If you’re teaching a course that includes graphic or disturbing subject matter, should you offer students a trigger warning—a disclosure that the content may cause trauma or distress? If so, should you do so only before certain lectures, or should you insert a disclaimer directly into your syllabus?
Over the past year, professors have taken to the web to bat around difficult questions like these. Cast about online, and you’d find instructors like Raechel of Rebel Grrrl Academy, Erin of The Digital Grad Lounge, and Paula Teander discussing uncomfortable moments they’d experienced in their classrooms because they failed to disclose trigger or content warnings about such topics as suicide, graphic misogyny, and rape. Each of these professors now more closely monitors her assignments as well as the subject matter and delivery of her lectures.
Look further and you might see Ruxandra Looft, a lecturer, ask how trigger warnings fit into lesson planning: “What happens when a student is trapped in a classroom where a discussion brings up terrible and traumatic memories? How can a student easily and subtly remove herself from that moment?” And you might find the lengthy and detailed thread of comments that her question provoked.
For the most part, conversations like those centered around a basic theme: Trigger warnings make sense. How can we implement them as effectively as possible? That was the conversation then.
Should Students Expect Disturbing Material, or Should They Be Warned?
This week the discussion shifted. The New Republic published a piece by Jennie Jarvie, a writer who argues that trigger warnings in the higher-ed classroom are contributing to a growing paranoia about offending others. Tressie McMillan Cottom followed up with a similar reaction, likening trigger warnings to censorship and depicting them as another win for the “student-customer” movement that’s currently plaguing higher education.
Jarvie and Cottom aren’t the first to express concerns about trigger warnings—Roxane Gay wrote in 2012 that “when used in excess,” the warnings “start to feel like censorship”—but they’ve amplified the argument. And several academics on Twitter have stepped forward to agree with them. “Students should expect disturbing material, ideas. So should faculty,” one historian wrote. “We've gone too far with trigger warnings,” a political-studies professor tweeted. Even an undergraduate weighed in: “If a professor put trigger warnings on the syllabus, I would drop the class.”
Others, however, quickly questioned these perspectives. One Ph.D. student tweeted: “Some people don’t need trigger warnings. Great for you. A lot of other people do, and it takes ten seconds to read off in the classroom.” Feminist blogger Melissa McEwen wrote: “Trigger warnings don't make people ‘oversensitive.’ They acknowledge that there is a lot of garbage in the world that causes people lasting harm.” Finally, one teacher and poet asked, again on Twitter: “Isn’t a trigger warning just a way of giving people information so they can make informed decisions? Why is this bad?”
Until this week, when Jarvie’s New Republic article was published, the majority of professors conversing publicly about this matter—virtually all women, by the way—sided with the second group. In other words, they never saw trigger warnings as a form of censorship or a sign of "over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings.” Rather, they viewed the warnings as disclosures that were necessary only before their students read, discussed, and/or screened certain material—material that might produce actual responses, either physical or emotional. Material like photographs of people battling anorexia, for example, or cinematic portrayals of anal rape. McEwen describes it thusly:
“To say, ‘I was triggered’ is not to say, as it is frequently mischaracterized, ‘I got my delicate fee-fees hurt.’ It is to say, ‘I had a significantly mood-altering experience of anxiety.’ Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.”
In other words, for students, this discussion has real consequences. With that in mind, it’s worth keeping focused on the issue that was most often in question—how such advisories are implemented. And that’s what I’d like to consider in this post: a few ways instructors may generate trigger warnings, or at least content warnings, for their classrooms, if they feel those warnings are necessary.
Does a Class on Tarantino Really Need a Trigger Warning?
I’m currently teaching a course on Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. While most students registering for Lee/Tarantino: Topics in Film Studies know they will encounter representations of drug-use, racist language, gunfire, and rape, I cannot assume every student knows this. As such, I’ve included the following paragraph in my syllabus:
Works of Lee and Tarantino contain extreme profanity, nudity, depictions of sex, and hate-speech (i.e., language that may be interpreted as racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or sexist). Their works also include representations, sometimes graphic, of the following: drug use and needles, overdoses, car accidents, insects, vomit, blood, medical procedures, corpses, trauma to a pregnant character, forced captivity, premature burial, torture, gun violence, bullet wounds, physical combat, murder, sexual assault, and rape. Since virtually every work of Lee and Tarantino includes at least 5 of these, I will not disclose specific triggers before every screening. Rather, this section of the syllabus will function as a trigger warning for the entire term. Students who anticipate discomfort while screening these films should research the plot and potential triggers before class, and then sit near an exit so that, when necessary, they may step out of the room for a few minutes. Removing yourself for a moment or two is perfectly fine.
Theoretically, some items in this paragraph read as “graphic content” or “content warnings” and others as “triggers.” I leave the distinction between the two up to the students. After all, what one person considers “graphic content,” another may consider a “trigger.” In any event, I tried to include anything from Lee’s and Tarantino’s works that I thought could be interpreted as upsetting or distressing. (Yeah, there’s a lot.)
You’ll also notice that after I inform students about the potentially disturbing images we will see on our classroom’s 20-foot screen, and after I assure them that they won’t be penalized for their actions, the remainder of the responsibility belongs to them. And this, according to a study published by The American Society of Criminology, is perhaps most valuable: “giv[ing] victims, as well as other students, control over their educational experience [...] is crucial,” the authors write, and “thought to help improve victims’ psychological health.”
But this can also be tricky. Some students—like this one and this one and this one and this ally—may feel as though they are outing themselves as victims/survivors if they walk out momentarily during class. Here is some advice I’ve come across to help assuage this scenario:
First, professors should never draw attention to (and inadvertently embarrass) students who leave during potentially triggering portions of a film or class discussion.
Second, remember your mission as a teacher. In an essay on teaching about rape in classical literature, Yurie Hong urges professors to create a safe space while maintaining their primary purpose: “to facilitate students’ learning, which includes fostering an environment in which students feel safe exploring topics that are intellectually, and possibly emotionally, challenging.”
Finally, for the student who doesn’t feel comfortable removing himself or herself from the classroom during triggering moments, create self-care plans. The criminology study encourages professors to ask students “to think about steps they can take if the course material has an emotional impact on them.”
Implementing Trigger Warnings: Some Options
The trigger-warning paragraph I’ve used in my Lee-Tarantino class probably works best for instructors who create course calendars and stick with them throughout the term. That way, students know clearly what lies ahead and how to prepare. Below, one student fondly recalls a professor who did adhere to her schedule:
[Having a detailed lesson plan] was really helpful because if I knew the topic was a difficult one for me, I could (1) emotionally prepare myself and (2) sit somewhere that would allow me to make an inconspicuous exit if I needed to. I only had to step out a couple of times during the course, but I never felt ashamed, embarrassed, or singled-out. I was able to get a lot more out of the class as a result of the way she approached these topics and the way she treated us.
While another student not-as-fondly remembers a professor who did not:
The times when I got no warning (like one day in my American History class where the professor sprung the beach scene from Saving Private Ryan on us—I thought I might be physically ill) were by far worse. With advance trigger warnings, students won't be put on the spot to decide right then and there whether or not they can handle the material.
There are plenty of ways to implement trigger warnings so that their classes “won’t be put on the spot,” as the student above recalls. For example, a professor could offer bathroom breaks immediately after a trigger warning, and immediately before displaying the potentially disturbing content, in order to make student exits less obvious.
Or professors could simply not take attendance on days when lecturesor class discussions may include triggering content. They could email any potential trigger warnings to the class beforehand. And finally, they could include on their syllabus individual warnings (for weekly lectures) or one mass warning (like my Lee-Tarantino class), and then reiterate those warnings throughout the term.
However professors choose to implement trigger warnings in the higher ed classroom—if they opt to incorporate them at all—they’ll want to keep three simple goals in mind: Be upfront, be understanding, and be fair.