Trigger warnings, often shortened to “TW”, warn viewers of implications or explicit mentions of traumatic incidents such as sexual assault, violence, self-mutilation, etc. These warnings are often found all over the Internet, particularly across Tumblr and Twitter, where users warn their visitors to tread through their pages with caution. Despite the fact that the majority of TWs are being found online, they seem to be increasingly migrating from your computer screen to the front page of your syllabus.
Recently, there has been a push for trigger warnings to be incorporated into education across university campuses. Universities are now seeking to protect young minds by forewarning students about specific works that may contain content that could be potentially triggering.
Trigger warnings are meant to act as a warning, especially for trauma victims. However, according to Dr. Metin Basoglu (who appeared in the Telegraph’s article “Trigger Warnings: More Harm Than Good”), avoidance isn’t necessarily the best option. “Most trauma survivors avoid situations that remind them of the experience. Avoidance means helplessness and helplessness means depression. That’s not good,” he says. “Exposure to trauma reminders provides an opportunity to gain control over them.” So in essence, providing students with trigger warnings could assist them in avoiding a potential trigger, but on the other hand, facing their triggers could be more beneficial to them.
Mental health is another factor to consider, as it has become an increasing problem for young people. With every new year, universities and colleges are taking in students with diverse mental health issues on their campuses. In fact, a 2013 study conducted across 32 Canadian postsecondary institutions by the American College Health Association sheds light on worrying statistics. Within the past 12 months, 5.8 percent of surveyed students reported being diagnosed or treated for panic attacks, 9.5 percent had seriously considered suicide, and 89.3 percent of students felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do. While these statistics may be slightly outdated, it is clear that the demands for the consideration of student needs is prevalent now more than ever.
To learn more about the usage of trigger warnings at UTM, The Medium turned to various members of the campus population.
According to Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of U of T’s Media Relations, “[the] issue has not arisen broadly at the University of Toronto, and there are no specific related policies”.
Blackburn-Evans also comments that “instructors are primarily concerned with creating a rich learning experience” and that they are concenrned with “balancing the needs of students, and their capacity to approach learning in various ways, with the need to present materials that is authentic and reflective of the real world”.
English professors Brent Wood and Chester Scoville don’t use the phrase “trigger warning”.
Scoville believes that “the term itself has become a red flag for some people”, while Wood sees the term being used at poetry slams as opposed to university lectures. Scoville mentions that there is nothing wrong with warning students about triggering content.
“Calling attention to a text’s potentially disturbing content is a way of framing them; it’s not avoiding difficulty but confronting it,” says Scoville.
When asked whether they had ever felt the need to remove texts from their syllabi, both professors replied in the negative. “Though, I have sometimes decided that the content of a particular text might be too distracting from the point I need to make in a specific part of the course,” says Scoville.
Wood, who teaches ENG201Y: Reading Poetry, says that he “wants to be able to deal with emotionally challenging topics” but does not want students “to be so paralyzed with fear that they’re unable to speak”. To him, English provides a place to explore “emotional text within an intellectual context”.
When asked about the perception of increased sensitivity of students, Scoville disagreed and said he does not see “that students now are any more sensitive than their predecessors. I’ve never been asked to remove a text, although I have been asked to address and alert people to particular topics before we discuss them, which seems fair enough”.
“Students are more willing now to speak explicitly about problematic issues,” adds Woods. “Students are more open now about sex, sexuality, mental health, and trauma than when I was an undergraduate student.”
UTM students echo similar thoughts when it comes to trigger warnings. Alexandra Babaik, a fourth-year English student, doesn’t feel as though trigger warnings in a university setting are a bad thing at all. “Trigger warnings are a good thing, because at least if a warning is in place, a student can be aware of the content they are about to experience,” she says. “I do, however, think that people’s need to be catered to emotionally is an issue, specifically this generation, and I don’t think students should be able to opt out of reading certain material because they feel ‘sensitive’ to it […] I think [that] it’s a sense of entitlement that is unattractive, and is also inhibiting in how we as students interpret information.”
However, Babaik stresses that if there is a text that may be “psychologically damaging or traumatic” for a student, then “by all means I think they should not have to partake”.
Karina Cotran, a third-year English student, says that students should be given the opportunity to opt out of reading or viewing certain course material “depending on the level of the content. If the content itself is extremely graphic, then, yes, they should have that option [of opting out]”.
Cotran goes on to say that she’s never personally “had a professor who excused a class from reading or viewing something due to its content” but she has had “professors who simply warn the students that the content we are reading or viewing is considered offensive, but that we should read or view the content anyways. Most professors strongly encourage us to keep an open mind”.
She adds that she does not think that trigger warnings are detrimental to a student’s learning as “having a traumatic flashback because no trigger warning was in place is also in itself detrimental to the student’s learning”.
When it comes to sensitivity, Cotran believes that while some students may be more sensitive than others, “[students] need to keep in mind that we cannot create trigger warnings for every offensive thing we come across on campus”.
Joey Close is a third-year CCIT and PWC double major. When asked about whether she believes that students have become too sensitive, she agrees wholeheartedly.
“As a mature student I can say that students today are far more sensitive than they were 10 years ago. I can’t say I ever remember hearing students talking about this,” says Close. “[…] This is all fairly new, and to be honest unsettling, to say the least. There is a big world out there and I believe students need to be taught where we have come from and why we are where we are today. This includes very sad, and sometimes violent, topics unfortunately.”
Close believes that students should not be given the opportunity to opt out of reading a certain text or viewing a material that could potentially be triggering.
Acknowledging the difficulty of the question, Close adds, “As harsh as this may sound, we need to think realistically here. If universities begin to allow one student to opt out of a required reading then soon thereafter, another student will want to do the same. I believe it will only be a matter of time that professors will not be able to properly educate students for the real world and the purpose of getting a higher education will become ill to none.”
Close then referred to an incident that took place at Harvard University in 2014, where students had felt that rape law should no longer be taught. “How does one go out into the world and become a lawyer and defend rape victims if universities are no longer able to teach rape law?” she says. “[…]As they say, it’s a jungle out there, and students need to be prepared.”