Trigger warnings foster healthy learning environments

By Melissa Simpson

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Students discuss free speech at the University of Chicago. Critics of trigger warnings say free speech in the classrooms may be threatened. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago

Students beginning their fall semester at the University of Chicago received an unexpected letter from Dean of Students John Ellison: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” Ellison wrote, adding that the university does not condone “safe spaces.”

A trigger warning, or content warning, alerts people that a topic that is about to be discussed has the potential to be emotionally traumatic for some. Trigger warnings are often associated with content that is centered around rape, suicide, drug overdoses, genocide, and hate crimes.

I became privy to the term “trigger warning” about two years ago. I don’t remember the topic that was being discussed, but I know I likely came across it while scrolling through my Facebook news feed.

I live in a socially conscious bubble wherein the people with whom I interact regularly and quite casually discuss patriarchy, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism, and class and racial privilege. However, recently, I have learned that not everyone is comfortable with discussing these topics for they may drudge up old trauma and memories of negative experiences.

Therefore, since learning about trigger warnings, I have become more mindful of the content that I share and, more importantly, the forewarning I give when sharing it.

Even if the content does not emote post-traumatic stress disorder like symptoms, one can simply be unprepared and jolted by the message that they are about to consume. Nevertheless, slight discomfort is still discomfort.

So now I place a “trigger warning” or “content warning” in the caption on potentially triggering articles that I share on Facebook. I have no desire to make someone feel uncomfortable; in fact, I am the type of person that actively tries to work against that.

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Students at the University of Chicago were sent a letter at the beginning of the fall semester, warning them not to expect trigger warnings regarding controversial or potentially upsetting topics on campus. Photo courtesy of University of Chicago Instagram

Yet, in the real world, specifically academia, it is rare for me to see this same courtesy being extended.

Imagine being a victim of a rape, dealing with flashbacks to the moment where you were taken sexually violated. Now imagine being bombarded by a discussion about rape in your classroom. Imagine all the memories that would resurface. If someone offered you a trigger warning before the discussion began, you would be able to leave or at the very least prepare yourself for the potentially traumatizing conversation ahead.

During my college career, I have been a part of classroom discussions that have centred around rape, suicide, drug overdoses, genocide, and hate crimes. But never once have I or anyone is the classroom been issued a trigger warning. Trauma has a significant effect on a student’s learning capabilities.

“A traumatic event can seriously interrupt the school routine and the processes of teaching and learning,” according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website.

When students feel like they are not in a safe space, they tend to exhibit signs of emotional discomfort, disruptive behaviour, and lower attendance rates.

According to Helen Collins Sitler, a teacher-consultant with the Southcentral Pennsylvania Writing Project at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and author of “Teaching With Awareness: The Hidden Effects of Trauma on Learning” educators often confuse these effects of trauma with a negative attitude.

“Passivity with no interest in looking at the long-term or even at tomorrow, inability to concentrate, and lashing out verbally or physically are common behavioural effects of trauma,” Collins Sitler writes. This means that teachers confuse this reaction to trauma with disobedience and disinterest in education.

I don’t have any significant traumas that I am dealing with, so discussing offensive or disturbing topics in a class has no severe or immediate impact on my mental health. But I do get uncomfortable discussing topics like race and gender equality with people, who have race, class, and gender privilege. If I had a trigger warning it would allow me the time and space to prepare myself for the discussion. Simply stating that the following discussion will have information dealing with rape, war, death, or any other triggering topic would be enough.

Clearly, lack of trigger and content warnings in academia robs students of their agency. Students do not have the option to take control of their own mental health care if they don’t know what traumatic topics they are about to confont.

Critics of trigger warnings feel that content warnings in academia inhibit robust learning experiences and dialogue in the classroom.

However, trigger warnings do not signify the end of a discussion; instead, they allows individuals the means to protect their mental health. This selfpreservation can be done in the form of exiting the space, putting up mental blocks that allow the individual to get through the content without feeling significant stress, preparing dialogue and feedback to share with the collective, or simply taking deep breaths before the discussion begins.

Others who are against trigger warnings believe that some people are just being sensitive and need to toughen up. That thought process is problematic because emotions are subjective and based on the individual. What may be a pebble to some could be a boulder to others. What needs to be understood is that no two people are able to process information in the same manner.

Unfortunately, it is clear that Ellison is more concerned with education being uncensored, than he is with making sure his students are learning in a healthy environment.

Overall, academia needs to err on the side of non-threatening, respectful discourse. In no way do trigger warnings inhibit learning in the classroom. If anything, learners can benefit from it. It is imperative to cultivate diverse and healthy learning environments and using trigger warnings in the classroom can help us to achieve that goal.

Contact Melissa Simpson at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu