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Are Trigger Warnings Helping or Hindering Students in the Classroom?



Universities and colleges across the nation are questioning whether providing trigger warnings is just another way of coddling Millennials – who Kathleen Parker, a writer for The Washington Post, refers to as the “Swaddled Generation.”

In a letter addressed earlier this year to incoming students at the University of Chicago, the college clearly stated they would not be supporting “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or “the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’”

Dr. Megan Cobb, director of personal counseling services at Edgewood, thinks this letter sends a message to the incoming freshman that the institution doesn’t care about them. She argues that these warnings are important for colleges to utilize especially for materials relating to physical, sexual, or emotional violence, because there are a lot of survivors of various trauma.

“A trigger warning is most useful before a presentation or class session where the content could be triggering or provoking anxiety particularly in regards to PTSD if there is something that might be sensitive to someone who has a history of sexual trauma or is a veteran or somebody who experienced childhood abuse,” said Cobb. “The warning just has to be a sentence or two that says we will be discussing a difficult topic today so feel free to take the time you need or step out to get a drink of water. It doesn’t need to be a big deal necessarily; it’s just giving people a heads up.”

Over 200 students visit personal counseling services each year at Edgewood, and in recent years, 56% of those coming in were in regards to experiencing some form of trauma or abuse. Statistics are based off first appoint­ments, so that percentage is likely higher. Abuse is often underreported, ­­­­and some students don’t feel comfortable disclosing personal incidents during the first meeting. Personal counseling services meet with and advise a variety of people including sexual assault survivors, childhood abuse survivors, combat veterans and even those who have witnessed a serious crime.

Cobb believes trigger warnings are also valuable when talking about menta­­­l health topics like depression and suicide prevention, or even topics involving racial discrimination, racial justice, and social justice.

“It depends on the exact content,” Cobb explained, “But when derogatory terms are being used, it’s nice to give a trigger warning because there is more and more research showing that people who have been through a lot of microaggressions related to race may experience PTSD or symptoms of PTSD.”

Even if a student has not personally been assaulted, and doesn’t know someone who has been impacted by trauma, there are many difficult topics discussed in higher education that can be a challenge for anyone to deal with, regardless of experience. If a warning makes sense for the class, it is helpful for students to have a forewarning, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises when working through course material.

Eric Brooks, a senior majoring in English Teaching said, “Obviously, we should warn our students, especially in high school, because sexual assaults happen there too.”

Although trigger warnings can be beneficial when used correctly, some people worry it will stifle discussions or dictate classrooms. Cobb disagreed. “I don’t think trigger warnings need to hamper open conversation or dialogue,” she said, “I don’t believe they shut down conversations, but instead, increase sensitivity and help people recognize this is really difficult content that we still want to talk about and that’s why it’s being brought up.”

Having a trigger warning doesn’t mean uncomfortable topics aren’t going to be discussed. Most of the time students don’t get up and leave the class session after being informed either. “A lot of times it’s just about taking some deep breaths, being prepared or zoning out if necessary,” Cobb explained, from her perspective as a psychologist. She went on to say, “If I am working with a student who has been sexually assaulted, and they know that in their next class it’s going to be content discussed, we’re going to talk about ways for them to get through it if they start feeling anxious in the moment.

According to Cobb, it’s important not to conflate or confuse discomfort with trauma. In higher education, conversations regarding a variety of uncomfortable topics are possible, and dealing with difficult dialogue is meaningful. With this understanding, Cobb emphasized the point that there’s still a difference between discomfort and someone who has been a victim of trauma or knows someone close who has been victimized. Trigger warnings acknowledge that students who come to higher education have a variety of personal experiences.

“I think it’s important for classes to give a trigger warning because the students are not choosing the class material,” said Blake Roberts, a junior majoring in English. “It’s different in the real world when people are at their jobs because they’re most likely not reading about graphic descriptions of rape, violence or eating disorders that would require a warning. In the real world you’re taking things on for yourself, but it’s different in a school environment where there might be traumatic information being discussed in class.”

One of the largest issues results from a misunderstanding revolving around what trigger warnings are and when to apply them. The fear that trigger warnings will start to be overused is the most common argument raised, and this misconception and assumption leads to the Millennials being labeled as the delicate generation seeking out coddling. Trigger warnings don’t need to be mentioned all the time; it could be a simple and short introduction on the first day of class or put in the syllabus.

“Trigger warnings are one way for institutions to accommodate the growing population of students that we see with mental health concerns,” said Cobb. “Pretending that trigger warnings aren’t needed is ignoring this fact.”

If a student does have an issue regarding a class or trigger warnings – or lack thereof –Cobb explained that personal counseling works directly with the student to help them learn grounding exercises. These exercises are a way of reminding the student they are safe in the moment. The counselors teach students how to decrease anxiety and zone into something physical so they can bring themselves out of their memories.

Associate Professor of English, Lauren Lacey, is in favor of trigger warnings, especially for classes dealing with visual texts like films, and literary texts; however, she clarified, “It is not my favorite term for them. I prefer content warning because I think trigger being associated with guns is already a violent term.”

Despite this favor, she does not support the idea of universities and colleges having blanket policies for them. Lacey thinks it is important for people who are working in higher education to be informed, and she uses them in her classrooms, but she thinks instilling blanket policies which would force all faculty to employ trigger warnings on their syllabi would just raise more issues.

To mandate trigger warnings being incorporated into the syllabi for every class offered at Edgewood wouldn’t make sense, even for all humanity classes this wouldn’t make sense because the relevance is based on course content. Since trigger warnings – or content warnings – aren’t appropriate for all classes, Lacey acknowledged, “It’s very difficult to know what makes sense in terms of the pedagogy of a particular professor and classroom. I think enforcing a policy becomes a way of controlling what goes on in the classroom and I think it makes much more pedagogical sense to have conversations about what content warnings are and why we might employ them especially at a small college like Edgewood.”

Lacey addressed the fact that there are people in academia worrying these warnings will begin policing what goes on in the classrooms, by saying, “I haven’t encountered any of that. Usually, the way I construct my classes rarely will the student have to write about or take a test on a book that is that difficult for them. Usually, there is a way around it if it is so challenging that they won’t be able to intellectualize it.”

Brooks also doesn’t believe curriculum should be watered down because the content is uncomfortable or offensive. If the books or class material hold value, having these warnings shouldn’t be able to dictate how the subject is handled. Brooks explained, “There are many topics, like slavery, that you can’t talk about without discussing the uncomfortable graphic events that occurred. Usually, if you’re offended by something, it forces you to consider why you feel upset and those are the conversations we need to be having.”

“If you make someone uncomfortable, you’ve done something wrong,” English Professor, Jack Vitek explained, “Shouldn’t life take you out of your comfort zone?” To have conversations in higher education being able to step out of your comfort zone is necessary for many instances, and one of the hardest things someone can do is face their fears.

In regards to the letter to the Class of 2020 attending the University of Chicago, Lacey deems it one massive failure. She agrees with their idea that there shouldn’t be a policy for trigger warnings, but strongly disagrees with their general stance about how they framed everything.

By saying the University won’t cancel invited speakers whose topics might prove controversial, they are ignoring the fact that what they are calling controversial, some people might consider hate speech. Some of the speakers they are talking about have even been associated with the white supremacy movement.

The letter explains the University’s goal to build a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds, and Lacey said, “What they are saying would be fine if it was building this from the basis of a society that was already equal, but they are not. These safe spaces on our campuses are important because our campuses are part of larger social structures that are built out of inequalities. It is naive to say, as this letter does, that we’re all entitled to our opinions, the free exchange of ideas, and we’re all diverse, we’re people of different backgrounds since we don’t all come to our campuses equal. This letter presupposes that we do.”

Lacey thinks the letter feeds into the way the millennial generation is being thought of and finds it both obnoxious and silly. According to Lacey, trigger warnings, gendered bathrooms, and the push for more inclusive pronoun usage are all being lumped together. These are a few of the reasons Millennials are being labeled as delicate snowflakes who need extra special things. “This letter has that tone to me,” Lacey said.

Another big reason Lacey disagrees with a set policy for trigger warnings is because she worries about vulnerable professors who are not tenured. It would be too easy for professors to accidently get into trouble because the policy could easily be used against someone. The classroom cannot be so sanitized that students are going to avoid finding things that are uncomfortable or scary. There might be things that will be upsetting, but college is not high school.

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