Trigger warnings in the classroom

Warnings are helpful when used appropriately, and it seems like we’re doing a good job of it

I want to talk for a moment about trigger warnings. Now, the article published last week in The Medium had some pretty good points from both sides of the argument. Are we going too far with trigger warnings or not? Do they have a place in the syllabus or in lectures? Should trigger warnings be perceived as something potentially detrimental to a student’s learning?

I want to preface this whole thing by saying that this is just my opinion and I’m not necessarily here to fight anyone on the issue. But in light of last week’s article, I’ve been itching to comment on the topic.

In my opinion, trigger warnings are beneficial. But only to an extent. And even then, I’m aware of how deadly the spread of trigger warnings could be should we allow it to spread into just about everything that we do. I’m going to turn to an article from Aaron R. Hanlon, “My Students Need Trigger Warnings—And Professors Do, Too” published by The New Republic. Hanlon argues, “Trigger warnings are nevertheless important because no matter how knowledgeable and comfortable professors are with the intellectually and emotionally challenging material we teach, our students are real people with real histories and concerns. They do indeed want to be challenged—to be made uncomfortable by literature—but it’s our job as professors to do more than just expose them to difficult ideas. It’s our job to help see them through the exposure.” I’m inclined to agree with this idea. A student’s history is something that can and should be acknowledged.

Last week, we interviewed UTM professors Brent Wood and Chester Scoville, who also brought up great points. Scoville claims, “Calling attention to a text’s potentially disturbing content is a way of framing them; it’s not avoiding difficulty but confronting it.” Wood added 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”.

An article quoted in our article last week from Dr. Metin Basoglu brings up something I think is more detrimental than a trigger warning: this ignorant view that forcing students to take a look at potentially triggering material and then shrugging your shoulders and going, “Oh, well, you need to look at it in order to grow.” In my opinion, that’s a damaging way of thinking. You are in no position to determine when people should deal with traumatic events. He makes the claim that “avoidance means helplessness” but to some people avoidance means coping. If you don’t want to talk about a damaging time in your life, that doesn’t mean you’re helpless and claiming so is ludicrous.

In my opinion, it doesn’t take much to warn a student on a syllabus that some heavy topics are coming their way. In order for a student, especially one who is dealing with trauma, to get the most out of their university experience, they should be given a simple trigger warning on literature that will discuss something that could be damaging. A trigger warning doesn’t need to be the caution tape that scares a student away from reading something but it can be the warning to let them know what to expect. And if they’re not ready to talk about something, why force it? The English department isn’t centred around texts on rape or violence so a student opting out of one reading isn’t going to crush their mark.

On the contrary, I’m very aware that this seems like coddling students away from some important literature, which also leads to this notion that they will need to be “babied” in life because they were shielded from topics like rape, violence, and racism. But, as Hanlon mentions, “We have to take [trigger warnings] seriously, not because literature (or life) needs a censor or students need to be coddled, but because being more acutely aware of how students are responding to challenging material is just better and more responsible pedagogy. It’s true that life is triggering and won’t usually come with its own trigger warnings. But students are in their seats in part to be better prepared for that reality, and it’s professors’ jobs to facilitate that kind of intellectual development.”

On the other hand, Jerry A. Coyne wrote an article for TNR titled “Life Is ‘Triggering’. The Best Literature Should Be, Too”, where he writes, “It’s time for students to learn that Life is Triggering. Once they leave college, they’ll be constantly exposed to views that challenge or offend them. There are a lot of jerks out there, and no matter what your politics are, a lot of people will have the opposite view. If you’re an atheist, you’ll live in a world of people whom you see as hostile and delusional believers. If you’re a believer, you’ll encounter vociferous heathens like me. If you’re a feminist, well, sexism is alive and well.” This is something I agree with. His article goes on to discuss how overbearing it would be to include a trigger warning on any stitch of literature we get our hands on. “Crime and Punishment? Trigger warning: brutal violence against an old woman. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: violence against women (remember when Tom Buchanan broke Mrs. Wilson’s nose?). The Inferno? Trigger warning: graphic violence, sodomy, and torture. Dubliners? Trigger warning: pedophilia.”

And it’s here that my stance on the issue is stunted. Where do we draw the line between what should get a trigger warning and what doesn’t? If we put a trigger warning on texts in English classes will they eventually seep into social science classes? What about law classes? Would the trigger warning spread like wildfire throughout syllabi if we let it? Maybe. But, these warnings aren’t just in the classrooms. We already have trigger warnings in the media, like television or movies. We are often told that movies include violence and coarse language and movie trailers often include disclaimers on the extreme violence or disturbing images that will take place. American History X was rated R for “graphic brutal violence including rape, pervasive language, strong sexuality, and nudity”. Should people who aren’t ready be warned that a movie will contain a prison rape scene? A black man getting curb stomped by a guy with a swastika tattooed on his chest? Well, yeah. It doesn’t hurt to include a warning. Is this going too far? Should we omit the MPAA ratings from films because we’re putting them on every movie and we can’t keep shielding people from the horrors of real life?

Yes, trigger warnings could seep into everyday life to the point where it becomes bombardment if we let it. But, we seem to be doing a pretty good job at keeping the warnings on things that include severe cases of triggering content, which is the way it should be. Acknowledgement of a student’s history is a good step forward in enriching a student’s time here.

The classroom should have trigger warnings. While we may not be able to shield ourselves forever once we leave university, or even the classroom, students can at least have that peace of mind that an institution they’re paying thousands of dollars to be a part of gives a damn if they suffer at the hands of potentially harmful work.

Maria Cruz
Managing Editor