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:

  1. University requires faculty to put boilerplate language in every course syllabus about objectionable material.
  2. University responds to student requests against a particular professor by suggesting to professor that some warning should be issued.
  3. 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.

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4 Responses

  1. Paul Horwitz says:

    A few questions, if I may. 1) How do you distinguish between panic and criticism? 2) I gather that you have provided warnings in two courses in areas where you believe a particular subject matter may upset or shock a substantial number of students. If a student (or the university) asked you to issue warnings before courses with respect to some other set of subjects that you believe would not generally shock or upset the mass of students but would genuinely shock or upset that individual student (or, in the case of a university-provided list, subjects that it thinks might upset *some* student but that you think would not upset most students)–say, depictions or discussions of disability, guns, psychiatric drugs, skepticism or blame toward victims or survivors, or particular phobias–would you provide them? Under what circumstances would you feel comfortable refusing? 3) Your approach appears to be to give a single general warning so that students can make an informed choice beforehand whether to take the class. If a student (or the university) requests or requires warnings before individual classes or discussions, would you be equally agreeable to that? 4) In the case of a mandatory as opposed to an optional class, what response would you give to a student who requests or demands an opt-out from attendance at the specific triggering class sections and/or examination on that portion of the course? For that matter, in an optional course that the student elects to take, would you be inclined to grant an opt-out from attending or being examined on particular triggering subjects?

  2. Corey Yung says:

    Those are all fair questions. Regarding, “panic” v “criticism,” I think the difference comes from the attribution of harm far greater than the actual evidence indicates. In the case of my post, I’m trying to be honest about my priors by disclosing my view about the general subject matter. I don’t end up supporting the case that there is a “panic.”

    I think your second question gets at the heart of the issue by focusing on two related concerns: 1) who should make the decision to warn students about materials; and 2) what subjects justify a warning. For 1), as my 3 “bad” scenarios indicate, I think most of us are concerned when the university administration makes such decisions (either at the behest of students or otherwise). It’s hard to imagine much negative coming from individual professors issuing warnings and yet current media/research uses a broad brush to count both situations as part of the growth of “trigger warnings.” For 2), there is no great rule and I know that is where many believe the danger lies. I tried to address that concern in my scenario 3, but didn’t attempt to do so with any precision.

    Relatedly, there was a lawsuit against a professor who was highly respected at my law school during my time there that caused a significant backlash against the student. I don’t want to rehash the details because it is no one’s interest. But it concerned a student with a very unique set of experiences that made her highly sensitive to certain subjects. Situations like that are almost impossible to recognize and address on a systemic basis beforehand (since an across-the-board warning requirement for every possible subject is essentially no warning at all). I don’t pretend to know the distribution of topics that are being cited for warnings or how idiosyncratic the complaints are. For research purposes, I hope that data is gathered before we start making institutional policy choices. In the end, I think many requests for warning should probably be ignored. But I don’t have any clear rule to differentiate those that should be ignored. One idea is for professors to focus on situations that are likely to have a reasonable rate of repetition in terms of negative student reaction. As I have never been asked to issue a warning (or had a complaint made for me failing to warn), I have limited context. My hope is that better tailored research can help identify if there is a genuine problem emerging.

    It’s difficult for me to think of particular opt-out scenarios. They seem like a poor option even in required courses (and definitely have no place in electives). As I say in my pre-semester email, I think students learn better out of their comfort zones. In my Sex Crimes class, one of the major themes is that our laws in the area are dysfunctional precisely because we don’t talk about or think through the issues involved. But I want students to know that beforehand so that they don’t think the course is essentially like watching a sanitized hour of Law & Order: SVU. Warnings, in my mind, seem like a way to avoid the request for opt-out problem instead of being consistent with opt-outs.

    If a student merely wants to miss a class (and not an assignment) in a required course because of sensitivity to the material, I have no problem with that at all. I will encourage them to get notes from another student and come talk to me if they would like. But that may be based upon the luxury of teaching graduate students who I generally trust to make “adult” decisions like that. Maybe there is a scenario where I would allow a student to at least do an alternative assignment, but I generally offer flexibility in topics of all graded assignments except exams and don’t have that problem.

    What maddens me most regarding the debate about trigger warnings is that attempts at respect are treated as abandoning good teaching methods. I am a professor who teaches subjects that are difficult to talk about. I push students to think about things in a different way at odds with their adopted cultural norms. I believe that they shouldn’t be coddled and protected from reality. And yet I don’t see why that means we shouldn’t inform students about that ahead of time out of respect. In Criminal Procedure, where I issue no verbal or written warnings, I have very frank conversations about race with students. In Criminal Law, I touch on all sorts of complex social issues. And Sex Crimes is essentially a course in discomfort. So, I sometimes wonder, having now taught at 3 schools over 8 1/2 years, with students from very different backgrounds, why I have never had the types of problems that the media seems worried about. As I said in my post, maybe I’m generalizing too much from my experience, but I’ve talked with a lot of people who teach in the same areas. If anyone, at least at law schools, should have encountered these problems, it should be people like me. And I think it is frustrating to say that, by virtue of giving some form of a warning, I am professor that appeases and placates certain students. In my mind and experience, there is nothing exclusive about creating a respectful learning environment and challenging students in sometimes uncomfortable ways.

  3. Joe says:

    I think Prof. Yung provides a good analysis here and appreciate it.

    Sometimes, I heard people talk about the times on some issue as if we passed some golden age into a time when we lost our way. Chances are that such views are done with rose-colored glasses. For instance, in the past, it was quite normal that certain things were not discussed. Some people were not deemed appropriately even there in the classroom. Now, we work more to bring all and cover more viewpoints, but balance it somewhat with things like this or attempts to promote diversity and so on.

    Sometimes, though I doubt it is as typical as some make it out to be, bad choices are made. But, on balance, I doubt anything is new there and we are probably in a better spot as a whole.

  4. Edward Cantu says:

    I suppose it’s true that it is unfair to broad-brush all people who espouse proactive sensitivity as seeking to “coddle” students for the sake of “political correctness,” but it seems equally problematic to describe those who have a problem with TWs as being in a state of “panic.”

    My impression is that people who generally are suspicious of TWs have a problem with what TWs (plausibly) represent. The study reveals that students themselves demand/request them. Some reasonably see this as a *demand* for coddling; an “aggressive weakness” of sorts that, in turn, fosters an academic environment of eggshell-walking via the specter of administrative “suggestions,” student hostility, or allegations that certain lectures make the learning environment “unsafe.” The fear is of a trend toward a moral bullying of sorts, which, by definition, does not depend of official sanctions for its efficacy. Here’s how one article discusses the study and the phenomenon:

    “[T]he anecdotal evidence does suggest that the trigger warning phenomenon is real, and that it is largely driven by students themselves. In a small but significant number of situations (7.5%), respondents reported that students had initiated efforts to require trigger warnings on their campus; twice as many (15%) reported that students had requested trigger warnings in their courses. And 12% report that students had complained, either to the administrators or the instructor, about the absence of trigger warnings. The demand for warnings, even though pressed by only a minority of students, may nonetheless affect the educational environment for a great many more students if instructors—many understandably nervous about job security—change how or what they teach as a result, if students themselves feel constrained about discussing topics that might be “triggering” to others, or if warnings operate to ‘shut down dialogue and shame participants in such a way that those participants actually leave the conversation.’”


    Of course, one could respond that these consequences are not the norm when TWs go unprovided. But this response only begs the question: how many anecdotes must there be before people can reasonably begin to suspect that TWs are a symptom of a greater systemic problem rather than the problem per se? Are the anti-TW folks “panicking” or do they just have foresight?