What’s a Trigger Warning?
The public, media, and academic panic over trigger warnings has struck me as a bizarre overreaction. Fueling the growing crisis mentality, Vox published an essay titled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” that went viral. Directly relevant to law school professors, Jeannie Suk wrote in The New Yorker that she has had growing concerns about teaching about rape in the emerging trigger-warning culture. I was one of those who expressed doubt about Suk’s position, but also wondered how much difference in our perspectives could be explained by our natural tendency to generalize from our own limited anecdotal experiences.
Thankfully, a lot of research is being done to understand whether the panic over trigger warnings is warranted. The National Coalition against Censorship (NCAC) issued a published report concerning its findings. There are a lot of interesting tidbits including that a lot of requests for warnings come because of religious or moral sensitivities (and not so-called left-wing “political correctness). Overall, the report seems to indicate that the panic is overblown.
Yet, the most shocking finding for me personally was to discover that I was a trigger warning issuer according to the report. This was the definition of a trigger warning used by the NCAC:
… written warnings to alert students in advance that material assigned in a course might be upsetting or offensive. Originally intended to warn students about graphic descriptions of sexual assault that it was thought might trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some students, more recently trigger warnings have come to encompass materials touching on a wide range of potentially sensitive subjects, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture, and other topics. In many cases, the request for trigger warnings comes from students themselves.
Although I have long given oral statements when covering certain material in Criminal Law (primarily in child murder and rape cases), I started sending out a pre-semester email to students signed up for my Sex Crimes seminar as follows:
My Sex Crimes course is filled with gruesome, horrific, and truly bizarre readings and discussions. As I have told colleagues who are curious about the subject, “once I tell you, you can’t un-know it.” Although I’m guessing that some of you feel that you have heard or can imagine nearly everything we will discuss in class, I’m pretty sure each of you will quickly hear or read something that will upset and/or shock you. I think there is much value in learning outside of your comfort zone, but I want you all to make an informed choice about taking my class. So, if you want to drop the class, let me know so that you don’t get any further emails. I will send out the semester’s readings and your first day assignment tomorrow.
To me, my email is a far cry from what has stoked media controversy. Often, trigger warnings are portrayed as student vetoes or opt-outs from certain assignment that are a critical component of the “death of free speech on college campuses.” And yet my email to students would be counted as a trigger warning in surveys. On the one hand calling my statement a “warning” is entirely accurate. But from my perspective it is simply designed to inform students about the course’s content and doesn’t allow for students to dictate/veto the course structure or materials taught. Given that my warning about the content is true, it seems reasonable for me to communicate that fact ahead of time.
The basic problem of definitions seems very important in deciding whether we should be worried about trigger warnings. Imagine each of these “bad” scenarios:
- University requires faculty to put boilerplate language in every course syllabus about objectionable material.
- University responds to student requests against a particular professor by suggesting to professor that some warning should be issued.
- University adopts a policy that requires faculty members to have an opt-out for students of any assignments that meet certain broad criteria for offensiveness.
The first scenario is hardly ideal but not an enormous threat to academic freedom either. The second could be dangerous depending upon what “suggesting” means. The third is clearly disastrous. It seems to me that these situations should be the focus of our concern. I don’t know of any cases that fit the third scenario. I’m guessing, but am open to new information, that the second scenario is a rarity and often subject to disputed accounts.
Media and researchers should not try to group my simple warning, made voluntarily out of respect for my students, with university requirements that often don’t actually exist in the real world. They are wholly unrelated. But if others disagree and are troubled by what my pre-semester email represents, I welcome comments.