Trigger warnings in academia

September 10, 2015
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By: Sophie Geffros

The use of trigger warnings in the classroom is not just an accessibility issue; it is also good pedagogical practice.

Both of these statements may shock you. Indeed, given the recent spate of hand-wringing articles by academics regarding their use, one would be forgiven for thinking that “trigger warnings” involved warning a professor before pulling a trigger.

Of course, they’re nothing of the sort. A trigger is a stimulus that produces a disproportionately negative reaction in people with mental health concerns. They are most commonly associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety disorders, and may describe a stimulus that evokes an individual’s trauma so strongly that they “flash back” and relive the traumatic event in their mind. Although every person has different triggers and a different reaction to exposure, there are some that are more frequent than others. Descriptions of abuse, sexual violence and traumatic injury are all common triggers in people with PTSD.

Alerting students to the contents of the next day’s lecture is already common practice in most classrooms. In my four years at McMaster, I cannot recall ever having been assigned a reading without the professor reminding us to pay particular attention to certain themes or phrasings. Including a warning about the graphic descriptions of rape will not prevent professors from also directing students to pay particular attention to the use of birds in Tess of the d’Ubervilles.

A trigger warning is an academic accommodation that instructors are legally obligated to provide, but the onus should not be on the student to reach out. To begin with, there are many individuals with PTSD symptoms who have not been formally diagnosed. PTSD is very common in individuals who have been sexually or physically abused, and these individuals often do not feel comfortable disclosing their symptoms to a physician, as to do so is also to admit to the abuse. Even individuals with a formal diagnosis may not be comfortable approaching Student Accessibility Services about this, and even fewer will be comfortable speaking with an instructor.

Even if you do choose disclosure, instructors are often unsure of how to react. In my first year, I tentatively approached a philosophy professor who seemed sympathetic. I told him that I had heard from other students that some of the case studies on the syllabus dealt with some distressing issues, and that as a person with PTSD, I would appreciate it if he would give us a warning about the content when he assigned the cases. He frowned thoughtfully, and asked “So PTSD, huh? What happened to you?”

I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t. If anyone has come up with a way to disclose years of sexual abuse and two very serious motor vehicle accidents to a professor without feeling as though you should melt through the floor, I would love to hear it.

That night, I experienced nightmares and flashbacks that were the worst I had experienced since seeking treatment for my PTSD.

Psychiatrists call this phenomenon “retraumatization,” and it is relatively common in people with a trauma history. It can leave a person jittery and anxious for weeks, and may result in significant relapse.

Instructors should consider that warnings for content does nothing to diminish the experiences of the group, and allows many students to learn and engage with the material who would be otherwise unable to. Most students with triggers don’t wish to avoid the material entirely—although if they do, it would be within their rights to ask for an alternate assignment—but instead wish to be given sufficient time to prepare themselves. They may discuss the content with a friend or counselor, or they simply may make sure that they are in a safe place and positive state of mind when they choose to engage with it. Regardless of their choices, the provision of a warning will drastically improve their academic experience.

A university should provide an environment that is safe and accessible for all students, regardless of their disability status or life experience. If providing a trigger warning can make the difference between a student engaging with the material or being unable to, I fail to see how an educator can refuse to provide the necessary accommodation.

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