Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.
TW: sexual assault, stalking
Today, news broke that the University of Chicago had issued a letter to all incoming Freshmen warning that the school is not a “safe space” and that students should expect to be “challenged”. Most notably, UofC came out against the use of “trigger warnings”, brief content advisories that sometimes are placed on syllabi or lecture slides to alert students to potentially upsetting material.
Many came out in vociferous support of UofC’s stance seeing it as crucial blow for intellectual freedom, levied against an increasingly coddled, demanding Millennial student body. Education should be provocative, decriers of trigger warnings say. College professors should make you uncomfortable. If you ask for, demand, or expect to be warned about objectionable content, you are missing out on an invaluable learning opportunity, or so the logic goes. More than one political cartoon has already depicted pro-TW Millennials as whining, entitled infants in cribs of their own making.
As a social psychologist and a professional academic in Chicago working for multiple universities on an at-will basis, academic and intellectual freedom is a value I am inclined to strongly support. I do believe that professors should feel free to express extreme viewpoints and present challenging material to their students in hopes of expanding their thinking and drawing out critical reflection. And as an instructor with my own classes, I often present material or ideas that some students may disagree with or vehemently dislike. Like many academics, I am dismayed when my colleagues are denied intellectual freedom, and are fired or otherwise punished for wearing political insignia, presenting challenging material, or espousing views some students object to. And as a researcher who studies and publishes articles on the psychology of open-mindedness and political tolerance, I am generally opposed to censorship.
Trigger warnings are none of those things.
What are trigger warnings? Trigger warnings are small advisories placed before the presentation of material that people may find acutely upsetting. Sometimes they are placed in course syllabi, prior to weeks where distressing content is discussed, or on lecture slides, before the presentation of graphic or unpleasant or otherwise triggering material. The term “trigger” is a reference to trauma triggering, an experience common to people with post-traumatic stress disorder, whereby encountering a word, person, or object that is reminiscent of trauma causes a person to experience flashbacks, physical/emotional distress, or panic.
For example, if I was sexually assaulted or raped in a 2002 Kia Sportage (I wasn’t), I might feel uneasy or panicked sitting in the back of a 2002 Kia Sportage (I don’t). If I was forced to have sex that I did not want to have (I was), I might feel incredibly unhappy, shaky, and even slightly out of touch with reality when someone near me makes a joke about rape (I do). Triggers range from the graphic (rape & murder imagery, vivid gore, etc) to the banal (I have an acquaintance who is triggered by apples, because of an abuse experience involving apples), and from the common to the exceptional. For a good example of a banal and uncommon trigger, see the infamous “Trigger Warning: Breakfast” comic published anonymously to The Nib.
Triggers are not a PTSD-exclusive problem. Other mental illness symptoms can also be activated by triggers. For example, if a person is recovering from bulimia, they might feel an urge to purge after witnessing a scene from a movie in which a character throws up. A person who experiences extreme depression and suicide ideation might be incredibly distressed to read a book narrated by a suicidal character, and so on. A person’s experience of being triggered can be visible and physical, or internal and very subtle. Triggers are many and varied, and their effects are unique to each individual.
It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.
One student asked me to warn them if I ever discussed cutting or self-harm in class, since they were a former self-harmer working on sobriety from cutting. Another student asked me to give them advanced notice if lectures in my class would touch on weight loss or calories, as they were battling an eating disorder. A student who was a recent rape survivor asked if they could sit quietly in my office with me for a moment, because they’d just been forced to confront their abuser and they were feeling shaky. Another student had anemia and asked me to warn her if I presented any gory images to the class, because she would involuntarily faint.
I have honored every request for a trigger or content warning that a student has ever given me, and I go out of my way to tag any potentially upsetting material with trigger warnings. I don’t do this because I am a beaten-down, scared shitless academic with no intellectual freedom. My students have not backed me into a corner and demanded that I keep thought-provoking content at bay. Students who disagree with me politically or philosophically (of which there are many) do not try to silence me under a deluge of TW requests. My universities have not twisted my arms, pinned me down, and affixed black TW duct tape across my mouth. That’s not how TW’s work.
In the vast majority of cases, trigger warnings are adopted on an individual basis by faculty who opt into using them. A national survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship indicated that fewer than 1% of universities in this country have formal trigger warning policies. In cases where students desire trigger warnings, this desire is usually expressed in the form of a personal request from student to professor. In addition, trigger warning requests span a variety of ideological positions — they are not the sole purview of liberal Millennials. Over half of the educators surveyed by the NCAC reported providing informal warnings regarding course content of their own accord. In other words, a near majority of academics provide trigger warnings on their own anyway.
So if I, like most of my peers in academia, have not been forced by immature Millennials to wrap my course content in a comforting diaper of trigger warning bubble wrap, why do I choose to use the damn things? If you’ve read this far, you probably have some idea. So here’s your trigger warning that below I am going to briefly discuss rape and domestic violence!
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I was violently sexually assaulted while I was in graduate school, and later, I was stalked and harassed by an ex-partner. These experiences were harrowing, and left emotional and psychological wounds, as well as triggers. I am well aware of them, and know how to avoid them when I need to avoid them. However, I often challenge myself to face them head-on. Trigger warnings help me to emotionally prepare for discussions of rape, stalking, and assault, and allow me to filter out or avoid disturbing content when I’m having a particularly rough day and am not up for it. The language of triggers and trigger warnings gives me a straightforward social script I can use to communicate my trauma reactions to others.
Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.
Of course, sharing my personal trauma experience only the scratches the surface of why I support trigger warnings. My life on earth as an academic, and as a person perceived as a woman, has left me with manifold reasons to use and celebrate TW’s. Like the (dude) professor who admitted to me that he showed the rape scene of Boy’s Don’t Cry to his sociology class, causing a student to run out of the room having a panic attack (she had recently been raped). Or the student who froze up or left the room whenever a topic relevant to their trauma came up, who stopped skipping classes once I knew their triggers and could warn them accordingly. Or the theology professor I knew, who presented his class with graphic, bloody images of what a real-life crucifixion would look like, and had a student vomit in the front of the classroom. Or the writer I know who faints at the sight of needles entering flesh, who had to take a bio 101 course where that very image was projected on a massive screen at the front of the room. Or the domestic violence victim I’m close friends with, who cannot drive through certain areas of her home city because they remind her of her assault. Or the untold scores of students in my classes who are victims of trauma or sufferers of mental illness, who will never feel safe admitting their triggers to me (because trigger warnings are so relentlessly mocked), who will be forced to suffer in silence or miss out on valuable learning opportunities (and grade points) if I lack the empathy to anticipate their needs.
How can someone call themselves an educator and not be sensitive to these incredibly common needs? How can someone be a proponent of intellectual freedom and not want to make their classroom a space where everyone feels free from emotional harm and psychological violence? How does warning a student that a lecture might touch on murder or rape make the university a less open environment? Aren’t we supposed to make our classrooms accessible to students with disabilities? Why does the University of Chicago think that discouraging students from advocating for their own mental health is a blow to the quality of their education? Do they not want mentally ill or traumatized students at all? Why are so many academics so hellbent on providing traumatizing content to students? Why are these established, comfortable Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers so threatened and scandalized by being asked to give a two-word heads-up? Do they not realize Millenials are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for an increasingly devalued education, and that of course they want to have a little bit of influence on the quality of what they’re buying?
I am a college professor, a psychologist, a rape survivor, and a proud user of trigger warnings, and I can’t figure out the answers to those questions. I’ve read all the fuming anti-TW screeds; I’ve bashed my head against the rants and the wringing of hands and I’ve “challenged” myself to understand their outrage, but I just can’t. Most of them don’t seem to understand what trigger warnings and safe spaces even are. I want my students to feel emotionally safe so that they can take on cognitive challenges from a position of strength. That’s all. And I hope that makes the anti-TW babies cry, cry, cry.