We write as faculty members teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race studies, film and visual studies, literary studies, and cognate fields. We empathize with the difficulties our students bring into the classroom, from their pasts and/or from their ongoing battles with violence, sexual assault, racism, and other traumatizing events, both everyday and extraordinary. As faculty of color, female, and/or queer faculty, many of us have had some of the same experiences.
However, we are concerned about the movement on college campuses to mandate or encourage “trigger warnings”  – notifications that class material may cause severe negative reactions – on class syllabuses. We are currently watching our colleagues receive phone calls from deans and other administrators investigating student complaints that they have included “triggering” material in their courses, with or without warnings. We feel that this movement is already having a chilling effect on our teaching and pedagogy. Here, we outline why a movement with the very salutary intent of minimizing student pain may be, in fact, ineffectual as well as harmful to both students and faculty. We offer this outline in the spirit of collective engagement amongst faculty, students, and administrators because we want to support both faculty in their choice to teach difficult material and students in their need for an ethic of care at the university.
1. Faculty cannot predict in advance what will be triggering for students.The idea that trauma is reignited by representations of the particular traumatizing experience is not supported by the research on post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma. Flashbacks, panic attacks, and other manifestations of past trauma can be triggered by innocuous things: a smell, a sudden movement, a color. There is simply no way for faculty to solve for this with warnings or modified course materials.
Angus Johnston thinks the concept is a worthy addition to a syllabus and promotes good teaching values. Read
2. There is no mechanism, in the discourse of “triggering,” for distinguishing material that is oppositional or critical in its representation of traumatizing experience from that which is sensationalistic or gratuitous.
3. Most faculty are not trained to handle traumatic reactions. Although many of us include analyses of the cultural logics and legacies of trauma and/or perpetration in our courses, this expertise does not qualify faculty to offer the professional responses traumatized students may need. Institutions seriously committed to caring for traumatized students ought to be directing students, from their first days on campus, to a rich array of mental health resources. Trigger warnings are not an adequate substitute for these resources or for the information students need to get help.
4. PTSD is a disability; as with all disabilities, students and faculty deserve to have effective resources provided by independent campus offices that handle documentation, certification, and accommodation plans rather than by faculty proceeding on an ad hoc basis.
5. Trigger warnings may encourage students to file claims against faculty rather than seek support and resources for debilitating reactions to stressors. In fact, the complaint is implied in the structure of a warning; the warning serves as a guarantee that students will not experience unexpected discomfort and implies that if they do, a contract has been broken.
6. Even the best-intended, ad hoc declarations on syllabuses by individual faculty may lead students to expect or demand similar “disclosures” from other faculty who may feel that other ways of addressing students’ emotional reactions to material are more effective.
7. Faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the visual/performing arts will likely be disproportionate targets of student complaints about triggering, as the material these faculty members teach is by its nature unsettling and often feels immediate.
8. Untenured and non-tenure-track faculty will feel the least freedom to include complex, potentially disturbing materials on their syllabuses even when these materials may well serve good pedagogical aims, and will be most vulnerable to institutional censure for doing so.
9. Trigger warnings may provide a dangerous illusion that a campus has solved or is systematically addressing its problems with sexual assault, racial aggression, and other forms of campus violence, when, in fact, the opposite may be true.
10. Trigger warnings may strike some as a cost-effective solution to rising concerns about student mental health, campus cultures that condone sexual assault, and similar big-ticket issues. However, there are hidden costs to a trigger warning policy, for example, the expense, labor, and loss of trust and morale that result from the increased number of Title IX complaints against professionally vulnerable faculty members.
What do we propose as an alternative to trigger warnings? We feel faculty and students are best-served by the following:
1. From faculty -- syllabuses and/or pages on course websites that include referral to on-campus resources available to students experiencing difficulties with course materials in ways that need to be addressed with specific expertise – counseling resources, support groups, advising, relevant student organizations, etc. If such resources do not exist or are insufficiently funded, we believe our efforts should be directed toward establishing and increasing support for them. Mandating trigger warnings should not be a substitute for this important work.
2. From administrators -- systematic, robust, and proactive institutional attention to such matters as sexual assault, racially motivated attacks, harassment, and other practices of violence on campus.
3. From faculty and administrators -- faculty development opportunities that will enhance our ability to recognize and respond appropriately to students’ strong emotional reactions to materials that ask them to witness or analyze violence, question their own privilege, understand their own place in structures of injustice, and undertake other psychologically difficult tasks.
4. From students -- awareness that the faculty who teach the very materials that help them understand and combat racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc., as well as trauma, violence, and practices of injustice, are often the most vulnerable members of their professional context. Administrations may use student complaints to marginalize particular faculty and particular topics, and/or use a trigger mandate/recommendation to delimit what can be taught in the first place.
Some students may read trigger warnings as evidence that faculty and the university care for them and recognize their histories of trauma. We believe the university has a responsibility to provide that care in the form of appropriate resources and support beyond any statement on a course syllabus. As well-intended as trigger warnings may seem, they make promises about the management of trauma’s afterlife that a syllabus, or even a particular faculty member, should not be expected to keep.
The authors of this piece are:
- Elizabeth Freeman, professor of English at the University of California at Davis.
- Brian Herrera, assistant professor of theater at Princeton University.
- Nat Hurley, assistant Professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta.
- Homay King, associate professor of the history of art at Bryn Mawr College.
- Dana Luciano, associate professor of English at Georgetown University.
- Dana Seitler, associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.
- Patricia White, professor of film and media studies at Swarthmore College.