Trigger Warnings in Universities

This post comes off the back of a conversation had with a colleague recently in response to the following article:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/05/trigger-warnings-can-be-counterproductive

The above article sets out what a Trigger Warning (TW) or Content Note (CN) is, but to summarise it is a message, usually prior to the start of an article or post, that the content may cause a post traumatic stress reaction from the reader.  Most commonly this was usually for discussions regarding sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and so forth.  However, recently I have noticed quite a considerable expansion in use as is noted by the above article.

For instance, I am a very quiet observer of one Facebook page for open discussions of all things feminism (it has been brilliantly educational, might I add), and I would hazard a guess that 75% of posts come with a TW.  A quick glance at the page shows TW’s for hetero-normality, body shaming, veganism, and periods.  The latter in particular caused me a fair bit of confusion, as one reoccuring topic of conversation on the group is the fact that such conversations need to be more commonplace and accepted as normal (which of course I agree with).  But I digress…

Now, I understand that on a Facebook page, whereby the name gives no indication as to the content, and where a myriad of topics are discussed, trigger warnings may be quite useful.  For example, I would never have logged onto there expecting to read quite graphic accounts of women’s experiences of sexual assault.  Therefore if such warnings can give people the chance to scroll past that particular post out of choice, or make an informed choice to read it, great.  No issues there and it seems rather logical, even if I don’t quite understand some of the warnings given as I have already mentioned.

However I hadn’t really given too much thought to this until I delivered a seminar whereby we were discussing the content of an interview which very openly discussed eating disorders and self harm, among other issues. The first seminar of the week went without any problems, and prior to teaching it for the second time I was having a discussion with colleagues regarding this particular task.  Our focus moved onto discussing students who are currently known to be self harming, and I suggested that perhaps we need to give consideration to warning students that this particular seminar would address such issues.

It wasn’t until a week later that one of my colleagues raised this point with me again, and showed me the original article, that I realised this could very easily turn into a never ending cycle.

Now, from my point of view, the very nature of our subject dictates that difficult topics will be addressed.  It is not uncommon to find us discussing the finer details of horrific criminal acts, debating marginalisation and diversity, or scrutinising a range of psychological disorders and their symptoms. Being as heavily involved in student marketing as I am, I know that this is made very clear to students who show an interest in studying any one of our degree programmes (should they choose to research this of course, which will definitely be another post for another time!). Therefore, part of me cannot help but think that it just isn’t possible to warn every student about every potentially triggering item contained within each lecture or seminar.  Furthermore, conversations within seminars in particular can often sidetrack depending on current affairs, what a student happens to have read that week, or individual opinions, so therefore it is sometimes impossible to know exactly what will be covered.

On the other hand, I would absolutely hate to think that any of my students are being seriously adversely affected by something that could be prevented by something as simple as one sentence on a PowerPoint, or a 10 second verbal warning. We all have triggers in one form or another, whether it be a song, a smell, a particular place or a particular event. Some will of course be far more damaging than others. Do I have a duty, as a member of academic staff, to protect my students from such potential harms?

This is where the conflict emerges for me. As a person, I of course want to protect other people from harm. However, as a lecturer responsible sometimes for 300 students within one lecture, all of whom are adults studying a subject which is often emotive and uncomfortable, can I reasonably expected to predict and avoid all possible harms on their behalf? For me the answer, frustratingly, is no. I place great emphasis on the word frustratingly intentionally.  I believe the subject of criminology must sometimes encompass those difficult discussions, and that is to be reasonably expected.

So what can I do to lessen my frustration and try to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse group of students (again another blog post you will be seeing soon no doubt)? For me it is about encouraging students to take ownership of their learning and recognise what may or may not be manageable for them.  Equally, I must do everything I possibly can to ensure students feel comfortable enough to approach me and alert me to any issues they may have, so that I can help them manage this effectively. For example I quite often have students who have lost family members or close friends in horrific circumstances and quite rightly may not want to spend two hours debating murder, gun crime, terrorism etc with their peers, and by alerting this to me I am able to help them find a solution which works for them.

I have also made a conscious decision to give a warning about any content that may be unexpected.  All students are aware of their lecture and seminar programme and what will be addressed, but sometimes a seemingly innocent lecture can be accompanied by potentially triggering examples. This is something I want to try and avoid wherever possible.  For example, I would not expect a lecture about how to analyse data to include depictions of suicidal thoughts, therefore I cannot expect my students to anticipate this and manage it effectively either.

But will I be providing trigger warnings before every lecture? No. I am afraid not.  I will do my very best to ensure students are aware of the nature of their degree programme, and I will actively encourage them to share any concerns they may have about particular topics, and I will make sure they are informed as best as possible about the broader content of my teaching, but there has to be some personal responsibility.  As one of my students said to me recently, life makes very few allowances for individual issues, so why should university.  I don’t quite agree with this in its entirety, but you get the sentiment I am sure, one echoed by the article in reference.

It pains me to think that a student may be hurt or traumatised by the content of one of my lectures, but equally I do not want certain conversations or topics to be avoided through fear that the minority may object.  Ultimately, I must also agree with the article that TW’s have, in some instances, simply gone too far, and become more of a symbol for demonstrating social awareness or for avoidance. On the contrary, University is about having those difficult discussions to facilitate deeper and critical thinking from a range of perspectives.

I cannot predict every topic which will be triggering, just as I would never expect anyone to predict the two songs which reduce me to a blubbering mess.  Whilst not remotely comparable to some of the trigger warnings provided, it is simply a reminder that individual harms are just that: individual.

I will always prioritise the wellbeing of my students, but the line must be drawn somewhere.  For me, this sits on that line.

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