Trigger Warnings in Academia: What’s Really at Issue?

December 2, 2014

If you haven’t been in a college classroom lately, you might not know that many syllabi contain trigger warnings about historical depictions, violent language and graphic images that might appear in class materials and which some students might find especially disturbing. There is broad support for and use of trigger warnings and just as broad vociferous challenges.

With his polemical post on Bully Bloggers, “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma,” published in July of this year, renowned queer theorist Jack Halberstam created a maelstrom of controversy about the need for, and meaning and effectiveness of trigger warnings in academia (and elsewhere).

Halberstam was accused of everything from stomping on transwomens’ experience and personal agency to disingenuously speaking about progressive/radical politics from a place of white academic privilege.

Trigger warnings, or “tw’s” in academic lingo, have been around for sometime, but 2014 saw a major uptick in both personal and public musings, writings, lambastings and apologies on the issue. Halberstam, in fact, wrote a follow up to his initial post apologizing for offense and taking into consideration thoughtful point-by-point responses to and all-out attacks on his earlier writing on the matter.

Risa Lieberwitz is general counsel at the American Association of University Professors and a member of the organization’s subcommittee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which issued the Sept 2014 report, On Trigger Warnings, deeming tw’s a “threat to academic freedom.” Says Lieberwitz, “I think the statement points out the concerns in a clear way, but our concern with academic freedom is related to censorship. A requirement to have trigger warnings or even a suggestion from the administration, for example, would have a chilling effect in faculty autonomy over the materials they assign and how they present them.”

This concern, explains Lieberwitz, Professor of Labor and Employment Law, ILR School, Cornell University, comes from a number of different places:

“The notion of trigger warnings undermines the notion of education as quite deliberately presenting material that may be disturbing. Education may actually force people to confront issues that they may have thought they knew about but presented in a way that forces them to think about more closely or from a different perspective. That is what education is actually supposed to do – challenge ones’ belief. We think trigger warnings go against the notion of education as challenging, as difficult, as sometimes disturbing, and even upsetting. We also believe it is infantilizing to the students and interferes with faculty’s ability to present material.”

The AAUP’s statement refers to health services as a place to reconcile issues of emotional health, instead of using trigger warnings.

This alternative is something Lieberwitz says the AAUP takes very seriously. “People with health conditions — this might be PTSD, other health conditions or disabilities related to trauma — we take very seriously, and we think it should be taken care of in the right place, through health professionals.” This she suggests instead of the educator who is teaching sensitive material being charged with the health of students.

She indicates the idea and use of tw’s assumes we can know what triggers which reactions, which inherently, we can’t:

“The literature tells us there may be very surprising ways in which reactions get triggered. So what we do not want to see is faculty to say ‘I’ll just take the safest route possible and present material unlikely to trigger a strong response,’ or ‘If I present material that may trigger a response in somebody, I’ll have a to make general warning to everybody.’ Neither is an acceptable approach in our view, feeling pressure to warn everyone because someone might have a traumatic response, or avoiding controversial material has the potential for avoiding addressing some of the most important issues in society: sexism, questions of rape and sexual assault, race and colonialism, suicide…we should be addressing those questions in the classrooms.”

In fact, some of the most vociferous proponents of trigger warnings come from facially progressive corners: some feminists, transwomen activists, members of the LGBT community, and other social justice advocates. Lieberwitz says she thinks that is unfortunate because tw’s may discourage addressing real questions of marginalization and inequality in society.

“We also say in the statement that some individual faculty members may decide that they want to tell students upfront that they will address sensitive issues, and that is their choice.”

Lieberwitz herself takes this approach as an educator. “In my classroom sometimes when we discuss issues that may be disturbing and upsetting, I make very explicit statements that these are issues that are very real and very disturbing and we should recognize that there is very real issue of emotional responses. What we are talking about is any requirement from the administration, or the suggestion from administration of putting a trigger warning on a syllabus creates pressure and censorship, interfering with academic freedom.”

Justin Peligri, Managing Director of George Washington University’s student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, objects to the idea that trigger warnings amount to censorship. In fact, he sees not being warned, for example, about a film in a class where he then must sit to discuss sensitive topics with 30 classmates, an affront. “I’m not talking about censorship, about omitting material from a course syllabi, but just an acknowledgment that themes of brutal sexual assault or similar will be discussed or depicted.”

For example, Peligri says George Washington University, where he is a student, has a large veteran population and telling students that some material may re-expose veterans to their traumatic experiences in the military is something they might want to be prepared for.

“We live in a world today with such a range of diversity, and it’s important that classrooms reflect that. It’s also important that coursework take that into account.”

Peligri adds that many like to say that those who are part of the self-esteem movement want college whitewashed and sterilized and want nothing unsettling in their courses. “They dismiss us because of our age and tell us to get over ourselves and not to be so sensitive. People are talking about personal experience in a way we’ve never done before, especially around sexual assault, and it’s a shame to fight against that.”

He gives the example of how Bill Cosby’s accusers are finally being heard 20 years after they first made accusations and the fear women feel on college campuses to report incidents of sexual assault. In this regard, he thinks arguments that trigger warnings are about eliminating any discussion of unsettling material in the classroom miss the point. “The discomfort I’m talking about enters a realm of safety and the feeling of not being protected.”

Ruthann Robson, Professor of Law, City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, says the notion of academic freedom vis-à-vis trigger warnings is a gray area. “So if I fail to give a trigger warning or did give a trigger warning and a public university took action, I would have some First Amendment claims around that.”

If it’s mandated, says Robson, “a claim would fall into compelled speech, and as faculty you might agree with content or not.” She provides an interesting analogy: “How is a mandated trigger warning different than asking physicians to give a warning that if you get an abortion you are more likely to commit suicide? Those kinds of warnings, in a professional capacity, are different from warnings on cigarette labels or even GMOs.” When you’re faculty at an institution that receives public funding and you are required to say something you may or may not agree with, or that is pedagogically unsound, then there is a First Amendment issue with that.

The question of students having claims as well is an interesting one that doesn’t often enter into discussions about trigger warnings. Robson says that with educational rights under Title IX, something students might experience in the realm of trigger warnings is sexual harassment. One example is creating a hostile climate in a classroom. A course such as one Robson herself teaches, Sexuality and the Law, is “full of things that are very offensive, so even if I always give a trigger warning and keep saying ‘this is difficult,’ another professor might present the similar material and be hostile about it.” In such a case, she says, a student may have a claim, not of one-on-one sexual harassment, but of a professor creating a hostile climate in the classroom.

Robson continues, “Between those things there is a lot of room, and the problem is that rather than the university mandating, the university should engage in some kind of professional training that is about not only listening to the administration, but having space to talk about how to handle these situations and what is good pedagogy – because pretty much everyone teaches something that is sensitive to some person.”

The question is how to do that.

Image: John McLinden via photopin