Putting Trigger Warnings on my Syllabi

160303booksThe question of whether we, as professors, should include trigger warnings on our course syllabi has been bubbling in academia for a few years now. I’ve been uncertain what to do and my university’s administration has not taken a public position. After wide reading and long thought, I’ve decided to add a content note to my syllabi. Here is how it goes:

This course involves topics that may evoke strong reactions. These topics include war, violence, slave-holding societies, non-consensual sexual activity, and various forms of social inequality, but other topics may come up in the course of class discussion. I will do my best to inform you about what upcoming readings will cover, but it will not always be possible to predict what topics will arise in discussion or what associations may arise for you as you read.

It is your responsibility as a student to complete all assigned coursework and readings and to participate in class discussions. It is my responsibility as your professor to help you overcome any obstacles to doing so.

If you anticipate that some topic may be difficult for you, or if you discover that an assignment provokes a reaction that prevents you from continuing your work as a student, please come see me to discuss it. If a topic arises in class discussion that makes you too uncomfortable to remain in class, you are welcome to leave the room until you feel ready to return. If you need to leave the room during class discussion, please come and see me afterwards when you feel ready to do so. In either case, we will work together to find alternative ways for you to do the coursework.

You are also welcome to seek support and guidance outside of class. Student Counseling Services is at your disposal, as is Campus Spiritual Life. You do not have to discuss difficult emotional subjects with me if you do not wish to, but if I don’t know that something is creating an obstacle to your coursework, I can’t help you find a way around it.

Some things to note about this statement:

  • There is no historical source or work of scholarship so vital to anything I teach that I cannot help my students find alternative ways of engaging with the same essential problems and questions. If, say, Suetonius’ lurid account of the emperor Tiberius’ sexual proclivities is something a student cannot handle, they can skip those parts of the text or read Tacitus instead and still engage meaningfully with the problem of how the Julio-Claudian emperors negotiated their relationship with the Roman aristocracy. Helping students find those kinds of alternatives is part of my job as a professor.
  • This does not give my students permission to not do the coursework or to avoid engaging with the historical evidence and questions I want them to engage with. It invites them to seek my help and advice in dealing with material they may find emotionally difficult, just as they can seek my help and advice in dealing with material they find academically difficult.
  • I don’t presume to know what will be triggering for my students. Their reactions to what they read and what we discuss in class are valid whether I could see them coming or not.
  • Students who choose to leave class or avoid certain readings for emotional reasons are still accountable for learning the material and thinking through the problems it raises, just like students who miss readings or class for health or other reasons.
  • Students do not have to share anything with me about their emotional reactions to the course content if they do not wish to. They have other resources on campus if they choose to take advantage of them. Just like any other student with any other issue, the degree to which I can help them depends on their willingness to come to me and ask for help. If they prefer to simply not do a week’s reading or skip one class and accept the consequences for their grade, they are free to do so.

Now, I can hear the objections coming from some of my fellow professors, so let’s take a few questions.

But engaging with difficult material and challenging ideas is part of a college education.

Yes, it is, but just throwing emotionally troubling material at our students is not good pedagogy. Our job as professors is to help our students engage with those ideas in a productive, thoughtful way. Letting our students know that some of the things we are going to study may be hard to deal with and that it’s okay to come and ask for help is part of our responsibility to them. We’re not giving them permission to avoid the hard work; we’re giving them the space they need to get it done.

But people on the Internet use trigger warnings to avoid things they don’t want to read.

People on the Internet crush things in hydraulic presses and insert Rick Astley songs in places where Rick Astley songs ought not to go. People on the Internet also aren’t getting graded on their engagement with the material they read there. The content note on my syllabus serves a different function than the trigger warnings I may stick on my blog posts, just like the reading list on my syllabus serves a different purpose than my Goodreads reviews. My students know the difference between Internet and class.

But psychology tells us that the best way to get over triggers is to face them, not avoid them.

Yes, in a therapeutic setting and with the counsel of a therapist. I am not a therapist and a college classroom is not a therapeutic setting. If my students are in therapy and making an effort to engage with the things that trigger them, that’s their business, not mine. If they’re not, I can try to direct them to campus health services, but my classroom is no place to stage some kind of half-baked amateur guerrilla intervention. My content note does not prevent anyone from confronting difficult material; it gives my students the information they need to do so thoughtfully and in the way that works best for them.

But we shouldn’t be coddling our students. We should be preparing them for a cruel world that doesn’t care about their feelings.

We don’t teach children to swim by throwing them in the ocean and hoping they make it back to shore alive. We don’t teach people to drive by plopping them in a semi truck on a crowded highway. And we don’t teach people history by shoving all the worst tragedies of the past at them and leaving them to sort through them on their own. Good teaching helps people build the skills they need to flourish in a challenging world by adapting to their individual needs and making room for them to grow and explore without constantly facing the possibility of pain and disaster.

This is political correctness run amok!

Explain to me what you mean by “political correctness.”

I mean treating people who aren’t like me with the same dignity and respect that I feel entitled to.

In that case, yes. Yes, it is.

But but conservative Christian students who complained about reading that comic book about lesbians!

Let me just repeat this part, since it sounds like you missed it: “This does not give my students permission to not do the coursework or to avoid engaging with the historical evidence and questions I want them to engage with. It invites them to seek my help and advice in dealing with material they may find emotionally difficult.”

But but but ACADEMIC FREEDOM!

You know, that isn’t actually a question.

Okay, smart guy: Aren’t you surrendering your academic freedom by letting student activists dictate what you teach?

No one is dictating what I teach. The content of my courses has not changed. I’m just letting my students know explicitly what to expect and what options they have open to them if they need help dealing with it.

Students will fake traumatic emotional reactions just to get out of doing the reading!

One more time: “This does not give my students permission to not do the coursework or to avoid engaging with the historical evidence and questions I want them to engage with…”

Yeah, yeah, I heard you, but students are lying little bastards who have to be kept in line!

I’m beginning to wonder why you ever went into a teaching profession.

Kids these days, man! They don’t respect their elders! When I was their age, we did what we were told or we were out! Professors were lofty, unapproachable gods who were never there to help us through the rough patches or tell us that our feelings were valid. We memorized the textbook and spat it back out on the exam. No one cared what we thought.

So, this is really about the trauma of your own educational experiences. It would have been nice if someone had acknowledged your struggles and the difficult emotional experiences you were going through as a student, wouldn’t it?

Yeah, it really would have made things easier.

Do you want a hug?

Nah, I’m good.

I’m really glad you came to me to talk about this. Do you feel like you’re in a better place to have a reasonable discussion about trigger warnings?

I guess. Thanks.

No problem. Okay, I think we’ll wrap this up here. If you want to talk about this again, come see me in office hours. My door is always open.

Here there be opinions!

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2 thoughts on “Putting Trigger Warnings on my Syllabi

  1. Jennifer September 23, 2016 / 03:04

    “If one does not process the past, one is doomed to repeat it.”

    The best history teacher I have ever met, insisting that all of us push through the tears and read through and discuss, step by step, detail by detail, what people were forced to experience in the concentration camps in WW2. It was the greatest learning experience of my life. It changed who I am and how I look at the world.

    “If, say, Suetonius’ lurid account of the emperor Tiberius’ sexual proclivities is something a student cannot handle, they can skip those parts of the text or read Tacitus instead…”

    The author of this article

    I have had HUGE amounts of trauma in my life, sexual and otherwise. You know how I learned to “handle” it?

    1.) Incredible teachers validated my pain. They acknowledged that it existed, just as you do with your content note.

    AND

    2.) The very same teachers INSISTED that I do ALL of the work anyway, NO ALTERNATIVES, despite the pain. I didn’t believe I could handle it. ******THEY HAD THE WISDOM TO TEACH ME THAT I COULD.*******

    I am living proof that your insistence that they do all of the work, without modification, combined with your validation of their emotions, could be the greatest gift they’ve ever received, should you choose to decide to to give them that gift.

    Like

    • Erik September 23, 2016 / 16:39

      I am very glad to hear that you had such a positive experience in your classes. That is what we should all hope for. In the process of researching and thinking about my content note, I read accounts from many other students who had your experience of pushing through emotionally difficult, personally painful material and finding themselves better and stronger on the other side. It is clear that for many people that is the best way through trauma. I hope that all of my students, with whatever support and guidance they need, can achieve the same.

      But it was also clear from other students’ stories that not everyone has this experience, that sometimes being forced to confront personally painful material in a classroom setting can further shred an already wounded soul. People lose months or years of personal and academic progress to such retraumatization. It can end people’s academic careers and throw already difficult lives into chaos.

      It is an important act of humility for us as professors to recognize that most of the feedback we get on our difficult classes comes from students who have had the first experience. They are the ones who come visit us, hang out in our office hours, and send us messages after they graduate. They are the ones who heap praise upon us in evaluations and surveys–all of it sincere and heartfelt, I have no doubt. But we never hear from the students in the second group. They are the ones who sit silently in the back, turn in their papers, and walk away never to speak to us again, or who simply disappear partway through the semester. We have a duty to serve them, too. If our validation and support is enough to help them through the difficult material, then that is the best option. But, as a last resort, if the difference between a student having a rigorous, thoughtful, enlightening course in Roman history and having a painful, wasted semester is a few paragraphs of Tacitus instead of Suetonius, I will happily help them find the Tacitus.

      It is my role as a professor to push my students beyond where they feel comfortable and to help them see the potential they didn’t know they had, but epiphanies cannot be made to order.

      Like

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