Debating the Place of Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

On Thursday, October 15, both students and professors gathered in Lathrop Hall during lunchtime to hear panelists share their perspectives on the place of trigger warnings in higher education. The question up for discussion was: Should academic reading, film screenings and classroom conversations come with these warnings?

Thursday’s brown bag was hosted by the Network, a student group on campus dedicated to raising awareness about sexual and relationship violence. Aside from organizing campus events, fundraising and holding awareness campaigns, the Network supports survivors of this violence by volunteering for the local Victims of Violence hotline.

The Atlantic’s September issue featured an in-depth article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind” that argues against the productivity of trigger warnings in colleges and universities across America. This article has sparked a national debate on the topic, with many speaking out in agreement and disagreement.

The question of trigger warnings is relevant to the Network’s mission given the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reported in 2015 that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. Although trigger warnings apply to many different traumatic experiences, sexual assault is a topic that arises in classroom discussions. 

Co-leaders of the Network, senior Madison Paulk and junior Rachel Drucker, posed questions to a panel comprised of Colgate community members with different perspectives on trigger warnings. Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Studies Berlisha Morton, Staff Counselor of Counseling and Psychological Services Denise Contreras, senior Dannie Putur and junior Federico Elizondo and a leader of the local Victims of Violence hotline, John Egger, all brought their own perspectives to the panel.

Paulk and Drucker began the discussion with a seemingly simple question: “What is a trigger warning?” Putur answered, pointing out that the first result when you search “trigger warning” on Google is an explanation on a website called Urban Dictionary, a site on which any user can draft definitions of slang terms.

“It says, ‘A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. …Trigger warnings are unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the internet anyways,’” Putur said, reading aloud from the post on the site.

A disapproving murmur echoed through the audience upon hearing this statement. Despite this, many attendees found themselves snapping in support of comments made later in the conversation.

Morton expressed some reservations about trigger warnings from a teacher’s perspective, since oftentimes the sensitive material in art is essential to its overall emotional impact and greater meaning.

“Last semester we read ‘The Bluest Eye.’ I feel like if I gave too much of a trigger warning, that would take away from the mood and the moment that Toni Morrison is trying to create. … It’s supposed to be like this jolting, shocking, disrupting moment for you as a reader,” Morton said. She clarified that she does believe trigger warnings are extremely important in the classroom but that the way professors deliver them is crucial.

“It’s a fine line, it’s an art, it’s not a perfect answer. But professors need to be educated about this process because right now, we have no clue,” Morton said.

Elizondo also expressed some concerns despite his overall opinion that it is necessary to use trigger warnings in academic settings.

“Students aren’t going to have these spaces everywhere,” Elizondo said. “People in the workplace are not going to care about using the right language and these trigger warnings. … I do think we need to prepare our students.”

The panel also touched on the possibility of students taking advantage of trigger warnings to opt out of academic responsibilities. Egger suggested

alternative ways for students to engage with the material that would cause

less distress.

“Maybe they have a private one-on-one conversation, maybe they put pen to paper, maybe it’s something on a laptop,” Egger said.

Thursday’s panel discussion did not conclude with a clear answer to what kind of trigger warnings, if any, belong in higher education, but attendees did walk away with the sense that the conversation had made progress in exploring issues and ambiguities surrounding the question regarding the necessity of trigger warnings.

Senior Sam Hom was intrigued by the thought that the way a trigger warning is delivered could make it ineffective. 

“One of the most interesting points brought up was how to protect someone’s anonymity,” Hom said. “If someone leaves the room after a trigger warning is given for sexual assault, people in the class may make assumptions about that individual’s personal life.”

A comment by Associate Professor of Educational Studies Barbara Regenspan caught the attention of senior Michelle Cao.

“She prompted the audience to put the discussion of trigger warnings into a larger context and to think about war as the major cause of trauma and source of the need for trigger warnings. I’d never thought about it in those terms before,” Cao said.