"If at any point you must leave the class, please do so quietly. Several of the readings could be triggers, and I want you to feel safe in the class at all times."
This “trigger warning” is bolded and italicized on my syllabus. A trigger warning is “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).”
Trigger warnings have been a point of debate in educational circles, particularly over the past year. Some critics argue that such warnings are coddling “the American mind.” And many proponents argue that trigger warnings help students feel secure in the classroom, especially at a time when mental health services in many schools and districts are overwhelmed and underfunded.
As my syllabus statement indicates, I find myself falling into the second camp, the one that sees trigger warnings as just that: warnings that material in a course may trigger memories of trauma. I gave trigger warnings verbally when I taught high school and have been putting them on my university syllabi since 2008. I do this because I teach classes about gender and violence. I also teach courses about women writers around the world, and sexual violence is often prevalent in the texts for those courses.
When I put a trigger warning on my syllabus, I do not see the act as coddling. Rather, I see it as an act of nurturing. We cannot know all that our students carry with them into our classrooms. This awareness compels me to ensure that my students can feel safe in my classroom. I still expect them to be challenged rigorously by the texts I teach. My trigger warning is not a pass for lack of engagement. Instead, it is an escape route if a student starts to panic or have an emotional response that would make it hard for her to concentrate or remain in class safely. Even though such a warning is appropriate for my classes, I agree with Kate Manne when she warns that making them mandatory takes away teachers’ agency and choice: “[A]lthough I see a willingness to use trigger warnings as part of pedagogical best practices, I don’t believe their use should be mandatory,” she writes. “There is already too much threat to academic freedom at the moment because of top-down interference from overreaching administrators.”
On the first day of class, usually a student will raise his or her hand during our discussion of the syllabus and ask what the trigger statement means. I explain that we will read about violence and will discuss violent acts—both fictional and true—and I know that those who have endured trauma could feel unsafe or triggered in a moment unexpectedly. Occasionally, students have never heard of the term triggering, even if it is something they may have experienced. Having that conversation about trigger warnings may help a veteran, sexual assault survivor or another person with post-traumatic stress disorder see that my classroom honors their challenges and resilience.
This conversation sets an open tone that lets students know I care about their safety and welfare. Even in this brief way, acknowledging the painful experiences some students carry with them into my classroom, before I even know students’ names, provides an opportunity for students to exhale before we even begin.
And I will tell you a secret: I have never had a single student leave my classroom. It seems to me that just knowing they can leave and aren't going to be punished for having a flashback or other triggered experience is enough for students. And if a trigger warning on my syllabus is all it takes to make each student feel safe, then I am all in.
Clemens is the associate professor of non-Western literatures at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.