or abuse in advance? I have five seconds to take a deep breath, to say to myself, ok, this is not real,” grad student Angela Bennett-Segler wrote in a blog post that several friends in academia flagged for me. “I never shy away. Why? Because stories are powerful. Because they empowered me.”

Haylin Belay is a brand-new graduate of Columbia University who has been diagnosed with PTSD. She says she seeks out individual accommodations from professors, checking in intermittently if she thinks material is going to be triggering. “It’s far less disruptive,” says the anthropology major. “In those classes, I’m able to participate more fully.” She notes that when these systems are deployed most effectively — via a private back-and-forth with a professor, in communications ranging from frequent to rare — other students aren’t affected at all, since their curriculum isn’t disrupted. As for whether such a system is tenable in the real world, beyond the university setting, Belay compares it to an experience she had at a recent health education job, where she politely asked her supervisor to steer her away from discussions on the topic of rape and was accommodated.

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Some instructors, particularly those who are survivors of rape or other trauma, also benefit from warnings, hoping they’ll create a larger culture of compassion. “Part of the reason I give warnings is that I hope that they’ll give me a few seconds of prep time, as well,” one friend, a poet who teaches graduate-level writing and preferred to remain anonymous, told me. “It sucks to read through an essay and just abruptly read a student’s usage of rape as an analogy for, like, soccer.” Indeed, when professors inveigh against trigger warnings by complaining that they give students too much power over the classroom, they are glossing over this potential dynamic – of students re-traumatizing professors.

A close reading of the text of actual trigger warnings, or similar disclaimers, on college syllabi reveals little in the way of coddling. In fact, most of these statements put the onus directly on students to deal with trauma, while acknowledging that professors understand the material might be unpleasant. “Over the course of the semester, we will be examining topics that may be emotionally triggering for trauma survivors,” Heldman’s syllabus reads in part. “If you are a trauma survivor, please develop a self-care plan for the semester so that you can effectively engage the course material and participate in class.” According to Heldman,”It doesn’t infantilize students, but treats them like they can handle information and process it. It makes me very comfortable introducing content I might otherwise be leery of introducing.” It also reminds students that others in the classroom may be suffering from any number of causes, she says, preparing them to enter the real world with more empathy.

Dr. Mo Pareles, a postdoctoral fellow in Medieval Literature at Northwestern University, uses a similarly straightforward disclaimer for her Medieval Humans and Beasts class: “I will not give trigger warnings, except to say here that the literature in this course contains a good deal of nontrivial sexism, racism, violence, and so forth,” it reads. “However, although shock value is certainly a legitimate pedagogical tool, nothing is included in the syllabus for that purpose.”

“There is so much violence and bigotry in the material I teach that I can’t really catalog it all,” Pareles explained to me. “So this trigger warning is my way of saying that being upset is a valid reaction to some of what you’ll encounter.”

Compare these warnings to the standard spoken introduction that Josh Lambert, a visiting assistant professor of English at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has used in Holocaust-related courses, and you’ll find something similar. Lambert sent me his old notes, which read in part: “We’ll be dealing with some harsh images and subjects. These are topics about which many people are understandably sensitive, and yet in this class I specifically want to deal with some texts that are excessive, or strange, or humorous, or difficult to take, or offensive,” he told his students. “We should be respectful of everyone in the room, and keep in mind that some people in the room lost relatives in the Holocaust.”

When it comes to the Holocaust, a gentle heads up may sound like common sense rather than censoriousness. The struggle taking place on campuses now is, in part, a way of asking faculty to see rape and racialized or gendered violence on a continuum with such self-evidently difficult topics. Unfortunately, outside of activist circles, where such questions are ceaselessly analyzed, many faculty members or students might not even recognize the depiction of rape in art or literature they assign – as in the Columbia students’ complaint that The Metamorphoses was taught without any explanation that it depicted rape. Conversely, students who think themselves fluent in the language of social justice might not understand why reading a book containing a depraved sexual assault isn’t endorsing that depravity. This is exactly where more dialogue between professors and students might help, not hurt.

“Students who don’t distinguish between conversations about racism and actual racism, for instance, are probably misunderstanding what ‘triggers’ actually are,” says Carrie Nelson, a writer who worked as a TA in film classes at the New School when she was a graduate student. “Professors should teach students the nuances that distinguish feeling triggered and feeling uncomfortable or offended. But, of course, that involves a degree of extra work that underpaid university professors — rightfully — may not want to put in.”

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Columbia graduate Belay cites an example of a professor who gives the same lecture twice, once with potentially disturbing accompanying slides and once without, as a particularly thoughtful response to student needs. Regardless of whether faculty members are willing to go to such lengths, she says, “We’re not asking for syllabi to be rewritten or classes to be struck from the curriculum. I find that just as alarming an as other people do. We’re asking for accommodations.” By understanding PTSD in the classroom as a disability, Belay makes a huge distinction between hurtful topics and triggering topics. She notes that students have said troubling things about subjects like welfare in classes she’s attended – a potentially uncomfortable moment, but not necessarily a triggering one. When she was upset by comments like that, she had a voice to counter them. She contrasts this with the experience of actually having a PTSD reaction, when a student might feel paralyzed and unable to speak at all, and might disengage entirely.

When you read the warnings used by these teachers, it seems that they might achieve two goals: giving traumatized students time to prepare, but also asking all students to willingly engage. This second idea attempts to explicitly avoid the trigger warning “slippery slope” that concerns so many thinkers. The bottom of that slope is a passel of squeamish, conservative, or immature students gleefully manipulating the idea of triggers as a way of shirking intellectual growth — how far is the distance from, “I can’t read Ovid because it depicts rape” to, “I can’t read Sappho because it’s gay”? Opening class by saying, “It’s up to you to come up with a plan to handle upsetting stuff,” might actually dissuade any students acting in bad faith from trying to use the concept of triggers to take over the classroom.

Moments of overreach are likely inevitable in any environment where entitled students roam — though, again, not always in precisely the way outside observers might assume. Faculty members relayed anecdotes to me including an objection to the word “breast” because it might offend breast cancer survivors, and another situation in which the lone male in a classroom said his position as such made him uncomfortable hearing the word “rape.” Students who act in bad faith will probably do so no matter what. Still, this kind of “we can’t read Gatsby” incident, strewn throughout every comment section of every article on the subject, explains many educators’ understandable fear that the culture of trigger warnings will lead to a chilling atmosphere on campus.

Students and faculty who use trigger warnings acknowledge legitimate concerns about the state of academia — while maintaining that thinking about how to teach with sensitivity is very different from squelching autonomy. “Online, the conversation got ugly,” says Bender-Baird. “Trigger warnings became the depository for a lot of things that are going wrong in academia, like corporatization and the expansion of administrative control over classrooms. The students and their emotional and psychological needs get completely lost in the conversation.” By the same token, Pareles says, it’s crucial to discuss “the erosion of academic freedom and the marketing of college as a consumer item,” where students’ demands are justified by their (or their family’s) enormous investment. Yet to use those issues as a way to avoid the trigger question entirely, she says, means that faculty are ironically insulating themselves from painful material — namely, the real-world power dynamics involved in trauma.

If presented in a careful way, these warnings (as most often worded) can do the opposite of babying students; they open up the lines of communication between students and professors, ask students to take responsibility for their own reactions, and prevent disingenuous students from making every class discussion a venue for airing their own alleged grievances. As for situations in which students are demanding trigger warnings or asking administrators to make them mandatory, not a single person I spoke to, student or professor, supports administrative interference on this matter. They simply say that professors — whether through content warnings or in some other way — should let students know that they’re approachable and responsive and understand the existence of trauma in the population they teach. In this kind of environment, perhaps some outlandish curricular demands would be handled in one office-hours conversation rather than in the national news.

Similarly, the phrase “trigger warning” itself — whose meaning in the culture has morphed from vocabulary specific to the realm of therapy to an overused symbol of an “oversensitive” cadre — might be more distracting than useful. Faculty might be better off folding content notes into resource sections on syllabi, or into their introductory notes, without employing the term. Alternately, Belay says, rather than mandating trigger warnings, universities could systematically enable students with PTSD  to communicate with professors via backchannels, making the entire process more streamlined and less public.

Whatever the individual solutions are, at least grappling with the subject beyond the pro/con debate might lead to growth and new approaches to teaching. “To be honest, I feel that the debate on trigger warnings is actually a blind,” Pareles says. “No one is going to be forced to use trigger warnings, but thinking about them forces the question: How much do people who have not experienced sexual assault, racism, transphobia, and so on have to consider how profoundly these experiences continue to harm people in their own community?”