SLC Weighs In On the Trigger Warning Debate

A traditional Sarah Lawrence seminar classroom. Photo courtesy of U.S. News.

A traditional Sarah Lawrence seminar classroom. Photo courtesy of U.S. News.

The concept and use of trigger warnings has gained increased attention, and increased controversy, in recent years. Debates about safe spaces, intellectual freedom for both students and professors, and the exclusion of already-marginalized people have all become connected to the debate.

According to psychology professor Linwood Lewis, “Faculty have been having conversations about trigger warnings since the beginning of the semester, and [an Atlantic article published in September] I think was the impetus for it.”

Many of those who condemn trigger warnings, such as the authors of the previously mentioned Atlantic article, The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, frame calls for trigger warnings as a form of censorship. However, Lewis commented “I think that often when people talk about trigger warnings and content warnings the problem in talking about it is that you’re talking about two different things.  I’m a psychologist, and for me when I’m thinking about students’ vulnerabilities and experiences, I’m thinking that a trigger warning is connected to an experience like PTSD.”

Without always using the term trigger warnings or content warnings, many professors already implement their own strategies to alert students to difficult material and to keep class discussion useful for students. Kristin Sands, a professor of Religion, explained that in at least one class “at the very beginning of the entire year, I explain to people that [some material is] a sensitive matter for some people, so then I won’t have to individually point out any particular thing. [But] if there is a scene that is all of a sudden very stressful for people, that I would warn people in advance about, actually. I have done that with a film I used to show.”

Lewis said “I have warned students sometimes when, in my class on sexuality, we talk about sexual assault or sexual abuse. I remind people that that’s on the syllabus for the next week.” He described as well how “at times, in the class, somebody will have that kind of reaction to the things that we’re talking about, and then get up and leave and then contact me later on. And I think that’s fine, totally appropriate.”

Professor James Horowitz says he gives similar general warnings. “I don’t include explicit warnings on my syllabi, but I do try to go into some detail in interviews and throughout the semester about what students should expect from the material we’re covering--whether it includes incidents of sexual violence, for example, a disconcertingly common aspect of all manner of writing from the period I teach, the British 18th century,” he said.

Sociology professor Sarah Wilcox informs students about reading material for multiple reasons. She explained, “I don’t use trigger warnings per se, but I do feel that it is my responsibility to advise students about the content of upcoming readings, including what kind of readings they are, how difficult the readings will be, and if they include any content that might be unusually confusing or distressing.  So I will try to advise students if a reading was written a long time ago and uses outdated wording, if its especially dense and theoretical, or if a reading includes content that might be emotionally upsetting to read. So I fold what might be considered trigger warnings into my usual practices for preparing students for readings.”

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Professors sometimes decide it is more practical to focus on addressing problems after they become apparent, most often in cases of triggering material or conflict between students. Theatre professor Stuart Spencer said he does not really see any way of preventing students from encountering triggering content, but added that he tries to address the problem if a particularly sensitive subject happens to come up. He explained, “I will often check in with anyone who I think is having a real problem with it and see how they are,” asking questions such as “’are you ok, are you totally gone, or are you really upset by it.” He continued,  “And you can usually tell if people are offended or perhaps traumatized, by what’s going on.” 

Wilcox described the actions she takes to make accessible as “broader than the idea of a trigger warning.” She clarified: “I don’t generally offer students a general option of not doing a reading, participating in a discussion, or watching a film.  In conference, if I know that a particular reading or activity might be particularly hard for a particular student, I might bring the topic up with them.”

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Part of the generational gap that is often perceived between students and professors may not be due to extreme differences in their concepts of how academia should function. Rather, the specific language and strategies advocated to make academia less exclusive could be the larger source of division.

Wilcox explained, “I’ve been teaching long enough that I’ve developed my approach to potentially difficult material independently from the more recent concept of a trigger warning.” According to Wilcox, tools such as trigger warnings originating in a particular context also need to be adapted to be used in a different situation. “An academic class is a very different context than the world of internet forums and blogs where the idea of trigger warnings emerged, so it’s unlikely that the practices used in each context will exactly mirror each other,” she continued.

Professors usually intend to create a space in which students will learn, and aim to create an environment in which those students are not unnecessarily pushed away from participating in valuable discussion. Wilcox said, “I try to let students know that a classroom is not intended to be, and can’t be, an entirely safe space, because classrooms have to be places where we can have difficult discussions about potentially upsetting or controversial topics. But within that constraint, I try to also let students know that as the professor I’m responsible for providing a welcoming climate for learning, that I’m available to them as a resource if they have difficulties of any kind in the class, and that I’m open to conversations about how best to meet their needs. So I think in terms of relative safety rather than absolute safety.”

The idea of relative safety was also described by Linwood Lewis: “I try to make my classroom a safer space. I can’t make it a safe space – I don’t think it’s possible. But, a space where – if someone sees that something we’re going to be talking about, or if I say ‘we’re going to be talking about this thing and there’s some really hard scenes in this text,’ that the person would come to me and say, ‘that’s gonna be really hard for me.’ And then we can talk about it.”

James Horowitz described his own ways of making the classroom as safe as possible for students, explaining that, “My somewhat idealistic belief is that a successful seminar is by definition a safe space in which students and teachers display mutual respect and feel comfortable sharing a diversity of viewpoints and experiences. Yet I know that things don’t always work out that way in practice. So, once again, it’s important that students feel empowered to share their concerns and complaints with teachers...But I do think that simply leading discussion in an open-minded and sensitive fashion is the best, perhaps the only, way to make classrooms feel welcoming to students.”

Although the SLC professors interviewed for this article had nuanced approaches to the concept of trigger warnings, some students say that this has fact has not been reflected in their personal experiences. Sophomore Clare Szigethy discussed the consequences for her of a professor’s hostility towards the idea.

She explained, “I have a trigger warnings accommodation through disability services, which I was informed recently is very rare--not many students have that. And essentially what it means is that if I am reading a material that ends up triggering, I can inform the professor and they can assign me an alternate reading, or assignment, and figure out how I could participate without having to be in contact with that materia...So it’s different than the classical trigger or content warning stance, when you would put the warning before anyone reads it.”

Despite presenting her letter from Disability Services as legitimate confirmation, Szigethy said that when she discussed the accommodation plan with one of her professors, “By the end of the conference I felt shamed for needing them. And for the rest of that class, when I needed trigger warnings--which was actually very few times after that point--I didn’t really feel comfortable talking to the professor. So I made my own choice usually to not go to the class in which we discussed the triggering content, and while I wouldn’t advise that for everyone, it’s what I felt I needed to do at the time.”

She continued, “When I was pressured into reading the material I did not feel engaged with it, and it was, because it was a very emotional experience for me, and I felt more unsafe in the classroom, because I felt if I was being pressured into reading this material that I knew was emotionally damaging for me...I definitely felt not very respected, at least. And it did very much limit my participation in the classroom...I no longer felt that my experience was being respected in the classroom.”  

Many students say that when they are able to be aware of what to expect, they can find a solution that works best for them. Senior Hannah Jackson explained “I know it’s this weird double thing because on one hand there are times when I’ll just semi-psych myself out because I’m worried about when it’s gonna show up...But there are other times when it’s really helpful, and knowing that’s coming, I’m not taken out of the material going, This piece of content is not good for me; I can engage with it and I read more carefully.”

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Despite some professors’ intentions to successfully manage situations in which a student may be harmed or feel unsafe, SLC students do not always feel comfortable asking for accommodations that could help them. 

When asked if she had ever requested trigger warnings, Jackson replied “Requested no, wanted yes.” When the use of content warnings and other accommodations are left to the discretion of individual professors, students can become unsure whether there could be negative consequences in terms of asking for accommodation, as well as how much personal information they will be expected to disclose if they make the choice to ask.

Jackson clarified: “Trigger warnings are finicky things, in that there are certain general ones, say sexual assault, but triggers can be so specific that it’s hard to warn for everything unless you know the person.” While the variation in students’ needs makes discourse all the more important, there remains the risk that professors will assume any valid needs would make sense to them, and expect students to explain more when a professor cannot understand.  

Students often feel a stigma against requests for trigger warnings, which some say can be tied to a larger stigma against disability. Jackson described “How there’s also the people that show up and say Well you need to be exposed to stuff, be exposed to it and deal with it because that’s the only way it’ll be better, and they fail to recognize that that’s not how exposure therapy works...People don’t need panic attacks, thank you very much.”

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The way Sarah Lawrence courses are organized, with small seminars and frequent conferences, makes for plenty of opportunities to gain accessibility. 

Sands explained how, “Our structure I think makes it, in a seminar class anyway, a good structure for doing it without having to do it in a more abstract way, to just say Here’s a trigger point in this, a great deal of material that has in the past been very sensitive for some students.” 

She continued, “I’ve become more aware of the number of different ways in which people can find it difficult to interact with material; and sometimes somebody looks as if they’re uninvolved in the conversation and it may actually be related to very serious things that have happened to them....I’ll sort of say what’s going on, and sometimes [the problem is] because of something totally unrelated, but sometimes that kind of thing. I’ve been shocked at some of the things that students have told me about their private lives, and what’s happened to them and their families...A lot of people have suffered some pretty traumatic things...When I taught at New York University, you didn’t really have that, you didn’t have any space in which that could come out, in any way, shape or form. But our system is such that you can do that, and I am more [aware of] it than I once was.”

Lewis discussed his approach to conflict and difficult conversations in class, stating “If it’s a tense discussion but it’s a discussion, I let it go. But then I also hope that if someone feels that I didn’t step in when they wanted me to that they would come to me after class and have a discussion about it or talk about it in conference. I think that’s one of the benefits that we have at Sarah Lawrence, that most of our classes have conferences. I try to make that clear to students that I’m available and listening; even if I don’t agree, I’m listening.” 

Horowitz commented, “I have a perhaps naive belief that in a school with small class sizes like SLC, these warnings can emerge organically from conversations between teachers and students in the classroom or in conference, but this faith is predicated on the assumption that students feel comfortable sharing their concerns with teachers, and when appropriate requesting accommodations. So I think that, as a professor, making yourself seem approachable and sensitive to student needs is half the battle. But I do understand the argument for having codified trigger warnings on class materials, especially at big schools where there is hardly any direct teacher/student contact. If you only know your professor as a booming voice at the head of a lecture hall, how comfortable will you be approaching him or her and sharing your feelings or concerns? Most likely you will simply skip class instead.” 

When students are not able to discuss accommodations with professors, they have found skipping class and similar actions to be necessary. In addition to small class sizes, Sarah Lawrence’s purported culture of very personalized and student-driven education could be drawn on for sake of inclusion.

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There are multiple ways to provide some form of content warnings. While none are perfect, they do not have to be disruptive to the class and can be adapted based on context. 

Szigethy described the official accommodation she had from disability services allowing her to stop reading texts that were unsafe. Whether a student would need an official letter for exemptions from triggers depends largely on whether a professor requires one. To attain such preventative warnings, Jackson suggested that “The syllabus would be a good place to put them,” or that “one could ask Does this come up anywhere along the way?, and potentially [a professor] could say yes or no.”

Warnings do not have to be only for content that would be a trauma-related trigger. Jackson further explained, “I have started using the phrase content warning, simply because that’s what it is. This contains this content, in case–it’s not like Oh this might be triggering, I will warn you about triggers. It’s This piece of material has these kinds of themes in it. It’s like in a movie rating, almost – movies that are rated PG-13 or R, it’s listed as to why. Y’know, sexual themes, violence...I think it could be very useful for those sorts of pieces of information to find their way places.”

Horowitz made a similar comparison; “I consider it basic civility for teachers to give students some preview of literary works that might be upsetting or alienating because of violent and/or sexual content. To assume that students are immune to being upset by these texts is to underestimate the power of literature. Of course, teachers can’t always predict what subject matter will disturb students, so candor from students is necessary here.”

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Finding ways to give trigger or content warnings can be difficult in an academic setting. In addition to the difficulty of knowing what students will need to be warned for, professors do not always know what will come up in discussion or in the individual work students share with the class. 

Stuart Spencer said “There’s a complicating factor in my case, because I teach playwriting, and as in a fiction class, people don’t know what other people are going to bring in and it’s as much a surprise to me as to everyone else. And sometimes things in the students’ work raises hackles.” 

He added, “I would never tell that student No you can’t write about that, but on the other hand you can’t just ignore the fact that it had an impact. I want [other students] to be able to know that they’re equally safe as the person writing that way and that they’re also free writing what they want to write about.” 

Every class, depending on subject matter, structure, and the needs of the particular students, may work best with a different system of warnings and other accommodations. Wilcox explained that “In academia, I think it’s easier in the social sciences where the material that might necessitate a trigger warning is more likely to be a central part of the content of the text.”

However, in other disciplines, giving trigger warnings could be more complicated. “In the humanities, for example in a literature class, it can be a bit more difficult, because you could assign a novel where there are a few pages in the middle that might necessitate a trigger warning...But I think that there a range of approaches that professors can take, so that most would be able to find a way of letting students know about potentially disturbing or upsetting content that would fit their own pedagogical approach and the needs of students,” Wilcox said.

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Professors may view a request for accommodation as acceptable or helpful as long as they do not perceive it as an attempt to censor the content of the class for others. Lewis said, “It’s the part where people say, Well, I’m not gonna look at it and I don’t think that you should teach it-- that’s the part that I would argue about.”

Horowitz expressed a similar viewpoint: “An accommodation that I would consider unreasonable--at least as I see matters at this point--would be a request that a text not be taught at all because of its potential to cause distress.” He continued, “I consider it a perfectly reasonable expectation, however, that all topics or texts under discussion be framed in a way that does not alienate or offend anyone in the classroom...As long as students are still willing to be challenged in their studies and not to limit themselves to books or perspectives that mirror their own pre-existing worldviews.” 

Likewise, Lewis stated, “I think that students have the right to act on their own behalf. And I think that you should be able to negotiate with a professor, in some way. You can find alternative readings. I find it hard to believe that there can’t be found some kind of compromise where the information gets to the student in the way that it needs to, and the student feels supported in their experience of that material.”

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At the heart of controversy over trigger warnings in academia is the question of whether students deserve to be accommodated. For those who are marginalized or disabled or both, adjusting to a system created without the highest level of inclusivity is not always an option. Many at Sarah Lawrence would like to consider our campus a welcoming, diverse place with free intellectual exchange. Even so, if the message that not everyone deserves respect is conveyed, then every student has instantly been limited. It is worth considering whether some—or all—of us are being indirectly silenced.

JM Stewart '18

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