To: Dean of College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences
Subject: Trigger Warnings
In order to anticipate potential liability issues rising from the teaching of humanities and social science courses, we have reviewed the syllabuses across your college’s departments, with particular attention given to the impacting of racial and ethnic themes on our clientele’s (aka students’) emotional well-being. We have provisionally concluded that the English department can continue to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Merchant of Venice, while taking into careful consideration the sensibilities of African-American, Jewish and related niche audiences.
But in the course of our investigation, we found other reasons to anticipate future legal and public relations challenges for the university. With the support of the offices of student services and marketing and communications, which coordinated several focus groups, we found several books that could become the subject of class action suits. Please find below five examples from our full list that, if present campus trends continue, will raise red flags.
Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey
Students were disturbed by Homer’s “relentless” depiction of mayhem and gore: “Like the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine is definitely a more likable mutant than Achilles,” concluded one respondent. Several students objected to the treatment of women -- mostly relegated to domestic activities or war booty -- and demanded to know if there were other epic poems by blind Archaic Greek bards that offered examples of female empowerment.
Also, a small but vocal number of students wearing PETA t-shirts protested the “inhumane” treatment of the dog Argo, left to die on a dung heap. Given the youthful impressionability of our customer base, we find potential problems with the Lotus-eater episode, as well as the character Helen’s liberal use of pharmacological agents.
Anonymous' "The Book of Job"
“Are you sure this is part of the Bible?” asked many respondents, who also exhibited intense unease with God’s actions, as they did with Job’s questions. The mounting suspense in waiting for God to reply adversely impacted many students (as did the irritation factor supplied by Job’s friends).
While the groups’ expectations were raised when a voice came from the whirlwind, they were deflated by the voice’s answers -- which, according to one respondent, weren’t answers at all. (“Like my parents, only worse.”) At the end of the session, a palpable sense of dread, along with isolated cases of fear and trembling, were in evidence -- all matters of concern for our office.
Though we were informed this work combines the two “Homeric” poems in one, the focus groups concluded it was somehow longer. Respondents were disturbed by the negative depiction of the character Dido -- “If she, like, died ‘before her time,’ how fair is that?” -- while the character Juno also elicited negative comments: “Clearly the product of a harsh patriarchal society determined to depict independent women as hysterical and dangerous.”
More generally, respondents were disoriented by Virgil’s habit, in the words of one participant, “to undermine the Roman values he pretends to uphold.” We find sufficient grounds for concern that students might argue they cannot be expected to give clear answers on their final exam if Virgil could not give any in his final poem. Our staff also suggests that more litigious individuals will claim that if Virgil could leave his poem unfinished, they could do the same with their exam.
Machiavelli's The Prince
Several students spoke of their emotional distress after reading the author’s claim that if a ruler obeys “something resembling good it will lead to his ruin, while something resembling vice will lead to power.” Other students, however, announced their decision to run for president of their fraternity and sorority chapters.
Significant liability potential resides in the author’s use of Cesare Borgia as a role model: his praise of Borgia’s public “dicing and slicing” (in one participant’s phrase) of a subordinate does not reflect the “brand” values of our university.
Our office for students with special needs signaled its concern over the presence of two characters with disabilities -- they lost “their shanks in the Ardennes” -- who are confined to garbage pails. The office also worries that two other characters -- one who cannot sit down, the other who cannot stand up -- appear indifferent to this situation.
We cannot decide which is more problematic for the university: those respondents left despondent by the play’s existential desolation, epistemological doubts and ethical despair, and those respondents who kept giggling. In general, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to the trigger warning controversy, we can’t go on or must go on.
Rob Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston's Honors College and author, most recently, of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.
“What would the United States look like if we really gave up on liberal education and opted only for specialized or vocational schools? Would that really be such a bad thing?”
The interviewer was trying to be provocative, since I’ve just written a book entitled Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters. What exactly would be the problem, he went on, if we suddenly had a job market filled with people who were really good at finance, or engineering, or real estate development?
Apart from being relieved that he hadn’t included expertise in derivatives training in his list of specializations, I did find his thought experiment interesting. Would there be real advantages to getting students to hunker down early into more specific tracks of learning? In that way they would be “job ready” sooner, contributing more quickly to the enterprises of which they are a part, and acquiring financial independence at the same time. Would that really be such a bad thing?
The debate between those who want students to specialize quickly and those who advocate for a broad, contextual education is as old as America itself. The health of a republic, Thomas Jefferson argued, depends on the education of its citizens. Against those arguing for more technical training, he founded the University of Virginia, emphasizing the freedom that students and faculty would exercise there. Unlike Harvard University and its many imitators, devoted to predetermined itineraries through traditional fields, he said, Virginia would not prescribe a course of study to direct graduates to “the particular vocations to which they are destined.”
At Mr. Jefferson’s university, “every branch of science, useful at this day, may be taught in its highest degree.” But who would determine which pursuits of knowledge would prove useful?
Jefferson, a man of the Enlightenment, had faith that the diverse forms of learning would improve public and private life. Of course, his personal prejudices limited his interest in the improvement of life for so many. However, his conception of “useful knowledge” was capacious and open-ended – and this was reflected in his design for the campus in Charlottesville. He believed that the habits of mind and methods of inquiry characteristic of the modern sciences lent themselves to lifelong learning that would serve one well whether one went on to manage a farm or pursue a professional career. It is here we see the dynamic and open-ended nature of Jefferson’s understanding of educational “usefulness.”
His approach to knowledge and experimentation kept open the possibility that any form of inquiry might prove useful. The sciences and mathematics made up about half of the curriculum at Virginia, but Jefferson was convinced that the broad study of all fields that promoted inquiry, such as history, zoology, anatomy and even ideology would help prepare young minds. The utility was generally not something that could be determined in advance, but would be realized through what individuals made of their learning once outside the confines of the campus. The free inquiry cultivated at the university would help build a citizenry of independent thinkers who took responsibility for their actions in the contexts of their communities and the new Republic.
Jefferson would have well-understood what many business leaders, educators and researchers recognize today: that given the intense interconnection of problems and opportunities in a globalized culture and economy, we require thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity and can manage complexity. Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (and chair of the board at Wesleyan University), has pointed out how much creative and constructive work gets done before clarity arrives, and that people who seek clarity too quickly might actually wind up missing a good deal that really matters. Boger preaches a high tolerance for ambiguity because the contemporary world is so messy, so complex.
Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, one of the most innovative design firms in the world, has lamented that many designers “are stuck with an approach that seems to be incapable of facing the complexity of the challenges being posed today.” He calls for a flexible framework that leaves behind static blueprint preparation for “open-ended, emergent, evolutionary approaches to the design of complex systems can result in more robust and useful outcomes.” Like many CEOs across the country, Brown recognizes that more robust and useful outcomes will come from learning that is capacious and open-ended -- from liberal education.
At the Drucker Forum last year, Helga Nowotny, president of the European Research Council, described what she called the “embarrassment of complexity” – efforts based in data analysis to dissolve ambiguity that lead to more conformity and less creativity. She called for an ethos among business and government leaders that would instead “be based on the acknowledgement that complexity requires integrative thinking, the ability to see the world, a problem or a challenge from different perspectives.” That’s a call for integrative thinking based in liberal learning.
In America, liberal education has long been animated by the tension between broad, open-ended learning and the desire to be useful in a changing world. Calls for dissolving this tension in favor of narrow utilitarian training would likely produce just the opposite: specialists unprepared for change who will be skilled in areas that may quickly become obsolete.
So, what would America look like if we abandoned this grand tradition of liberal education? Without an education that cultivates an ability to learn from the past while stimulating a resistance to authority, without an education that empowers students for lifelong learning and inquiry, we would become a cultural and economic backwater, competing with various regions for the privilege of operationalizing somebody else’s new ideas. In an effort at manic monetization without critical thinking, we would become adept at producing conformity rather than innovation.
The free inquiry and experimentation of a pragmatic liberal education open to ambiguity and complexity help us to think for ourselves, take responsibility for our beliefs and actions, seize opportunities and solve problems. Liberal education matters far beyond the university because it increases our capacity to shape a complex world.
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.
An Alternative Point of View
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.
Trigger warnings in the classroom have been the subject of tremendous debate in recent weeks, but it’s striking how little the discussion has contemplated what actual trigger warnings in actual classrooms might plausibly look like.
The debate began with demands for trigger warnings by student governments with no power to compel them and suggestions by administrators (made and retracted) that faculty consider them. From there the ball was picked up mostly by observers outside higher ed who presented various arguments for and against, and by professors who repudiated the whole idea.
What we haven’t heard much of so far are the voices of professors who are sympathetic to the idea of such warnings talking about what they might look like and how they might operate.
As it turns out, I’m one of those professors, and I think that discussion is long overdue. I teach history at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, and starting this summer I’m going to be including a trigger warning in my syllabus.
I’d like to say a few things about why.
An Alternative Point of View
Seven humanities professors offer
10 reasons that "trigger warnings"
are counterproductive. Read more.
To start off, I think it’s important to be clear about what trigger warnings are, and what purpose they’re intended to serve. Such warnings are often framed — and not just by critics — as a “you may not want to read this” notice, one that’s directed specifically at survivors of trauma. But their actual purpose is considerably broader.
Part of the confusion arises from the word “trigger” itself. Originating in the psychological literature, the term can be misleading in a non-clinical context, and indeed many people who favor such warnings prefer to call them “content warnings” for that reason. It’s not just trauma survivors who may be distracted or derailed by shocking or troubling material, after all. It’s any of us, and a significant part of the distraction comes not from the material itself but from the context in which it’s presented.
In the original cut of the 1933 version of the film "King Kong," there was a scene (depicting an attack by a giant spider) that was so graphic that the director removed it before release. He took it out, it’s said, not because of concerns about excessive violence, but because the intensity of the scene ruined the movie — once you saw the sailors get eaten by the spider, the rest of the film passed by you in a haze.
A similar concern provides a big part of the impetus for content warnings. These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.
I write quite a bit online, and I hardly ever use content warnings myself. I respect the impulse to provide them, but in my experience a well-written title and lead paragraph can usually do the job more effectively and less obtrusively.
A classroom environment is different, though, for a few reasons. First, it’s a shared space — for the 75 minutes of the class session and the 15 weeks of the semester, we’re pretty much all stuck with one another, and that fact imposes interpersonal obligations on us that don’t exist between writer and reader. Second, it’s an interactive space — it’s a conversation, not a monologue, and I have a responsibility to encourage that conversation as best I can. Finally, it’s an unpredictable space — a lot of my students have never previously encountered some of the material we cover in my classes, or haven’t encountered it in the way it’s taught at the college level, and don’t have any clear sense of what to expect.
For all these reasons, I’ve concluded that it would be sound pedagogy for me to give my students notice about some of the challenging material we’ll be covering in class — material relating to racial and sexual oppression, for instance, and to ethnic and religious conflict — as well as some information about their rights and responsibilities in responding to it. Starting with the summer semester, as a result, I’ll be discussing these issues during the first class meeting and including a notice about them in the syllabus.
My current draft of that notice reads as follows:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
That’s it. That’s my content warning. That’s all it is.
I should say as well that nothing in these two paragraphs represents a change in my teaching practice. I have always assumed that if a student steps out of the classroom they’ve got a good reason, and I don’t keep tabs on them when they do. If a student is made uncomfortable by something that happens in class, I’m always glad when they come talk to me about it — I’ve found we usually both learn something from such exchanges. And of course students are still responsible for mastering all the course material, just as they’ve always been.
So why the note, if everything in it reflects the rules of my classroom as they’ve always existed? Because, again, it’s my job as a professor to facilitate class discussion.
A few years ago one of my students came to talk to me after class, distraught. She was a student teacher in a New York City junior high school, working with a social studies teacher. The teacher was white, and almost all of his students were, like my student, black. That week, she said, one of the classes had arrived at the point in the semester given over to the discussion of slavery, and at the start of the class the teacher had gotten up, buried his nose in his notes, and started into the lecture without any introduction. The students were visibly upset by what they were hearing, but the teacher just kept going until the end of the period, at which point he finished the lecture, put down his papers, and sent them on to math class.
My student was appalled. She liked these kids, and she could see that they were hurting. They were angry, they were confused, and they had been given nothing to do with their emotions. She asked me for advice, and I had very little to offer, but I left our meeting thinking that it would have been better for the teacher to have skipped that material entirely than to have taught it the way he did.
History is often ugly. History is often troubling. History is often heartbreaking. As a professor, I have an obligation to my students to raise those difficult subjects, but I also have an obligation to raise them in a way that provokes a productive reckoning with the material.
And that reckoning can only take place if my students know that I understand that this material is not merely academic, that they are coming to it as whole people with a wide range of experiences, and that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful.
It’s not coddling them to acknowledge that. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Angus Johnston teaches history at Hostos Community College and is the proprietor of the website studentactivism.net.