On “trigger warnings”: Access, Engagement, and Resilience.

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Dr Emma Kennedy on the controversial issue of 'trigger warnings' and how they might work - or not work - in teaching.

So-called “trigger warnings” in higher education – in this context referring to the inclusion of information in a syllabus warning about potentially offensive content – have been the subject of increasingly heated debate. There isn’t space in this post to outline the entire debate and its various highways and byways, but there are basically two sides: pro- and anti- trigger warnings.

The anti-trigger warning debate is probably best exemplified by this article in The Atlantic. Warning that ‘trigger warnings are hurting mental health on campus’, the authors link the recent trend for warning about offensive content with what they see as the rise of ’emotional reasoning’. The latter is a term used in cognitive behavioural therapy to describe the way in which emotionally-charged beliefs can dominate and distort a person’s world view: ‘if I feel it, it must be true’. The article links this to objections against offensive speech and potentially offensive content, arguing that in the process of trying to remove offensive content, ‘radical student groups’ are turning university from a place that teaches resilience to a place where students are unnaturally protected from unsavoury political views. They thus emerge from university unprepared for the harsh realities of the outside world. The article also points out that ‘trigger warnings’ subject academics to censorship, forcing them to expunge anything challenging from their syllabus lest it offend their students.

Is this really how trigger warnings need to work, though? I won’t go into the accuracies of what the Atlantic article claims, because a) I’m not familiar with the US university system and b) Sean Trainor has provided some useful context and pushback on Salon. I do, however, want to set out some ways in which attention to students’ sensitivities might help our pedagogy rather than harm it.

My first point might make the title of this post seem a little disingenuous: I don’t like the term ‘trigger warning’. As this page explains, a ‘trigger’ is something that specifically brings up past memories. While memory plays a role when students struggle to engage with material, it’s not the only reason they might; many mental health conditions involve fearing things that have never happened or with which we’ve never come into real-life contact.  I prefer the term ‘content note’. Providing a brief note on visceral or violent content means that any student who is particularly sensitive to these things has a chance to brace themselves, and need not be taken by surprise. Being confronted, all of a sudden, with a scene of sexual violence (for example) takes up a lot of emotional and cognitive energy – energy that the student should be using to engage with the material. A content note therefore allows students who might be sensitive to adjust to the idea of engaging with something difficult before they are actually confronted with the material itself.

Allowing students to brace themselves relates to a very important point, partly raised by Zara in this tweet : content warnings allow engagement for those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage. Far from being an excuse not to engage with challenging content, they are a way for students suffering from trauma to gently introduce themselves to a text that might, if they have control over how they engage, help them achieve the very ‘resilience’ that the Atlantic claims “trigger warnings” prevent. If a student responds to a content warning by withdrawing from a particular session or discussion, it’s almost certain that they wouldn’t have engaged any more had they not been warned at all. They might have remained in the classroom, panicking; more likely, they’d have been forced to leave in a much less dignified manner, perhaps in the midst of a panic attack. How’s that for resilience and engagement?

There have also been worries expressed – perhaps by academics weary of student apathy – that some students would use content warnings to “get out” of doing the work for a particular session. Here’s the thing: if students use content warnings as an excuse not to engage, I can guarantee they’re not engaging with the class anyway. The prospect of people ‘cheating the system’ is one that’s constantly invoked to argue against generous (or even adequate) provisions for disabled access. Just as is the case when it’s used to argue against deadline extensions or disability benefits, the idea that people will ‘cheat trigger warnings’ is largely a red herring. More to the point, we have to ask which is worse: someone already disengaged using an access measure to get out of one text/class, or someone having a panic attack in class because of trauma? I’d rather have the former, personally.

The issue of access brings up another issue related to resilience, and the Atlantic authors’ slightly strange preoccupation with the terminology of cognitive behavioural therapy. Mental illness, like any other chronic illness, is a disability, and while it may be treated, it’s not the place of teachers to attempt to treat it. The key is in the term ‘access’: our job is to make our courses accessible to people suffering from chronic illness regardless of the state of their treatment. So if someone has issues with energy, we create flexible deadlines to allow for fluctuating energy levels. We don’t start offering treatment, because we’re not qualified to do so and, frankly, it’s intrusive. Any one of my students could be suffering from trauma, and they may want to build up their resilience through graded exposure. They need to do so on their terms, with a medical professional whom they trust; and to make this process work, they (and their doctors) need me to do my job and not set back their treatment by surprising them with, for example, a rape scene. Having a panic attack in class does nothing for one’s resilience.

Finally, I want to address the issue of ‘censorship’ that a lot of people bring up. The logic seems to be: if I have to put a content note on some of my course, that’s a slippery slope to that material being removed altogether. I can’t say that this categorically won’t be the case, but it needn’t be. In my view at least, being able to use a content note makes challenging material more teachable, not less. If I’ve warned my students beforehand, I can show a video containing graphic material in class safe in the knowledge that those who know they’ll be traumatised will have absented themselves or prepared themselves (according to what’s best for them). This isn’t a perfect system, because trauma and mental health issues aren’t 100% predictable, but it’s better than basing the level of ‘challenge’ in one’s course on an educated guess about the students’ collective past experiences and current mental state.

This has all been pretty pragmatic, so before I finish this post I just want to quote another powerful tweet by Zara (whom you should follow, by the way):

Students with disabilities, including mental health issues and chronic illnesses, already face an uphill struggle in accessing higher education. Some adjustments are harder to make than others, but while we wait for ramps to be installed and university counselling services to be properly funded, adding a few lines of content warning to a syllabus seems like a pretty simple way to make life easier for students who need it.

This article was originally published here in Emma’s personal blog on August 17th, 2015.