by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.
Unless you spend time looking at news and blogs on academia, you may have missed the most recent debate over the use of “Trigger Warnings” in college courses. These are notices in a syllabus that a class in general or a session in particular will be dealing with material that some individuals may find disturbing or that may trigger them to re-experience a past trauma. Such warnings alert readers that they might find a posting to cause a negative reaction. The term originated on blogs describing sexual violence where a note would inform readers that the post contained graphic descriptions of sexual assault that may trigger anxiety or other post-traumatic stress syndrome-like (PTSD) symptoms. Slate magazine declared 2013 to be the “Year of the Trigger Warning.”
The term itself is unfortunate. Given that this week saw yet another mass shooting—this time near the University of California Santa Cruz—the term “trigger warning” is an allusion to firing a weapon. One side of the origin is that it was historically used to mean that if a person did not behave a certain way, depart from private property, or perform a requested action, that an individual would pull the trigger on the gun that may harm or kill the party at which the weapon was aimed. Another part of the origin comes from psychology, where patients are helped to learn about “triggers” that cause them to have anxiety or PTSD and more importantly, how to avoid them.
Trigger warnings have long been the domain of the internet and blog postings. Now, such warnings are moving to television and the classroom. When a scene of sexual assault appeared on the popular show Scandal, viewers felt a trigger warning should have been issued. In February, students at the University of California Santa Barbara (sound the irony bell) urged administrators to mandate trigger warnings on class syllabi for courses whose content may trigger PTSD. Other schools such as Scripps College and Oberlin College advise faculty to warn students when discussing issues of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, privilege, oppression, colonialism, persecution, violence, suicide, domestic abuse, graphic violence, self injury, and eating disorders to name a few. In other words, any topic that might challenge a student’s thinking or experience should be presented with a warning.
This meme is particularly concerning for those of us who teach in bioethics. Most everything that we teach is somewhat controversial. Our bread and butter are the unsettled social debates that defy easy answers. In my medical humanities class, we read excerpts from Wit as part of a medical reader’s theater session. Several students in the class discussed how they were currently dealing with the dying of a family member and that talking about the play moved them. Should I have offered a trigger warning that we would be talking about issues of death and dying in the class? Would that have prevented a student who could benefit from the experience from taking the course? Some of the students even said it was helpful to be able to talk about their experience and to know that they were not the only one who has been through it.
In a set of articles on InsideHigherEd, educators wrote about why they will and will not offer trigger warnings. On the pro side, a history teacher writes that she does not want student attention to be “hijacked” because the material is so awful that they lose focus on the lessons the material offers. I can see having to warn students in a research ethics seminar that I will be discussing medical experiments performed by physicians who were members of the Nazi party or the syphilis experiments conducted at Tuskegee. Before leading a discussion on the issue of abortion I may have to let students know that this is a controversial topic (as if the appearance of the topic itself on the syllabus is not an indication of what we will be discussing).
On the other side, several faculty wrote on another column for InsideHigherEd that there is no way for an instructor to know what will be a trigger for a student. They also express concern that there will be an expectation that faculty are responsible for triggering reactions in students, perhaps even legally liable for such reactions. The authors worry that warnings would make faculty (especially untenured) feel that they should not address difficult issues for fear of a student filing a complaint that a sensitive topic was taught or that it lacked an appropriate trigger warning.
As the list above suggests, many of the areas that would require trigger warnings are those that are about past and present inequities such as might be encountered in sex studies, critical race theory, gender studies, and queer studies. Bioethics in large part is about dealing with the uncomfortable history of medicine and research, asking the tough questions about life and death, and helping people make tough decisions. In talking about end of life issues I need to issue a trigger warning because a student may be sad to think about a loved one or friend who died. Or I could be asked to create a trigger warning when dealing with material that may not align with a student’s political or religious belief.
Education is meant to challenge individuals, to expand their horizons, to help them to reflect and reconsider their own perspectives and beliefs. If education was simply about telling people that they are great and they do not need to grow as thinkers, then all educators might as well retire and students can Google what they want to know.
There are better ways to deal with this issue than warning people they may not like what they are about to hear. Sensitivity can be displayed by providing training to faculty in dealing with students who may have PTSD or campuses creating programs to help students with mental health issues. At my campus, we receive a notice at the beginning of each term if we have students we may need accommodation. A similar system might be more effective than blanket policies. I think it is important that we be sensitive to learners needs. But finding more ways to protect people from having to interact with the real world and from each other only leads to situations where we lose the ability to understand the other and lack the skills to engage in conversations about our differences in a civil and rational manner. A person who is never challenged is a person who never develops into an engaged citizen of the world and a fully realized human being. While a noble sentiment—to protect our students from harm—the potential abuse of this notion is deeply concerning and overly paternalistic.