Should College Material Come with a Trigger Warning?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The growing practice of requesting “trigger warnings” on college course material that might be disturbing to students with memories of trauma has caused a great deal of controversy. (RazoomGame/Shutterstock)

It's one thing to get a little squeamish at the sight of blood in your bio class. But what if your college reality included a panic attack, blacking out, hyperventilating, screaming in a classroom, and feeling so much like your under physical threat that you act out violently in front of other people? 

For sufferers of PTSD, certain content—whether it is sexual violence, graphic torture, or intense war imagery—in books and movies can trigger past experiences. In response, students across the country are advocating for "trigger warnings," which are meant to prevent students from re-experiencing trauma.

University of California, Santa Barbara has become the first school to mandate trigger warnings for college courses. And students at Oberlin College, Rutgers University, and other schools want to make it a campus policy. But the growing practice is not without its critics, who say it caters to overly-sensitive students and blurs the lines between protection and censorship.

Despite the controversy around trigger warnings, Ari Kohen says they're common sense. Ari is a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He doesn't sugar coat challenging material for his students, but includes warnings when the content is clearly hard to stomach for certain people. Ari joins us to explain when and why trigger warnings are necessary.

"I think that sometimes it can make sense, and sometimes it can be a little bit overblown," says Kohen. "I teach a variety of different classes here—some political philosophy and some human rights courses. In my human rights classes, I've always told students from the first one that the material is potentially very upsetting because we're dealing with torture, genocide, and sexual violence. The potential there, I think, is quite real to be not simply disturbing."

Professor Kohen says that because of the evocative course materials he chooses for his classes, he understands why some students could be potentially traumatized or re-traumatized, especially if an individual has had experience with violence, assault, war or other traumatic events.

"In that case, I tell students: 'Look, this is the class that you signed up for and this is the kind of material you're dealing with—take care of yourself, and know what you're getting into,'" he says.

When it comes to disturbing material, Professor Kohen advises students to read the material slowly, take breaks and read along with a friend, something he says has helped students and his classes improve.

"I think when you do that, it really lets students know what's coming," he says. "Because they're prepared for it, because they're taking their time, it's really led to much better discussions in class after they've done the work."

While that may be the approach Professor Kohen undertakes for his courses on human rights, it's not a hard and fast rule for his political philosophy classes, he says. 

"When I teach a political philosophy course, if they're reading Plato or they're Nietzsche or something like that, the idea is for them to be challenged," he says. "I want to kind of shake them up and I want ask them questions that make them really consider their previously held opinions or beliefs."

Professor Kohen stops short of endorsing UC Santa Barbara's approach of mandating warning labels, saying that educators do not want to be "sanitizing everything" for students.

"College is a time when they're supposed to figure out what they can do and what they want to learn about, and really kind of push themselves," he says. "My sense is that this has to be something that faculty are figuring out on their own. I think that if this is being mandated, if it is a requirement that we have to issue blanket caution to everybody, I think the potential exists to really dumb down what we're doing in the classroom."

Instead of issuing mandates, Professor Kohen says it would be better to have educators independently take a more "mindful" approach to course material.

 

Guests:

Ari Kohen

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [20]

Warnings for disturbing subject material is certainly appropriate, and it’s not a bad thing to avoid setting off PTSD where that exists. So in theory I might have agreed with this article.

But the language of “trigger warnings” is not coming from there. Maybe that’s where it started, but the term has been co-opted (trigger warning: cultural appropriation) by censorious prigs who go into pseudo-Victorian fainting spells at the mention of anything they disapprove of. Larry Correia’s satirical “Trigger Warning: Colonialism. Fried Chicken. Shag carpet. The number three and the color blue.” is only barely an exaggeration of actual trigger warnings I’ve seen used non-ironically.

Stick with sensitivity and common sense.

May. 22 2014 04:56 PM
Mike Little from Oregon

Dr. Carson said that once he's opened the scalp, skull and dura he sees what makes us human and there's no difference there between races. Does he see a difference there between gays, lesbians and straight people?

May. 22 2014 04:50 PM
tom LI

One more thing added to the list of that which is turning every succeeding generation into a bunch of wimps! (I want to use the P-word, but I know that might cause some reader undue stress)

This notion that we should put Warning labels on everything and eradicate every risk out there is not only absurd, its creating generation after generation of wimps. Wimps who will need to be told - with a multitude of labels - that stepping out an open window might result in a fall and bodily harm.

All that is needed is that the Professors explain the sometimes rough nature of the course materials. Its really that simple.

What is also likely to happen is that there will be a back-log of approved course materials while someone Edits it all...someone who will likely either be too squeamish, or titillated by it...neutrality will of course not be considered...

May. 22 2014 04:35 PM
John A

What about people who come with trigger warnings - you can't talk about that around me or I might break down. Even worse, I assert, and they exist. Be resilient, carry your own weight, to use Sofia's term.

May. 22 2014 03:37 PM
Kelly

I took a Physics for Poets course in college and fainted during a film that showed the inside of an eyeball.

I have been super squeamish since childhood, thus the reason I took Physics for Poets rather than Biology to fill my science requirement.

I think a campuswide discussion that college course content may offend would send a message of sensitivity to students and faculty.

My professor was critical of me in front of the class in the days afterward. My classmates were stunned when I fell out of my front-row seat but failed to act out of shock to the professor's reaction.

I don't think anyone should have pandered to my peculiarity (it's certainly no comparison to those hurt by violence), but we all would have benefited from institutionalized sensitivity.

May. 22 2014 03:35 PM
Kendall

I cannot believe this is even a debate! It is a warning label, not a censorship! It is not the warning or desire for a warning that is immature, it is the inability to recognize the real trauma that our adult friends and colleagues have experienced and to be respectful of their right to set their own boundaries. If a teacher is only teaching a lesson for it's shock value, then what actual merit does it have? Does that merit not still stand when people aren't taken by surprise?! What an insult to anyone with any experienced trauma or current mental health struggles.

May. 22 2014 03:28 PM
Human1971 from Iowa

I would have loved to have seen Trigger Warnings made available in College course descriptions.
As someone with PTSD, it is incredibly helpful to have something like this available. In fact, most of us already turn to the Web for independently made lists of books and films with potential triggers. This is not a new concept.

Anyone who argues against Trigger Warnings must not have anyone in their life with PTSD... or must not understand it in the least.

The worst part about PTSD means that I am not triggered solely by depictions of sexual assault; it is not that clear cut. Certain details or scenarios trigger me, and yet others do not. The same applies to those with PTSD from combat, various violent scenarios, or other things. It doesn't have to be description of the exact war one was serving in, it could be something as seemingly innocuous as a certain smell combined with any loud, sudden noise.

I find it distressing that those deemed to be educated enough to be College Professors apparently don't possess an even rudimentary understanding of how PTSD works.
Especially that taking the attitude of "suck it up - this is the 'real, adult' world," only makes the situation worse for the sufferer of PTSD.
If only it were that easy...

It can understandably seem like a delicate balance between necessity and overreacting to potentially harmful content, but if it were simply labelled as potentially triggering due to content such as sexual assault, violent crime, descriptions of combat, murder, etc. that would help tremendously.

If nothing else, a trigger warning allows the person with PTSD to make an informed and clear decision to either avoid the situation or mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for it, allowing them to regain a small feeling of control over their own life and ability protect themselves.

Perhaps the more important question is: why not?

May. 22 2014 02:40 PM
Human1971 from Iowa

I would have loved to have seen Trigger Warnings made available in College course descriptions.
As someone with PTSD, it is incredibly helpful to have something like this available. In fact, most of us already turn to the Web for independently made lists of books and films with potential triggers. This is not a new concept.

Anyone who argues against Trigger Warnings must not have anyone in their life with PTSD... or must not understand it in the least.

The worst part about PTSD means that I am not triggered solely by depictions of sexual assault; it is not that clear cut. Certain details or scenarios trigger me, and yet others do not. The same applies to those with PTSD from combat, various violent scenarios, or other things. It doesn't have to be description of the exact war one was serving in, it could be something as seemingly innocuous as a certain smell combined with any loud, sudden noise.

I find it distressing that those deemed to be educated enough to be College Professors apparently don't possess an even rudimentary understanding of how PTSD works.
Especially that taking the attitude of "suck it up - this is the 'real, adult' world," only makes the situation worse for the sufferer of PTSD.
If only it were that easy...

It can understandably seem like a delicate balance between necessity and overreacting to potentially harmful content, but if it were simply labelled as potentially triggering due to content such as sexual assault, violent crime, descriptions of combat, murder, etc. that would help tremendously.

If nothing else, a trigger warning allows the person with PTSD to make an informed and clear decision to either avoid the situation or mentally and emotionally prepare themselves for it, allowing them to regain a small feeling of control over their own life and ability protect themselves.

Perhaps the more important question is: why not?

May. 22 2014 02:38 PM
Sofia from MN

I want to respond to the idea of "knowing your class." As a college professor I try to get to know my class. However, I *don't* want to know all the sexual assaults my students have suffered. I *don't* want to know about every suicide attempt. I *don't* want to know about secret abortions, being cast out by crazy family members, mental illness, intestinal problems, bad roommates, etc. as a matter of course.

Sometimes I get to know students and we talk about these things (all of the things I've mentioned above). But it's in no way a professor's job to carry the tragedies and wounds of all students, and it's terrible for students to be viewed through the lens of their traumas. They deserve to be evaluated on their work and their capacity to adapt. Appropriate accommodations are one thing -- I've heard stories of women who've been assaulted not being let out of an assignment to interview prostitutes who've been abused by pimps, and that may be too much. But I as a professor want to foster an air of professionalism in the classroom, and unless you expect out there in the "real world" that your boss would be a perfect confidant for your struggles with eating disorders, an abusive spouse, mortgage problems, and a legacy of alcoholism do NOT expect professors to deal with all this!

May. 22 2014 02:36 PM
Chris from Minneapolis, Mn

A lot of people are saying that Life doesn't come with a warning label, but there is an often used lawsuit called the Intentional (or negligent) Infliction of Emotional Distress. To say that adults in America don't abide by the codes of warning others about distressful content is just ignorance of the law.

May. 22 2014 02:25 PM
Bethany

While I understand not wanting to overprotect people and even not hide the reality of the world, the people who will be triggered by certain material because of their personal past trauma, already are intimately aware of reality and will not need to be overprotected. They know better than those without trauma what the world is truly like. To offer a trigger warning is simply giving them the option to step out of the classroom or talk with their professor on how to resolve the issue. It's merely a consideration for other people's feelings and past experiences.

May. 22 2014 12:57 PM
Jenn from MI

As a college professor I can say that there are a number of problems with this. One is that the anxiety caused by people's past traumas is no different than that of people who have more generalized anxiety. So if I teach about rape, I might cause anxiety in a student who was raped, but if I teach calculus, I might cause anxiety in another student. There is simply no way to know what is going to trigger anxiety for people. My experience says that college in general triggers a lot of anxiety for a lot of people. Better to address this through good campus mental health care. Another problem is that these trigger warnings will be used more by students who just want to get out of assignments or classes than by students who might really need them, but of course it is impossible for the professor to know who is real and who is a faker…and trust me, there are a lot of fakers out there.

May. 22 2014 12:32 PM
Tamara Carr

Many people don't understand disorders that can be impacted by 'triggers.' Bipolar disorder, depression, PTSD are examples of some clinical disorders I am aware of that these trigger warnings would help. I speak from experience. In college not all of us know that something that is said can cause us to 'spin' out of control with our emotions. Brilliant, out-of-the box thinking that we need!!!

May. 22 2014 12:30 PM
John from Oregon

When I first heard about this I rolled my eyes. Then I remembered in college when a psychology professor gave us a warning about a video we were going to watch depicting physically abusive parents and their victimized children. As a survivor of child sex abuse, I was in the middle of a very raw time in my therapy. I opted out of watching. Just thinking of seeing real neglected children on video made me shake with anxiety. Did I miss out on a vital learning opportunity? No. I have since gone on to have a very successful career in Nursing and have not suffered one bit for missing that portion of 1 class.

There's nothing wrong with a little warning or caveat before exposing someone to material of a graphic nature. This should be common sense on the part of the professor. The fact there are policies being written to require specific warnings is a little nanny-state-ish. Educating professors about how helpful it is might be enough.

May. 22 2014 12:29 PM
Ted White from Seattle

This episode of The Takeaway should have come with a trigger warning because the very idea makes me throw up.

May. 22 2014 12:27 PM
Nicholas Bodley from WGBH primary coverage area

There seems to be a body of thought in our society that tries to deny the existence of Life's difficulties. We don't have problems any more, just "issues", for one. (Is the word "problem" socially unacceptable? I'm reclusive and 78 years old.)

Life doesn't give everybody gold stars for routine effort of routine competence, or even less than that. By the time young people go to college, parents who are toxically overprotective lose their ability to emotionally disable their kids for an adult existence. This seems like an attempt to extend that control.

I think it was a recent article online in The Guardian that pointed out that °trigger warnings° are one step away from book banning.

The choice of the term "trigger" suggests a fondness for firearms, which others have pointed out.

Included in the topics that should be warned about are certain news reports, including the de facto assassinations by the Albuquerque police, arrests and jailing of children in public schools, and contemporary debtors' prisons, the last as pointed out by serial reports on NPR news this week. Our contemporary society is working hard in some respects to deconstruct civilization.

Nevertheless, we do need sensible ways, not destructive social eutrophication, of respecting victims who have been through terrible experiences.

May. 22 2014 12:22 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Should College come with a Warning Label?

"This Course is Coarse, and may agitate your skin and make it itchy. Try smoking to alleviate anxiety during all classes."

Now, if you told me students were triggered into panic by Mid-Terms and Finals and need to go into their Exam Room with answers beforehand, well...that I understand.

I always wondered why Plato brought me to fits of near madness.

My seven year old son:"The Lawyer" better not hear of this mandate to "Trigger Warnings". He will argue doing his spelling homework puts him into a panic, and we fight about homework enough as it is.

May. 22 2014 12:10 PM
Kyle Dykstra from Hillsboro, OR

I feel that there is no real reason why classes with difficult material should not have trigger warnings about the content. Everyone has different beliefs and different reasons for not wanting to engage in certain material. All a trigger warning does is give students a more full understanding the material in a given course. There is no censorship involved since the material is still being used. Rather it educates the students as to what exactly the class will cover.

May. 22 2014 12:01 PM

There are a lot of good arguments against "Trigger Warnings" such as college students are grown ups and should expect to hear unpleasant things and have to deal with it etc etc.
Yet, there is a good argument for "Trigger Warnings."

Like the example given at the beginning of the discussion in which a student went into an anxiety attack because of the discussion in class of some subject involving war or violence, there can be some students who should be given consideration because of certain conditions they may have, and taking into account that one incident of a student getting a panic attack, it seems that as this issue evolves, for better or worse, there might be incidents in which the college can be held liable for not taking proper steps to at least warn students of what material might affect them in an intense way. Also, just like records and movies are "products" you buy or pay for to watch or listen to and they, like food products with allergens have to have warning labels about content that anyone might not want to "consume," people pay to go to college classes. Why not be told about what you may want to avoid and might be able to avoid?
Of course, it is the type of issue in which there are no perfect solutions and someone will be saying that policies are insane, but there ought to be a right to be informed so as to make an informed decision

May. 22 2014 09:50 AM
Christopher Anderson from New York, NY

This topic has created a very lively debate already on my college's alumni Facebook Page. I'm glad to see it being addressed on the TakeAway. As a survivor of multiple forms of abuse and trauma, and an advocate for other survivors of sexual violence, I shared the following thoughts on our alumni page:

The core of trauma is the experience of helplessness. An abuse victim, war veteran, or someone who has been caught in a natural disaster are all examples of the types of people who can experience debilitating trauma. If the proposal is that works of literature that reference violence and abusive behaviors should come with TRIGGER WARNING labels, I think that is misguided.

The challenge is not to restrict exposure to potentially triggering material, rather it is ensuring that students (and other members of the academic community) are empowered to take the steps they need to ensure they can not feel powerless again when exposed to material that, for whatever reason, causes significant distress. It also is about giving people the tools and support they require to be able to be the best students they can be.

The reader/student has the ultimate control over their exposure to the material by simply closing the covers or leaving the class. Of course that may not bring their personal struggles to an end. And if avoiding material (or demanding that people gut their way through disturbing material) is the only option we leave people, it will inevitably - and needlessly - hurt the academic performance of some.

While many would argue that we are made stronger by confronting our fears and overcoming them, anyone who actually understands PTSD and the challenges raised by experiences of severe abuse and trauma knows that that is ignorant and hurtful to demand people just "get over" their experiences. If people are struggling with flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD as a result to exposure to challenging literature, then the answer is not to limit access to literature, nor is it to demand that people "toughen up" and gut their way through something that is a legitimate trigger, but to expand access to mental health resources and to expand our understanding and compassion for those who have had significant experiences of abuse and trauma.

When looked at this way, the focus is shifted away from material, and onto the needs of individuals who might be impacted in ways that seem disproportionate to the material. a TRIGGER warning isn't itself sufficient. But we shouldn't just allow the discussion to be shut down for that reason.

Education should be about expanding our perspective and gain insight into the thoughts and experiences of others so that we can better understand and communicate with one another. If we aren't giving ourselves the opportunity to expand our understanding by immediately dismissing the challenges some of our classmates and peers face, then aren't we missing the whole point?

Christopher Anderson
St John's College, Class of '96

May. 22 2014 09:26 AM

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