Dear Ms. Scholar, One of my students recently asked to opt out of an assigned reading, arguing that it would be “triggering” for her. I don’t want to do this, as I think this would be a bad precedent to set, but also because I think this is an important text and don’t know what else I’d assign. What do you think? ― Trigger Warning
Dear Trigger Warning, Although Ms. Scholar often teaches courses that sound upbeat, she frequently talks about things that, if students at Oberlin College and elsewhere had their way, would be identified in her syllabus with a trigger warning (Jarvie, 2014). She suspects that would be the case for courses across campus, although perhaps especially for courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences, where we talk about war, poverty, mental illness, violence, abuse, suicide, and prejudice. Each could be a place where we would need to warn our students about potentially triggering classroom readings and discussions.
Some students will find these discussions difficult or even very difficult. Oberlin College (Office of Equity Concerns, 2013), for example, noted that in a class “with 20 students, we estimate that there may be about 2 to 3 students in the class who have experienced some form of sexualized violence. If 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced IPV [interpersonal violence], there can be at least 5-6 survivors of IPV in the class. In other words, [they warn their faculty,] you may have taught and may continue to teach individuals who have experienced significant trauma.” If we added other kinds of trauma to the mix, this number would be much higher.
Many faculty feel ill-prepared to respond well to the feelings and concerns of such students.
Ms. Scholar believes that Oberlin’s document (Office of Equity Concerns, 2013), while controversial, makes important points. This document accurately observes that it is impossible to avoid triggering students (and others), as anything might be a trigger (e.g., a song, smell, color, type of clothing, etc.). Nonetheless, Oberlin concludes that some triggers can be anticipated and should be removed “when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals” (emphasis added). This clause is an important one and seems to be overlooked in many discussions of trigger warnings.
Nonetheless, Ms. Scholar is concerned when we conclude that students should avoid courses or class material because of their potential triggering effects. If we avoid talking about potentially triggering topics, we have actually done our students a disservice. Avoidance of difficult material isn’t the solution and can actually create the most impairing symptoms people experience following trauma: flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and nightmares (Roff, 2014). Trigger warnings are given to prevent or reduce problems, but — while avoidance may feel like the solution — it can maintain and exacerbate problems.
Ms. Scholar believes that there are things we can do to help our students handle these triggers more effectively. We can start particularly difficult class discussions by noting that students may find our discussion difficult. Rather than excusing our students from class, Ms. Scholar believes we should be transparent and talk about why we are having such a discussion ― just as we should discuss all of our teaching goals and strategies: to help our students understand what we are doing and commit to meeting these goals. Reading Diary of Ann Frank, for example, was very difficult for the very young Ms. Scholar, yet it helped her identify with and understand oppressed groups and commit to social justice. Finally, faculty can help students identify coping strategies and resources for handling such discussions better. We can encourage them to do what they need to do to take care of themselves, thus suggesting that they can respond well and can learn to respond better.
For example, in our discussion of suicide, Ms. Scholar and her students examine the research on suicide (e.g., who is at greatest risk and why), but she also asks them about their feelings when they talked to someone who was suicidal, or who had attempted or completed suicide. Students hear a range of reactions from their peers (e.g., sadness, anger, guilt, and fear), but also learn they aren’t the only student who had a friend or relative contemplate or complete suicide. We discuss helpful and less helpful ways of responding to someone’s suicidal thoughts or their own depression.
Students often find such discussions very difficult. Nonetheless, at the end of the semester they also describe these conversations as useful, even important.
Discussing depression really interested me because at the beginning of the first semester I was feeling a little on the down side because I have never been away from home for long periods of time. Being away from my family was really hard for a while and caused me to become slightly depressed and as the semester went on, I felt it progressively get worse. I would find myself sleeping a little less every night and my mood started to change toward my best friend. After discussing this in class I realized that I needed to change the way I thought about everything because it wasn’t just bringing me down, it was also bringing down the people who surround me. Now that I look at things differently and stay active, I have come out of my depression and am now happier than I have ever been. ― Katlyn Aughenbaugh
Avoiding talk about triggers isn’t helpful; talking about them normalizes our students’ experiences. Further, in listening to their fellow students, they often come to recognize that there are other ways of responding, often developing greater empathy for each other and for themselves in the process. Our discussions help them identify and develop greater resources for coping with difficulties. They begin to frame their experiences differently and become more accepting and empathic toward others.
Bad things are part of life. When we cut ourselves off from discussions of such things, we create unrealistic expectations for life, believe we are the only ones going through them, ignore the support we need to handle problems well, and fail to learn to cope with difficult feelings. Instead, as the poet Rumi argued, “When you’re walking through the graveyard at night // And you see a boogeyman, run at it // And it will go away.” Run toward your fears and discover that they aren’t as big and distressing as you believe.
Discussions of triggers can also be useful for students who are handling life well.
Just a few weeks into the class I was changing the way I approach and perceive issues. I had always been a positive and happy person. [However,] I did not realize some of the ways I see myself and approach events were unhealthy and negative. For example, in my high school years I would be so quick to judge people on their actions or their looks. The concepts we learned in the class have helped me start to wean off the amount of judging I do. I now try to understand why people act the way they do and know that being different does not mean they’re less than anyone else. ― Madison Daly
Oberlin College suggests that we “strongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials. When possible, help students avoid having to choose between their academic success and their own wellbeing” (Office of Equity Concerns, 2013). While Ms. Scholar understands the good intentions behind Oberlin’s policy, she is concerned that we are focusing more on our students – and colleagues’ – extreme sensitivity rather than the free exchange of ideas. She shivers imagining what college would be like if we avoided all potentially-triggering material. Her reading of fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust and other acts of genocide has been among the most emotionally difficult she’s done, but that reading has also helped her think about how she chooses to live.
What can we do? Ms. Scholar firmly believes we should consider whether some triggering material is really essential in some of our classes, but we should also consider how we can help our students handle this material ― and life ― more effectively.
Triggers have the potential of creating distress and painful thoughts ― if we let them ― but also have the potential for triggering growth. ― Ms. Scholar
Jarvie, J. (2014, March 3). Trigger happy. New Republic. Retrieved from http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116842/trigger-warnings-have-spread-blogs-college-classes-thats-bad
Office of Equity Concerns. (2013). Support resources for faculty. Oberlin College and Conservatory. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20131222174936/http:/new.oberlin.edu/office/equity-concerns/sexual-offense-resource-guide/prevention-support-education/support-resources-for-faculty.dot
Roff, S. (2014, May 23). Treatment, not trigger warnings. Chronicle for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2014/05/23/treatment-not-trigger-warnings/?cid=megamenu
If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com