Trigger Warnings in Higher Education

Over the weekend, trigger warnings hit the mainstream with a New York Times article about recent calls from university students for trigger warnings on syllabuses. Many of the responses I have seen online assume that such requests are about students wanting to be comfortable and to remain unchallenged in their personal beliefs.

There is validity to this perspective. Even before the New York Times picked up the issue, Tressie McMillan Cottom has connected these requests to the corporatization of the university:

Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people . . .

. . . no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

higher education stampIt is true that trigger warnings can be used by already socially privileged and protected students as a way to avoid leaving their bubbles.

But the complication here is that the wishes of such students to remain unchallenged are being coupled to legitimate concerns. Not everyone who has experienced a specific type of trauma is ready to dwell on that trauma, even as an act of resistance to its causes. Students who have already been traumatized can experience physical and mental symptoms as a result of being reminded of that trauma that will interfere with learning. So how do we enable these students’ self-care while continuing to challenge those who need to be challenged in these areas? What I mean is: how do we trouble the comfortable without doing more damage to the troubled?

I don’t think trigger warnings—or at least not blanket trigger-warning policies—are the answer. Clear course descriptions will help students make appropriate choices,  but once students are enrolled, the key is keeping communication open and being aware of students’ responses in class. I have seen students struggling with their emotions during discussions of a text that includes violence. And there is no single best way of helping students in that position: some want to be left alone to process it, some need closer attention. Some might benefit from being warned about such content; others might find the warning unnecessary or even harmful in itself.

If we really want to meet the needs of students who have been traumatized, what we need are smaller class-sizes and workloads that let us get to know our students as individuals. We need an end to adjunctification. We need, in other words, an end to a higher education system driven by capitalist ideas of efficiency.

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