Trigger Warnings

Is it ok for an instructor at a university to traumatize their students? Surely not…. What about re-traumatizing students by exposing them to material that reminds them of a past trauma and triggers feelings similar to those they experienced then? And now we’re engaged with the debate in some colleges and universities about trigger warnings.

What kind of situation might call for a trigger warning? A good example would be a student in a film class who had been raped and was shown Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, without knowing beforehand that it contains a scene of violent rape and who was re-traumatized by the experience.

What a sensible trigger warning policy would try to avoid is similar instances where a student is re-traumatized by exposure to triggering material that they have no prior way of knowing will be triggering.

Is it possible to craft such a policy? I could see how it might be difficult, but I also see no reason to think it impossible on surface examination. Certainly crafting such a policy would be a fantastic interdisciplinary opportunity for philosophers specializing in ethics and psychologists specializing in trauma. What better way to show the practical utility of both disciples than to take on an issue of student welfare together.

A group of people like that working together would I think be able to create a sensible policy that recognized academic freedom and that it’s neither possible, nor desirable to avoid all instances of people being upset or offended by what they’re exposed to at a college or university, but that still would help instructors avoid re-traumatizing their students.

I think a voluntary policy emphasizing providing warnings for the most obvious kinds of traumatizing events present in course content as a best practice would be a good start. Since the trigger warning movements in colleges and universities are often student led, faculty and instructors ignore them at their peril. If they gain enough momentum, administration will pick them up and end up imposing a policy that may be to no one’s liking. Instructors also risk their reputation among students if they consistently ignore these issues, not a trivial issue given the easily accessible instructor ratings out there for other prospective students to see.

What about leaving it up to students to bring their issues to the attention of their instructors so they can be addressed? To place the burden on traumatized people to explain their traumas to others they don’t know well or at all seems deeply unsympathetic and unempathetic. It fails to acknowledge the psychological toll that results and one can even make a strong argument that requiring that of students could itself be re-traumatizing.

As much as challenging students with uncomfortable ideas is considered by some to be at the heart of what college is about (and this is quite debatable, depending on the field and even the class in question), it doesn’t seem at all necessary or desirable to re-traumatize students in the process. Surely there is a better way.