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Trigger Warnings Should Be About Sensitivity, Not Censorship

We don't need to sanitise academic discussions. We need to reframe them so that students can feel comfortable enough to participate.

Columbia University's campus. Photo by Flickr user Mike Steele

The Metamorphoses, widely considered Ovid's magnum opus and one of the best-known examples of classic Roman poetry, is a narrative work of love and death, mythology and war. It also contains several graphic depictions of assault and rape.

After a class at Columbia University read the poem, one student spoke out about her painful experience with the material as a survivor of sexual assault. Four students on the school's Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board penned an op-ed for Columbia's student newspaper, urging faculty to teach provocative or potentially upsetting material with increased sensitivity.

"As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text... She did not feel safe in the class."

The actionable lesson here, the op-ed suggests, is that professors need training to support triggered students when dealing with sensitive material, and must be aware when academic texts and class discussions might cause some students to feel marginalized.

The Columbia students' op-ed is the latest evolution in the debate over how potentially triggering material should be presented in the classroom. Obviously, all students come to class with personal baggage, but we've only recently started a dialogue over the extent educators should acknowledge this and factor it into their teaching.

"What happens in the rest of students' lives is affecting their intellectual engagement in the classroom," says Heather Lindkvist, the Title IX Coordinator and Clery Act Compliance Officer at Dartmouth College. "If we think about what Title IX is about, it's about ensuring that students have an environment free of hostility; that they feel safe, welcome, and secure on our campuses, and that includes our classes."

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In the past, students have urged for blatant "trigger warnings" to preface sensitive material. Last year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, literature student Bailey Loverin made headlines by campaigning for professors to warn students before exposing them to graphic material in class. "Without a trigger warning, a survivor might black out, become hysterical or feel forced to leave the room," she argued. "This effectively stops their learning process."

The " Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings" found support and praise on campus, and ignited a nationwide discussion as academics cocked their heads at the notion of giving trigger warnings before teaching classics such as The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye.

Related: Vice News investigates racism in college fraternities.

To be sure, there have been many critics. The criticism generally falls into two camps: a push for maintaining academic freedom, and head-shaking at millennials' hypersensitivity.

"While keeping college-level discussions 'safe' may feel good to the hypersensitive, it's bad for them and for everyone else," wrote Judith Shulevitz, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. "They'll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled."

These sentiments were echoed in a New Republic essay criticizing Loverin's proposal, and again in an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe." In the latter essay, Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis warns that increased use of trigger warnings will result in students "cocooned from uncomfortable feelings," to their own disadvantage.

This perspective on trigger warnings has also been supported by experts on anxiety disorders, such as Richard McNally, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, who wrote a piece for Pacific Standard magazine outlining how classroom trigger warnings might actually impair the recovery of those who have suffered serious trauma. He pointed out that confronting triggering material is actually an essential part of the popular treatment method known as prolonged exposure therapy, which aims to help survivors of trauma overcome their PTSD.

Do trigger warnings infantilize students? Photo by Flickr user Ilmicrofono Oggiono

Although trigger warnings are perceived by the aforementioned critics as a one-size-fits-all heads-up slapped onto provocative material to cover their bases—much like an R-rating for a raunchy movie, or a Parental Advisory sticker on an album—that's not what the Columbia students are calling for. Instead, the Columbia students want to see more sensitivity training—not censorship. In their op-ed, they detail a three-pronged plan to deal with this issue: 1) send faculty a letter about potential trigger warnings and how to support students, 2) allow students to anonymously report feeling triggered in class, and 3) create a sensitivity training program for faculty.

The op-ed makes clear that the goal isn't to censor anything or let students get out of doing their homework. "Our vision for this training is not to infringe upon the instructors' academic freedom in teaching the material," the op-ed says. "Rather, it is a means of providing them with effective strategies to engage with potential conflicts and confrontations in the classroom, whether they are between students or in response to the material itself. Given these tools, professors will be able to aid in the inclusion of student voices which presently feel silenced."

It's not about shying away from challenging ideas, but making sure to give them a proper frame of reference before diving right in. Lindkvist, who taught for 11 years before taking on a leadership role at Dartmouth, recalls how she dealt with difficult material in the classroom.

"Before we even entered into a discussion about race, [we talked about] the different approaches to thinking about race and ethnicity through an anthropological lens and then the national conversation about race and ethnicity and just putting it out there for students to think about," she says.

She says that these conversations only served to deepen the discussion for both students and teacher, not limit the topics covered. "I don't see that as infringing on my academic freedom whatsoever," added Lindkvist.

It becomes an issue of academic freedom when teachers are tasked with shielding students from material rather than contextualizing and supporting them through it. When students at Oberlin pushed last year for more sensitivity in the classroom around provocative material, the administration issued a letter encouraging teachers to avoid including nonessential triggering material in their lessons. They quickly realized their stance could potentially compromise academic freedom and withdrew the statement to revise (a year later, it is still under revision).

On Oberlin's website in the "Sexual Misconduct Policy" section is the statement: "We believe that academic freedom and support for survivors are not oppositional values. Both play a central role in creating effective learning environments."

The bottom-line is that students have a constitutional right to feel safe in the classroom, and their teachers are in no way adversaries on this. Call it a trigger warning or contextualizing, but opening a preemptive conversation about why something in the classroom is challenging and also why it matters will only serve to advance the interests of both students and professors.

"I think we continue to hold to principles of academia, of intellectual engagement, of academic freedom," says Lindkvist, "That we continue to value those and hold them dear while simultaneously thinking of different ways that we can use challenging material in the classroom in a way that students find it accessible, find that they can fully participate in that discussion."

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