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A Middle Ground on Trigger Warnings (essay)

Recently, a nonacademic friend asked, “If you were teaching William Butler Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’ would you use a trigger warning?”

“Leda and the Swan” is a vivid account of Zeus, in the form of a swan, raping a young woman named Leda. I hadn’t read that poem since high school, and after rereading it, I can’t say for certain what I would do as an English professor. I probably would take an approach similar to the one I use as a professor in sociology as well as women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

The concept of a trigger warning has become quite controversial in recent years, with some people on campuses encouraging or demanding its use, and others discouraging it -- such as the Faculty Senate at American University, which recently passed a resolution citing the potential negative impact on academic freedom. As a faculty member who regularly teaches course content on trauma, I take more of a middle ground.

The term “trigger warning” has come to refer to introductory statements on web postings of graphic descriptions of rape, eating disorders and self-harm. They are used to alert readers who may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to those topics so that they can choose whether to continue reading. The purpose of using a trigger warning in the classroom is to let students know that the material that their professors have assigned may cause physiological or psychological reactions as a result of past traumas.

I started teaching in 2000, before the term was regularly used in academe or had received any news media attention. I now teach many of the same topics I taught then, about rape, violence, trauma and eating issues.

My approach on the first day of class, when I discuss the purpose of the course and learning goals, is to review the syllabus, pointing out topics that may be emotionally difficult, such as trauma and eating issues. I explain the content in the texts and any films that I plan to show in class.

In the past two years, I've also said something like, “I can’t predict what material may trigger someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or what will upset people for other reasons. If you are concerned or uncertain about this course, please closely review the course materials and decide whether you want to continue taking it.”

I tell students that I’m available to meet with them to discuss any questions they may have about any aspect of the course. Typically, the week before we engage content that explicitly depicts violence or trauma, I remind students about the upcoming material.

If a student cannot view a film or discuss raw readings in the class setting, they are still responsible for that material, just as is a student who cannot attend class because they have a fever or other illness. I do not change my expectations or assessments concerning quizzes, exams, papers and so on -- regardless of the reason a student misses class. In the handful of cases when a student (typically a rape victim) has met with me to tell me that she cannot attend an upcoming class because the material is too emotionally charged, I tell her that she can use one of the two allotted absences that I give all students for any reason, such as if they are sick or need to attend a family event. I also tell her about the mental-health resources available to her to encourage her to seek help if she has not yet done that. I’ve never had students tell me they cannot read the course material because they are dealing with PTSD. (The reality is that some students don’t read all course material for a variety of reasons.)

The intent of a trigger warning is to acknowledge that some students may need to prepare themselves before engaging with explicit texts or films that might otherwise catch them off guard. But what preparing oneself looks like differs based on where each specific student is in the healing process. As noted by Mental Health America, people can have very different reactions. One student may need to seek counseling, while another may need to focus on mindfulness techniques and other strategies before coming to class. And yet another may need to skip class altogether.

How professors should use the phrase “trigger warning” is a source of contention. Students often do not have an accurate understanding of what it means, so they need an explanation of PTSD to appreciate the warning’s purpose. They may not realize there is a difference between course content that they will find emotionally disturbing for reasons other than trauma, and course content that is triggering due to PTSD. Some types of course content are upsetting for most students, such as films that depict genocide or natural disasters. Not all students who become visibly emotional are reliving memories of trauma (unless, of course, they have direct, traumatic experiences with genocide or natural disasters).

Then there’s the issue of whether to use trigger warnings at all. Discerning whether material is potentially triggering due to PTSD is arguably a slippery slope. And no professor can warn students about all possible triggers that might occur in their classroom.

I certainly don’t have all the answers when it comes to the debates about trigger warnings, but I never only use the term “trigger warning,” if I use it at all. If we as professors incorporate the phrase “trigger warning,” we should include more information than those two words, whether in a syllabus or before showing a film. I’m not trained about all possible PTSD triggers, so I risk misleading students by labeling some material as triggering and overlooking other content altogether. Instead, I continue to prefer course content overviews and reminders about upcoming content on violence and trauma.

All that said, things can get especially complicated in an academic setting. Outside of academe, a person with PTSD who is learning how to manage triggers may successfully avoid news, films or other potentially difficult stimuli. What is distinct about college is that students may be enrolled in courses that require them to read, watch or discuss content that graphically depicts violence or trauma.

Sexual assault, in particular, is associated with a greater risk of developing PTSD symptoms, and a new survey among 27 universities finds that cis women, transgender and gender nonconforming students experience the highest rates of sexual assault and misconduct during their college years.

So, whether using the term “trigger warning” or not, I strongly believe that professors should say something about that content before requiring students to engage it. Here’s an example of a time when I regret that I didn’t do that.

In a senior sociology seminar, I showed a clip from The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military. I described the film’s content, but I did not specify that the clip we were about to view included distraught, first-person interviews. One segment showed a young woman shaking as she described a rape’s impact on her life. The film then cut to her father weeping about his failed attempts to reassure her that she is still a virgin.

A student became agitated. She shifted in her chair, wiped away tears and left the room for a few minutes while we wrapped up the clip.

After class, I sent an email to check in with her. She wrote back first thanking me for covering these issues in class rather than avoiding them. Then she said that she wished that I had better prepared the class for the content of this particular film. Watching first-person accounts of rape is much more difficult to absorb in a class setting than academic readings on the same topic. Not acknowledging that difficulty risks leaving sexual assault victims in the classroom feeling more isolated than they already do.

She’s right.

I had unexpectedly received a copy of the film, and I could have sent an email giving a more detailed description of the film before we met in class that day. And I wish I had.

Higher education cannot identify all possible topics or classroom moments that might trigger students suffering from PTSD. Professors may decide to abandon the language “trigger warning” altogether to avoid the impression that they have drawn a bright line between material that is and is not triggering. But let’s not forgo giving students advanced descriptions of course content on violence or trauma. Whether it’s a content alert or a preparatory overview, professors have a responsibility to let students know about such content.

Not giving students a heads-up risks a return to the status quo of intellectualizing violence and trauma as something that happens only outside the classroom. And those in the classroom who have suffered such trauma may needlessly suffer even more.

Julie A. Winterich is an associate professor of sociology and the director of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Guilford College.

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