University News

National trigger warning discussion comes to campus

Students, faculty utilize different approaches depending on context, class content, experiences

By and
Senior Staff Writer and Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Trigger warnings elicit both objection and support at universities across the nation. Students and faculty members at Brown have various attitudes towards their usage and implication. Maud Mandel, dean of the College, said the University does not have an explicit policy about the usage of trigger warnings, adding that individual faculty members can use their discretion on the subject.

“We expect faculty (members) to make sound decisions … that reflect their values as pedagogues,” she said. Mandel added that students can prepare themselves for “troubling content” by looking through the syllabus and  familiarizing themselves with content beforehand. The University has been trying to make syllabi available online for all courses this year, she said, adding that students can “take charge.”

Defining trigger warnings

While trigger warnings appear to receive fairly widespread support at Brown, they have sparked fierce debate at other institutions of higher education.

Molly Hawes ’17, president of Project LETS — a student group that advocates on behalf of individuals with mental illnesses — attributed the controversy’s scale to many people’s misunderstanding of “what it means to be triggered” and what trigger warnings even are.

The most common misconception is that being triggered is equal to being upset, Hawes said. Being triggered means “different things to different people,” she added. For example, those with PTSD may experience a traumatic memory when confronted with triggering material, while those with panic disorders may experience a panic attack, she said.

A second reason for the debate is the belief that trigger warnings infantilize and coddle students — which, some argue, also misrepresents their purpose. Christine Lee ’18, co-coordinator of Stand Up!, a student group that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and harassment, said trigger warnings validate the survivors’ trauma by acknowledging their experiences, adding that excluding trigger warnings can perpetuate the norms of rape culture by “invalidating” survivors’ trauma.

President Christina Paxson P’19 wrote in a Sept. 5 op-ed in the Washington Post that trigger warnings are “meant to alert students who have been subjected to trauma, such as sexual assault and combat, that some material in class may be disturbing.”

Mandel said that the term “trigger warning” is a “fairly new phrase” for the larger concept of simply exercising awareness of students’ diverse experiences. A trigger warning doesn’t need to be “something formalized” or “written in the syllabus,” she said. It can “simply be stated” before the material is presented, she added.

Stefanie Kaufman ’17, the founder of Project LETS, said that trigger warnings are “necessary accommodations for a diverse community.”

Julia Horwitz ’19 said that trigger warnings can make “situations less tense and anxiety-provoking” if the student is able to prepare. She pointed out that not all survivors of sexual assault, for example, need trigger warnings because “everyone has different ways of dealing with trauma,” but the “option of being warned” should still exist, as it could make a difference for some. Besides, she added, “it only takes a second to do.”

In practice

The way in which faculty members use trigger warnings and the reasons they do so varies throughout the University.

Postdoctoral Senior Research Associate in Urban Studies Stefano Bloch said he issues a “blanket warning” at the beginning of the semester, rather than issuing individual warnings every time something may be triggering. Bloch teaches URBN 1230: “Crime and the City,” a course that addresses controversial topics such as violence and structural racism. He addresses trigger warnings this way because “trauma doesn’t belong in a hierarchy,” and “all trauma is deserving of a trigger warning,” he said.

Assistant Professor of Classics Johanna Hanink, who teaches CLAS 0900: “Greek Mythology,” said she uses trigger warnings because they serve as a “reality check” for those who engage with Greek myths. Hanink noted, for example, that people recount myths to children in which gods abduct women, seeing the story as innocuous without expressing the subtext that abduction implies rape.

Trigger warnings remind students “not to be desensitized,”  Hanink said. “I almost want people to be uncomfortable,” she added.

Joseph Reed, professor of classics and comparative literature, does not issue trigger warnings, but instead gives students a “heads-up” beforehand if uncomfortable material is coming up in case a student is “surprised” by something unpleasant.

Reed contrasts this “milder” form of being triggered by unpleasant material with the more severe triggering of someone who may have post-traumatic stress disorder. In that case, if a student is so affected, then “it’s a sign that they should not take the class,” he said.

Facilitating difficult conversations

Many argue that trigger warnings inhibit free speech and open debate, Horwitz said, but “trigger warnings actually do the opposite.”

“If there are no trigger warnings, then (survivors) may avoid situations altogether in which (triggering material) might come up,” she said, adding that this avoidance may inhibit exposure to new ideas.

In media and common culture, trigger warnings have a “caricature” as a “barricade put between a student and traumatic content,” Bloch said. But trigger warnings can actually tear down barriers, he said, adding that “trigger warnings are triggering more empathy if we allow them to.”

Being triggered may interfere with a survivor’s ability to focus and engage with others for the rest of the day, which can obstruct free speech in other classes and conversations, Kaufman said.

In addition, trigger warnings spread general awareness about the issues at hand, which can prompt more discussions and open debate, said Mei Araki ’19. Trigger warnings make survivors feel “included” in the community, which increases their ability to engage with others, she said.

Bloch likewise emphasized that trigger warnings are not “impediments” to open dialogue — rather, they are “manifestations of respect” that allow students to empathize with their classmates. “Every single classroom at Brown thrives off of diversity, and that includes a diversity of trauma,” Bloch said, adding that though he is not celebrating or romanticizing trauma, he finds that diversity “invigorating.”

Forgoing warnings

Exposure to triggering subjects tends to be less likely in science classes than in humanities courses, said Morgan Patrick ’16.5. Araki echoed similar sentiments, stating that she has yet to take a course with trigger warnings due to the nature of her science-oriented curriculum.

Ross Cheit, professor of international and public affairs and political science, has not used a trigger warning in class because the material he teaches has not warranted a trigger warning.

On the other hand, Karen Newman, professor of comparative literature and English and chair of the comparative literature department, does not issue trigger warnings because she believes that the discomfort of dealing with ideas different from one’s own contributes to a student’s intellectual growth.

Newman distinguished between discomfort and trauma, adding that discomfort should not be avoided but a classroom should not be a place for “warning the very tiny minority of people whose trauma is such that they might find reading a text to be difficult.”

Newman, who has taught “material that some might term as pornography,” believes that trigger warnings “put a damper” on the robust exchange of ideas if the trauma of a minority of students prevents discussion around uncomfortable topics.

Yuwen Xu ’19 noted that trigger warnings may cause students to forgo attending lectures with triggering material, but that students are still “responsible for knowing the material.”

“Those who didn’t attend the class won’t be as prepared” for assignments as “those who did go to the classes,” Xu said.

But one anonymous student, who is a survivor of sexual assault, read material about sexual assault without being “forewarned,” she said. Afterwards, she found it difficult to be engaged for the rest of the class. “I felt like I couldn’t participate,” she said. “It would have been better to know what was coming up.” She added that being in that position made her feel like she was forcing herself to deal with something she didn’t want to and that she was “not trying hard enough” to cope.

Another anonymous student, who is also a survivor of sexual assault, recalls that during orientation, her residential peer leaders conducted an “exchange game” to teach sexual consent by using “pencils” as symbols of consent. The activity was overwhelming and caught her off-guard, the student said. “I wish there had been more of a warning because we had just got(ten) to Brown,” she said.

Several faculty members stated that they have not had any negative incidents regarding their use or disuse of trigger warnings.

“Not once has a student sought to limit traumatic content because of potential need for a trigger warning,” Bloch said. “In fact, I’ve seen students embrace traumatic work knowing that they would be triggered.”

“I have been teaching for over 35 years,” Newman said, “and I’ve never had a student say ‘I’m uncomfortable reading this.’”

As long as students and faculty members try to be sensitive and aware, everything is “going to be okay,” Horwitz said. All that really matters is that individuals have “a basic level of respect” for others, she said.