Trigger Warnings and the Adult Conversation About Them

You don’t need to read The Atlantic’s “How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on College Campuses” to know what it says. It covers very little new ground and much of it is the same wrong and pseudo-scientific garbage that has been circulating around this topic for years. The only thing it adds to the discussions is that literally infantilizing picture of a toddler that constitutes the cover shot. If all copies of it were burned, there would be no change in our understanding of the issue.

I’m not going to take the time to go through it. There’s no point. The core argument, that the end goal of therapy is to allow patients to face their triggers, has embedded in it three swift rebuttals that reveal it as bankrupt, if nominally correct. First, the issue of “end goal” addresses nothing about the interim period and lapses that do occur. Second, it is emphatically against the ethical tenants of professional psychiatry to trigger people without warning—it violates the notion of informed consent. Third, professors, even in the uncommon instance they are trained psychiatrists, are not the proper authority to be administering therapy. It is with this in mind that you should summarily dismiss this line of thought.

The adult table is actually having a fairly productive conversation about trauma, trigger warnings, free speech, and academia. This does not include Laura Kipnis (Freud justifies sleeping with my students), Jack Halberstadt (Freud justifies me ignoring intersectionality organizing), the authors of the aforementioned Atlantic piece (Professors should play therapist with their charges), Jonathan Chait (I can’t tell the difference between free speech a and moderated venue), and the rest of the pantheon of shrill objectors. The results are a fairly clear path forward, and one that is not so different than best practices currently employed by good teachers.

The Trigger Warning Myth (Aaron R. Hanlon)

This piece ably lays out the proper context trigger warnings come up in: preparing students to deal with challenging material. There is a fair amount in this that directly rebuts The Atlantic piece, but here is the crux of the matter:

The thinking behind the idea that trigger warnings are a form of censorship is fundamentally illogical: those who offer warnings, at our professional discretion, about potentially triggering material are doing so precisely because we’re about to teach it! If we used trigger warnings to say, effectively, “don’t read this, it’s scary,” then there’d be no need to warn in the first place; we’d just leave the material off the syllabus.

Professional judgement will become a theme.

My Students Need Trigger Warnings—and Professors Do Too (Aaron R. Hanlon)

Hanlon, interestingly enough, identifies the case that launched this to national spectacle as bad teaching. A professor assigned Ovid, taught it for the language to the exclusion of content, and then dismissed concerns about content. Regardless of what those concerns were, this is telling students not to pursue a line of thinking. For something which is supposedly about thought and exchange, this is curious. But Hanlon centers in on the many ways the professor failed his student:

These—the details of teaching—are the most important details of this story because they describe those moments in which the instructor in question might have taken a few extra steps beyond the “beauty of language and the splendor of the imagery” to engage students in a discussion of the historical context and the trauma of Ovid’s writing. These are the moments after class or during office hours when a professor can listen receptively to a student who was traumatized by the material and the class discussion, who might not have been comfortable sharing her thoughts in front of the class, and who might, yes, need a referral to campus health professionals. These are the moments when professors can tip our hands and explain to students the value of teaching and learning and discussing material that nevertheless unmoors us.

Let me be plainer: maybe we could consider the possibility that the professor in question was an unprofessional dick—a problem we might note isn’t solved by a trigger warning, but rather precluded by it.

Campus PC Panic is Getting Ridiculous (Sean Trainor)

The tagline for this piece is a good deal of what you need to know about it. “A professor’s job is not to surprise, humiliate or traumatize students—but you wouldn’t know it from the backlash.” The piece flirts with condescension at the end, but even that is a good point: that the Boomers who are worried about P.C. culture were no more staid when they asked campus culture to change for the better, and now millenials are at it again. The talk of “excesses of the left” puts the actual missteps by advocates for trigger-warnings in perspective without making a few decontextualized examples into a full-blown argument.

After all, the people who are promoting these ideas are not, for the most part, trying to stifle free speech; they’re instead trying to create the conditions in which it will flourish. Some of their attempts have, admittedly, been clumsy and excessively punitive. But we should also recognize and respect that many of these campus activists are trying to grapple with a new frontier of bigotry and exclusion — to look beyond the gross legal and institutional prejudice of the Jim Crow, boys-only era of higher education, and instead consider how small, daily, and seemingly innocuous behaviors nevertheless contribute to the present state of racial, gender and class-based exclusion.

The author both diverges from the trigger warning crowd by jettisoning the dubious clinical arguments for trigger warnings but allies with them by arguing that people deserve to know what they’re getting into. This leaves much of The Atlantic piece without anything to hold onto.

Saying Trigger Warnings “Coddle the Mind” Completely Misses the Point (Maddy Myers)

I’m repeating myself by quoting this, but the exasperation and sarcasm are what this line of thought deserve:

This assertion that classroom discussions are a “good way to help students” lacks a citation. Although “exposure therapy” worked for me, personally, that’s probably because a mental health professional was involved.

This article does very little to explore how educators might better serve PTSD sufferers; instead, the piece seems to assert that educators shouldn’t have to change a thing.

Yeah. (The piece as a whole is of lower quality than the other ones on this page, but this snippet is how I feel.)

How Trigger Warnings Could Really Help (Alyssa Rosenberg)

This piece fairly and critically explores the difficult balance between accountability for students and respect for them. But especially helpful is a discussion of what a good, academic “content note” might look like:

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you are aware of particular course material that may be traumatizing to you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have with it before it comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to such material with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.

I want to jump up and down and scream THIS! Worth emphasizing, as the piece does, that it is different than the laundry-list approach. But it does require professors to be professional enough to have conversations with their students and negotiate fair resolution. As noted above, that may be a significant hurdle for an alarming number of professors.

In Conclusion

I looked for awhile to find a piece that didn’t rely on a simplistic notion of avoidance or handwringing about P.C. culture to justify opposition to trigger warnings. I couldn’t find one, though they might exist. Given how quickly these arguments are dispatched, it seems to me that much of this is just signaling about P.C. culture, and not a legitimate concern for education.

What is equally interesting is how hard it is to find support for the kind of trigger warnings that work on forums being used in the classroom—and that most of the supporters are inexperienced student-activists. This isn’t a surprise if you consider it. Clear, binding rules make a lot of sense in an egalitarian forum where you can hide behind a screen name. But on the flip side, our professors are presumably professionals and should be granted some prerogative. One hopes they are not the abusive trolls that populate online spaces, though the experiences of this debate show that some of them are certainly cut from the same cloth.

I don’t think I’m dipping into false equivalence here when I say the truth lies somewhere in the middle—and closer to the student-activists. Professors really should consider their students’ emotional needs. I would have thought that a given. Even if it isn’t the familiar trigger warnings of the internet, they should lay out expectations clearly and highlight challenges. You cannot deal with the challenging ideas of academia and adulthood without sometimes being overwhelmed by them. Professors should be mindful of that in the same way sports coaches should let their charges drink water and take a stretch break. They certainly should not belittle or dismiss those difficulties.

Content warnings as outlined above could very well foster accountability and exchange. And triggering students in the name of unethical, untested pop-psychology will be far more damaging than any list of hard ideas on a syllabus ever could be.


One thought on “Trigger Warnings and the Adult Conversation About Them

  1. Can’t remember if we were warned for content or not (probably were, this prof was pretty good about being a decent human being), but as a young journalism student my class watched The Falling Man, a documentary about one of the people who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

    It was, as you might guess, extremely traumatizing for me to watch as someone dealing with undiagnosed depression and occasional suicidal thoughts.


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