Kennesaw State University

Kennesaw State Student

Reconsidering Trigger Warnings

Jan 22, 2016 | by Linda Stewart | Kennesaw State University

Recently, I've been rethinking trigger warnings about readings, viewings, or podcasts in my classes.  In the past, I have given a heads-up to students in the form of a written statement on my syllabi and specifically about profanity in texts, but I rarely gave a significant trigger warning to students. However, because early one semester, one of my students wrote to alert me that she was a rape survivor, I saw my course selections of Mrs. Dalloway and The House on Mango Street in a new light. As a result of her disclosure, I did offer trigger warnings for both books, and I also noticed students focused on Septimus's suicide and Esperanza's rape far more than in previous classes, drastically affecting our classroom discussions as several other students shared stories of sexual violence. After clarifying that these incidents had already been reported, I sought advice from various campus resources and offered them to the class. Needless to say, these were intense times for all of us and trigger warnings were on my mind.

When trigger warnings began trending in the headlines, I tended to agree that they might be coddling college students, encouraging censorship, and endangering critical thinking on university campuses. Students from the University of California were asking for trigger warnings on classic works such as Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, a novel I teach because it addresses war, PTSD, and suicide, among many other things. Students at Duke refused to read Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Funhome: A Family Tragicomic assigned as a summer reading option. Similar refusals to read, sing, or act problematic texts in three different cases are described by Matt Hlinak in the AACU's journal, Liberal Education. He summarizes:

"These cases present different issues, but each one turns on the student's subjective feelings of offense. In the first case, the professor took those feelings seriously, while the faculty and administration in the other two cases were more dismissive; this explains why the students in those cases felt the need to lodge external complaints against their institutions. Although I am not suggesting that a student's resistance to a text always merits an accommodation by the professor, the professor should certainly take resistance seriously and respond in a respectful manner."

Hlinak points out that each instance should be handled thoughtfully and with consideration for the individual context of the situation, observing that much is lost when we don't engage with texts.

Because of the experiences with the class I described, I've thought about how I will address future classes. Since some news organizations report 22 veterans commit suicide each day and statistics show one in four women and one in six men will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18, it's obvious that our classrooms are composed of students who have experienced trauma. Why wouldn't I want to warn them that the readings might evoke discomfort at the very least? Rather than offering explicit "trigger warnings," I plan on sharing my realizations about trigger warnings and make that a subject of conversation with students as we read literature that will challenge, provoke, and maybe even heal us. We'll see how it goes.

Faculty may want to check out the survey findings about Chief Academic Officers' attitudes toward trigger warnings. Scott Jaschik reports in Inside Higher Ed that many provosts worry about trigger warnings, citing these findings:

  • 72 percent of provosts said that they believed trigger warnings "may discourage students from encountering important works of literature or art."
  • 58 percent of provosts said that they believed trigger warnings "are part of a trend of colleges going too far to protect students from things that may make them uncomfortable."

How do you handle trigger warnings in your classroom? Here are a few more articles that might be of interest as you consider your decision.

"The Trigger Warning Myth" by Aaron R. Hanlon

"Trigger Warnings Aren't The Campus Censorship Woe Opponents Believe" by Jessica Valenti

"Trigger Warning Skepticism" by Colleen Flaherty

National Coalition Against Censorship's "What's the Truth about Trigger Warnings" Report

Also, consider attending CETL's "Coffee and Conversation" on March 15, 2016 from 3:45 – 4:45 p.m.