Trigger warnings: Proponents argue that they are essential to learning, while critics contend that they obstruct it. Who’s right?
The phrase “trigger warning” is derived from “trauma triggers,” terminology that describes when someone is reminded — even subconsciously — of a traumatic experience. These reminders can come in a variety of sensory forms, from odors to songs to words.
In academic environments, “trigger warnings” notify students that they will be engaging with material that may itself remind them of a traumatic event they have experienced, eliciting an emotionally or physically difficult response. Current debates in the media focus on the appropriateness of trigger warnings in secondary and higher education. While some view the attachment of trigger warnings to content as a form of emotionally-supportive pedagogy, others claim that by using them, teachers are in effect coddling students who should be able to encounter topics that challenge their understanding of the world.
Giving a warning about potentially disturbing material seems logical — and it is something I do regularly as a high school teacher. That said, the complications of the practice are plentiful. How is a teacher supposed to anticipate every topic that may lead to discomfort or emotional distress in students?
Furthermore, could the anticipation of distress ultimately lead to the omission of challenging material from the classroom, or provide students with an excuse to avoid books they don’t want to read?
Refusal to Engage
Such refusals to engage with potentially triggering material are not only happening at the university level, but at the high school level, as well.
Our country has a long history of politicizing literature and of banning books. Each year, the American Library Association records attempts to have certain literature removed from libraries and classrooms. Books that have been objected to include “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin.
Given this history, trigger warnings may provide an opportunity for parents or administrators to exercise classroom or curriculum control — because some interpret a warning about potentially triggering material as an excuse to refuse to read the material at all. This practice is akin to banning certain works of literature.
As a high school teacher, I believe in honoring parental wishes. But the trend of families opting out of exposure to different beliefs and practices, whether in literary characters or world history, is deeply disturbing. Refraining from teaching the Holocaust because it is upsetting won’t change the fact that it occurred.
Over the summer, I assigned “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver to my high school sophomore honors English classes. Some parents emailed me to convey that they wanted alternative reading for their child, as they found the book highly inappropriate. I had no recourse other than to provide alternative reading and to remind them gently that the book was not only approved by the district — and by parents in the community, as the book had been available for parental review at our district office for three months — but also that the book is on the AP Literature and Composition recommended reading list.
Hasn’t literature served as a portal to understanding the human experience for centuries? The debates and discomfort that literary or historical topics create themselves demand a confrontation of how and why human beings act the way we do. Great literature leaves readers with questions — and sometimes even answers — about how they would behave in similar situations in the present and future. Reading great literature can be very emotionally draining — just like life itself.
When I attended high school, I was never warned about explicit material in Greek mythology, in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Hamlet,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or the Bible. My difficulties or emotional unease were hashed out in the classroom, in lunchroom conversations with my peers, and at home. Removing difficult topics from the classroom out of fear of disrupting emotional balance is understandable, but it’s ultimately not helpful for the development of adolescents who one day may occupy a college classroom and campus, and who will have to make their way in the world. Instead of omitting difficult material, might instructors and administrators instead seek to provide better support, such as a fully staffed academic advisement department, as well as on-call crisis counselors and mental health professionals outside of the classroom should something within the classroom create anxiety that can’t easily be worked through?
An Alternative to Avoidance
It seems the best next step after a trigger warning is issued isn’t to omit or refuse to engage with the material, but rather to have support in place in the home or school to help students process the material. How in any way does sheltering a student from harsh realities — even their own — prepare that student for reality? We must do better to provide coping mechanisms for our youth, and omitting literature isn’t the answer.
To be able to teach the art of how to express disagreement without contempt, as well as how to sit with discomfort, is a privilege never to be taken lightly. Literature in particular provides students the means for self- and community exploration. If trigger warnings are issued as a means of alerting students to seek support in coping with material that may make them anxious, then such warnings are conscientious in nature. My colleagues and I have been doing this for years — none of us are in the business of minimizing trauma.
For example, before I teach “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison in AP Literature, I send a note home to parents and discuss with my students the use of historically demeaning language in the novel, as well as the incidents of prejudice-induced violence. To turn away from Ellison's novel because of difficult words and scenes is to turn away from historical truths and phenomenally-crafted writing. A colleague of mine always gives a heads-up about Shakespeare's use of sexual puns. He doesn't dwell on the puns during instruction, but he makes sure to let the students know they exist. Certainly “Romeo and Juliet” contains far loftier lessons — about love, life, and language — than its puns alone convey, a fact that justifies its use in English classrooms.
What is most concerning about the debate over forewarnings is how much classroom literature is becoming politicized. As human beings we are political. Every person brings to the reading table his or her own cultural, racial, and religious experiences. Removing potentially triggering material from the classroom is effectively removing a tool by which students can learn about themselves, and more importantly, about one another. That in and of itself deserves a warning and an alarm.
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