On trigger warnings

I am strongly in favor of individual professors making the decision of whether or not to offer trigger warnings in their classes. I consider them a courtesy, a kindness, and a way to facilitate the participation of mentally disabled students who have experienced severe trauma. I have extensive experience of teaching in the college classroom (over a decade, at several different schools across the country), teach a vast array of challenging material, and have never taken anything off the syllabus for fear of upsetting students, or even felt any pressure to do so.

For many courses, trigger warnings aren’t relevant at all. For other courses, including many that I teach (post-colonial literature, women and literature, early American literature, writers of color in science fiction), the entire course essentially comes with a trigger warning on the first day; potentially triggering material is embedded throughout the entire material of the course. As a feminist, queer scholar often working with race and class, I teach texts that include all manner of horrors; college students should understand that and generally know that’s what they’re signing up for when they take my classes.

But that said, I do give content warnings, just so students can brace themselves for specific instances that may trigger their own past history of trauma and/or abuse, sending them into panic attacks, etc., interfering with their ability to fully participate in the class. “This next novel has graphic depictions of child abuse.” “Now we’re going to move into a section of slave narratives, including graphic images of rape and extreme violence against black bodies.”

It’s never more than a sentence or two here and there. While I’d be happy to work with students to find alternate material if really needed, in a decade of teaching, none of my literally thousands of students have asked for that kind of accommodation. They do seem to appreciate the heads-up, though, and if they choose to absent themselves from the particular class when we will be doing a line-by-line analysis of a rape narrative, that seems to me to be entirely their choice, and not anything that would interfere with the other students’ work in the class, my professorial freedom to teach challenging material, or the university’s overall academic mission.

If a student *were* to ask for what I consider excessive detailed warnings (I have heard stories about students who want relevant page numbers of the texts in question, so that they could skip them, (though I also have never actually spoken to a colleague who has encountered this in person)), I would gently explain to them that that isn’t appropriate for a college class.

It’s not surprising that students new to college might misunderstand the nature and purpose of a trigger warning; it’s on us, as educators, to teach them better, and to make them understand that part of the purpose of college is to expose them to a wide variety of material and viewpoints that may well challenge their world-view and disturb their privilege. I have never felt that offering content warnings has interfered with my ability to do that as a professor.

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