Should Teachers Include Trigger Warnings With Their Course Material?

For those that aren’t familiar with the term, “trigger warnings” is a term coined by Internet users to describe the disclaimers that alert readers to subject matter that might be traumatic or evoke panic or other anxious responses. These warnings are frequently attached to graphic descriptions, extensive discussion, or even the mention of rape, hate crimes, abuse, torture, suicide, or eating disorders. These are some of the main subjects, but far from the only ones that can be prefaced with a trigger warning.

The subject of trigger warnings has extended from the Internet message boards and social media and has moved into academia. The University of California has already taken steps to make trigger warnings a mandatory part of a syllabus. Some schools grant students the ability to leave class if the material being covered makes them uncomfortable, and they won’t be penalized for missing class.

In the past few years, it’s been a consistent source of debate. Although some people think that it’s necessary, others argue that it coddles minds and prohibits free speech.

The intent of a trigger warning is to give students the opportunity to prepare themselves for an assignment with explicit content that may catch them off-guard. As noted by Mental Health America, this “preparation” can vary from student to student, depending on their own individual reactions to their individual triggers. Some may need to practice mindfulness and other coping strategies, some may need to seek professional counseling, whereas others (as mentioned above) may need to leave class altogether.

Being “triggered” as it is meant to be defined, is not just being offended or uncomfortable. The unfortunate fact is there are many students that suffer from PTSD and other severe forms of anxiety that can be incited by uncontrollable flashbacks or memories connected to external stimuli. A survivor of rape may recall their assault by seeing a rape scene in a movie or reading one in a book. One could argue that leaving them unprepared may lead to shock and set them back or affect their productivity in school. Some people may take days to recover from a flashback or a panic attack. For many people, teachers included, it can be hard to understand how much a traumatic experience has affected someone, but it is important to be understanding.

However, because the term is so loosely defined, it can be misinterpreted and abused. A number of speakers and popular comedians have stopped performing on college campuses due to the purported “oversensitivity” of college students and reactionary sensibilities.

Most mental health professionals will tell you that in treating people with anxiety, it is actually counter-productive and harmful to help them avoid the things that make them anxious. When dealing with PTSD, OCD, and other forms of panic/anxiety disorders, exposure therapy is a cornerstone in the healing process. So while warning people about triggers beforehand is courteous, there is still a certain point that a student must face his or her triggers in order to recover from them.

One could argue that the loudest proponents of trigger warnings are not, in fact, the people that really need them, but rather students that are reacting too strongly to things that insult them or make them feel uncomfortable. This undeniably affects free speech, expression, and intellectual discussion, as many professors now claim to be afraid of their classes. If “trigger warnings” do not have clear, defined boundaries, one cannot predict what will set off a student and potentially lead to Title IX complaints being filed against them.

Although it is important to protect the feelings of students, it is also fundamental that students be exposed to different points of view, many of which will make them uncomfortable.

Most people can probably agree that students should not be allowed to skip classes simply because they don’t want to engage with a certain subject, and in certain situations, they should have prepared for it (if a student enrolls in a class about sex or race or another sensitive subject matter, they should have prepared to deal with uncomfortable topics), which is a point that should certainly be considered.

Should trigger warnings be given to students? What do you do in your classroom?

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