The Trigger Warning

For reasons that aren’t exactly clear to me, the so-called “trigger warning” has recently become very controversial in some circles of academia, as noted in various blogs and in articles in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education. I had always thought of these as being as common as including a course description and assignment requirements in the syllabi. While I understand some of the objections, if you ask me, the “trigger warning” or as I call it, the “objectionable material warning,” is an essential component of virtually any rigorous, college-level course. (And there is plenty of room to still have much-needed academic freedom for faculty and the warning for students.) 

Here is the statement in my syllabus for History classes:

This is a university course and students should know that anything is fair game. College classrooms are unique places where any ideas, opinions, and perspectives are welcomed and should be shared–respectfully. Additionally, professors (and students) have the academic freedom to discuss anything they desire within the bounds of common decency and good taste, as related to the study of History. Thus, although frequently ignored or hidden, the story of the United States is tragic. Lectures, documents, quotations, images, songs, and videos, etc., will frequently provoke very strong feelings, as they should. It is vital that these be discussed but in a respectful, open-minded way. The professor is committed to creating and maintaining an open and productive intellectually engaging learning environment. Rude or disruptive students will be instructed to leave the classroom –warnings will not be issued.

College, as I state in my teaching philosophy, is supposed to provide rigorous learning experiences – supposed to challenge students’ assumptions – supposed to give them required opportunities to look at history, science, literature in new and different ways. The objectionable material warning is not designed to allow students opportunities to opt out of learning – it’s about informing them about the learning process – it’s about the professor’s commitment to really providing educational experiences.

Students need to know that their views will be challenged and that they will be grappling with difficult-to-discuss topics. In my class, I always allow extra time to discuss feelings related to studying history and allow even more time when discussing enslavement, lynching, the Holocaust, and other especially traumatic and important topics. Some of the best class discussions have been related to the difficult nature of looking at the raw, uncensored world.

As scholars, we are accustomed to looking at the world in new and different ways. We are also very used to dealing with controversial topics, especially those of us in the Liberal Arts. It’s no problem for us to discuss sexual violence, for example, because it’s what we do. Students, however, are not. It’s only fair and right to give them a warning about what will happen and how the learning process works. Furthermore, the learning process is much more productive if students know going into a reading or discussion that it will be potentially offensive or very different because they will proceed with a proper frame-of-mind and won’t be overly shocked. As others have often stated, given the realities of rape, post-war psychological differences, etc, some topics can “trigger” legitimate fears and uncalled for uncomfortable situations.

All this said, one of the best things we can do as professors, whether in a biology or sociology or first year seminar class, is to make students—all students—somewhat “uncomfortable” at times. We haven’t done our job unless we regularly “offend” and challenge students. 

Please be sure and check out my other articles published here and Inside Higher Ed. I have articles about teaching aimed at students and professors generally and more specifically for those in History or Student Success courses.