In my previous blog post, I described a student who walked out of my classroom in tears after viewing traumatic content.
I referenced this post as an example of how faculty often rely on traumatic content to make injustice visible for some students, but sometimes at the expense of other students’ mental health. When I used disturbing content as evidence of racial injustice during the Jim Crow era, I was thinking of potential resistance among white students, rather than the harm it might cause BIPOC students.
The example raises another question, however: Could this incident have been avoided, or at least ameliorated, with a trigger warning?
What are trigger warnings?
Trigger warnings are meant to advise viewers/participants of content that might elicit distress or trauma, especially for those with PTSD. As an example, when Obi-Wan Kenobi aired on HBO Max shortly after the Uvalde school shooting, certain episodes opened with a content warning alerting viewers to disturbing content (involving a massacre of young children). To give an academic example, an instructor showing a film that features sexual assault might provide a trigger warning for students with PTSD related to sexual assault.
In academic settings, instructors might include trigger warnings verbally, on syllabi, or on specific course documents to indicate potentially traumatizing content. The idea, in both academic and non-academic settings, is that such warnings show a care for viewers’ or students’ mental health, and that they provide an opportunity for those affected to prepare themselves mentally, emotionally, or otherwise for the content.
The trigger warning controversy
In academia, trigger warnings are extremely controversial, for reasons including but not limited to the following:
As in our popular culture, many faculty assume that trigger warnings may lead to students avoiding any content that challenges them or makes them uncomfortable;
Some faculty believe that trigger warnings“infantilize” students, suggesting that “students should assume agency and talk to their professors about any personal needs”;
Faculty worry that trigger warnings could infringe on academic freedom; and
It’s worth noting that despite the evidence cited here and other studies indicating trigger warnings may not actually help with anxiety or PTSD in these contexts, recent evidence shows that over half of university faculty use some form of a trigger warning in their classes, and a substantial number of faculty have indicated that their students have requested trigger warnings.
Warning but no action
To be clear, a trigger warning does not necessitate any action beyond the warning. An instructor may give a trigger warning before showing a film with disturbing content without offering options for students concerned about the content. The idea, essentially, is that the warning itself is a gesture of care and, quite literally, a warning to prepare for what’s coming.
And yet, for many students and faculty, the warning doesn’t seem like enough. If the traumatic content is necessary for learning, and there’s insufficient evidence to show that the warnings help lessen anxiety or PTSD, then the warning functions primarily as a courtesy––a gesture of care from instructor to students. There’s value in such gestures and care, but some faculty take the content warnings a step further by providing options for students who may be traumatized or otherwise harmed by the content.
Providing flexible options
In my own classes, I do give content warnings. However, I have found that the warning by itself doesn’t feel like enough for my students. The issue, for me, concerns both the amount of exposure and the form of exposure to the disturbing content. For example, if a novel I assign has disturbing content (like sexual assault), a trigger warning may alert the student the scene is coming and allow them to skip the content; but if students discuss the scene during class, the student may need additional options.
In light of such situations, some faculty combine content warnings with options for avoiding exposure to the content. Media ethics professor Michael Bujeja, for example, offers the following statement on his syllabus:
In media ethics we deal with several sensitive topics. As such, you will see trigger warnings on segments that require such. You can miss class during these sessions and view website content on your own. You also may decide not to view that content but instead access a digital study guide without certain multimedia to acquaint you with concepts that may be covered in exams. If you decide to miss class, just send an excuse email stating that you will view the study guide.
In my class, I provide a few options for students but put the choice of how to proceed in their hands. For example, I can provide page numbers; I can offer meet with students to address concerns; students can step out of class when discussion veers toward a traumatic topic; students can miss a class related to a particular text; or students can read an alternate text. Any work or classes missed is made up in some other way agreed upon (usually suggested by) the student.
One complication of providing these options, it’s worth noting, is that it often elicits a degree of self-disclosure from students. Even if a student simply needs page numbers or a chapter to skip because of an assault scene, that student may feel that they are telling the instructor too much personal information. Providing a little more detail in advance can help ensure students can protect themselves without feeling as though they have to share their personal histories.
As a final note, it can be useful to provide some information about mental health resources on campus, and simply to affirm your concern for your students’ well-being. Knowing that the instructor is concerned about their mental health can encourage students to take control of their learning and identify their needs.