Trigger Warnings

At Columbia University, a student became uncomfortable during a class about Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  As a victim of sexual assault, she had a negative reaction to the stories of Persephone and Daphne and to her professor talking about the beautiful language used by Ovid.  After class, the student talked to the professor who did not respond as favorably as the student hoped.  The Columbia Spectator op-ed telling this story continued to request the following courses of action:

  • the faculty receive a letter about trigger warnings and suggestions for how to support triggered students,
  • students be able to anonymously report concerns to faculty,
  • there be a mediation mechanism for students who have identity-based concerns regarding a professor, and
  • there should be “a training program for all professors, including faculty and graduate instructors, which will enable them to constructively facilitate conversations that embrace all identities, share best practices, and think critically about how the Core Curriculum is framed for their students.”

The article as a whole focuses on the idea that the Western canon may make students uncomfortable because it focuses on white heterosexual males who were usually very wealthy.  The canon may ignore or marginalize people of other races, inhabitants of non-Western/colonized countries, people of the LGBTQ community, women, and victims of sexual assault.  The reactions to the article (here, here, and here), though, tend to focus on the first proposal: trigger warnings (the warning at the beginning of a topic that the material may be uncomfortable or contain distressing scenes or topics).

The American Association of University Professors has a very well-thought out statement about trigger warnings, to which they are opposed, especially as required by an institution. The AAUP considers trigger warnings a threat to academic freedom.  Their many objections to trigger warnings are:

  • Trigger warnings prevent students from being made uncomfortable by surprising or shocking events that are supposed to make the reader or audience uncomfortable.  That discomfort is partly what the work is about and discomfort is how we grow as people, how we expose ourselves to new ideas, and how we determine the best moral framework.
  • Trigger warnings may distract from some of the other themes of a book, and they associate a negative connotation with the entire work.  For example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is not just about rape, but issuing a disclaimer that it is bad because of the rape will marginalize Ovid’s project to write about many transformations throughout the history of the universe and to praise Augustus.
  • Trigger warnings infantilize students by making their comfort a higher priority than their intellectual and ethical development.
  • If an individual has an extreme negative emotional reaction or a post-traumatic stress-related reaction to something is class, a counseling center or psychologist/psychiatrist’s office is a more appropriate location for the individual to overcome their PTSD or other emotional issues.
  • Trigger warnings amount to censorship.

So what should we do?

If we have the individual choice about whether or not to use trigger warnings, I think there are ways to be judicious about their use, if we are to use them.

  • Consider the age of your students.  We should warn younger students about potentially disturbing themes or events more than we should warn adult students.
  • When designing our courses, we often choose texts and events from the canon.  We can also include texts that are outside the canon so that the class is not only about old, dead, white heterosexual males.  Plato’s Symposium is nicely located in the canon and contains many ideas about sexuality that may actually make some heterosexual people more uncomfortable than some people in the LGBTQ community.  We could also read poems or inscriptions by women to include discussions about women too.
  • We can also discuss why we assign texts from within the canon.  The canon of Classical authors was established very early on.  Quintilian discusses the greatness of many authors, including Cicero and Demosthenes.  Virgil was an instantaneous classic.  We may want to discuss this on the first day, and acknowledge some of the factors that developed the canon: ancient appreciation for style, ancient social norms that may be very different from our own, and the survival of manuscripts.  Acknowledging the different social norms at play may be a helpful pseudo-trigger warning that students will encounter uncomfortable themes throughout the class.
  • Create a community and positive environment within your class where students feel comfortable and where it is easier to share comments and ideas.  The student at Columbia probably was not comfortable voicing her opinions in that class.
  • Remember that we are often desensitized to things that may require trigger warnings, but our students are not.  We should remember that rape and other subjects may be the major theme to be discussed in a work.  The Homeric Hymn to Demeter is very much about how Demeter handles the psychological effects of Hades kidnapping and raping Persephone.  Talk about that and make sure your students understand this before you only talk about the style of the language that is employed in the rape scene.  The Columbia student was clearly annoyed that the professor focused so much on the beauty of Ovid’s language.
  • Understand and provide the context for the potentially triggering situation.  Is it meant to be shocking?  If so, don’t give a trigger warning.  Students should be shocked by it.  For example, the rape of Lucretia is supposed to be a very shocking affront to her and her husband L. Tarquinius Collatinus and that’s why it provoked the rebellion to oust the Roman kings.  Help students understand why this would be so shocking to the Romans.  If an episode is not supposed to be so shocking, provide the context to explain why ancient Greeks and Romans found rape (or some other issue) more socially acceptable than we find it. (This is more or less the idea expressed in this response to the Columbia Spectator op-ed.)
  • If a student comes to you with a problem, respond with compassion.  You should also be aware of mental health support services on campus that you can refer the student to.
  • Offer students an avenue to offer suggestions.  BlackBoard discussion boards allow students to provide anonymous comments and feedback, so you could create a suggestion box on there.  I have done this in a few classes, but students have rarely, if ever, used it.  It may be better to give them the opportunity if they will ever need it.  You can also use mid-term course evaluations to create an atmosphere that encourages students to talk to you about the course.
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