Have trigger warnings been taken too far in some schools? Could it be argued that school, especially higher education, is a place where students should be challenged and confronted, to a certain extent, with issues that make them uncomfortable?

How can instructors achieve a balance of being at once challenging and sensitive towards their students?


Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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I am glad that others are weighing in on this debate. I want to add my experience as well here. It does seem like perhaps trigger warnings might work differently in high school v. college settings.

I am a believer in the trigger warning. In fact, I am shocked that suddenly this issue is a debate in academic circles. I have been putting a trigger warning on my syllabi since 2008.

A little background: I teach classes about gender and violence and continue to study literary texts that have female protagonists who enact violence. I also teach courses about women writers around the world, and sexual violence is often prevalent in those texts.

Here is the statement on my syllabus: "If at any point you must leave the class, please do so quietly. Several of the readings could be triggers, and I want you to feel safe in the class at all times." It is bolded and italicized.

I can't think of a reason NOT to tell a student that you care about their safety. Usually on the first day of class a student will raise their hand and ask what that statement means. I explain that we read about a lot of violence and I know that those who have endured trauma could feel unsafe or triggered. It sets a great tone to the semester for the students to know the class is safe for them.

And I will tell you a secret: I have not in eight years had a single student who left. It seems to me that just knowing they can and aren't going to be punished for having a flashback is enough for students.

So to say that such warnings are pandering and softening our students seems like bunk to me. How is recognizing the humanity of our students anything but positive?

Lisa Hiton, Professor of English and Arts, Poet, Filmmaker, Writer

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To answer this question, I often ask students and teachers to consider the role of censorship in their own agenda--whether that is self-censorship, censorship of a text, or censorship of certain content. Trigger warnings read differently depending on given circumstances (to borrow a theater term). In the media, you can find many begrudging trigger warnings as a mark of millennials whining and being coddled to. You can also find many pieces on the importance of often silenced truths students carry around with them on a day-to-day basis being triggered without their control. Likewise, there are many pieces about adjunct professors worried about job security based on what they do or do not include on a syllabus. It seems the common denominator is to determine what you are censoring and why.

One of the main premises of literature and art is to go to the edges of interiority. To empathize with unlikely protagonists.. To forgive the unforgivable. To see how much a given protagonist can survive, overcome, and live through/with. In that sense, to put a trigger warning on a text itself seems a problematic endeavor by my measure. Not even the gun counter at a Walmart has one. It is crucial when reading any text to facilitate a space in which all students feel safe in expressing their thoughts and ideas. Especially because the things that trigger us can happen in the micro-aggressions of day-to-day life, when faced directly with themes and content that might be part of a given person's own history, it is important that teachers and professors allow the conversations about these subjects to be rigorous, empathetic, and toward some sort of capacity related to morality (of which I do not mean religious, but something more broadly about humanity).

One of my favorite news blunders about this issue comes from two adjunct professors on vox.com. The initial opinion piece was from an adjunct professor who thought his liberal students were terrifying. Following his initial piece, another adjunct professor argued for the opposite. The key difference: the gender of each professor.

http://www.vox.com/2015/6/3/8706323/college-professor-afraid http://www.vox.com/2015/6/5/8736591/liberal-professor-identity

Of all the pieces out there, I find this compelling because it forces us to think about our own narratives as part of the triggering. We are living in a neo-confessional moment. It allows everyone to have a voice. It has also caused some false dichotomies (for example, many of my students see me as a young white woman who is a professor--they may or may not know that I'm also a lesbian, Jewish, have divorced parents, etc.). The premise of studying these works is to break away from those false dichotomies and see characters as complex, which hopefully results in seeing each other as complex too.

Here are is a list of further reading:

ON THE RISE OF TRIGGER WARNINGS http://www.vox.com/2015/9/10/9298577/trigger-warnings-college

ON BEING CODDLED http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

BEING CODDLED AND BEING POLITICALLY CORRECT AREN'T THE SAME http://www.vox.com/2015/9/14/9326965/obama-political-correctness

THE LARGER CULTURE WAR https://newrepublic.com/article/122543/trigger-warning-myth

ON USING TRIGGER WARNINGS http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html?_r=0

Jennifer Oleniczak, Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator

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I feel like I'm answering the same thing every time, but it is so very important for teachers to be present and teach to their audience, and not to their agendas.

Specifically, say a teacher has decided to confront this 'trigger warning problem' by directly addressing triggers. Are they prepared to use the time it will take to give the project the energy it deserves? Is the school prepared to stand behind the teacher as well as support the student emotionally and psychologically if they are bothered/hurt by it? Why is the teacher addressing this, because the students have asked, or does the teacher have their own agenda regarding the 'trigger warning problem'?

I think if the address comes from a natural, organic place of the students interest and opinion, as well as desire - and the teacher is willing to dedicate time to whatever might open up - AND the administration can back the teacher decision as well as properly support the student if necessary - sure, they can be addressed. But teachers are NOT psychologists, even if we listen to all the problems in the world. We can't properly support individuals, or know the whole story of an individual, if we are focused on teaching something just because it is sensational.

In the end, pay attention to the students, and support them when necessary, especially if you are working on a known 'trigger' lesson. Goals shouldn't be sensational teaching; they should encompass the development of the student, not personal agenda.

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