A Brief Guide to the Battle Over Trigger Warnings

August 26, 2016

The University of Chicago’s dean of students this week sent a strongly worded letter to incoming freshmen declaring that the institution didn’t endorse "trigger warnings" or "intellectual safe spaces." The message touched off a debate both inside and outside of academe about the use of such terms on college campuses.

Many observers see the letter from the dean, John Ellison, as a refreshing stand for academic freedom and open debate in an era of coddled students who expect constant accommodations.

But others argue that the Chicago statement actually threatens the academic freedom of professors who prefer to use trigger warnings in their courses.

Here's a look at how professors view the warnings — and at how widespread they really are.

What are trigger warnings?

In academic settings, they are written or spoken warnings given by professors to alert students that course material might be traumatic for people with particular life experiences.

Beyond that, the meaning of the term depends on whom you ask. Some say that issuing such warnings is a matter of common sense, and that faculty members have been making such statements for decades. To Kate Manne, an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell University, they are "a basic courtesy." In one of her courses, she teaches about mass rape during genocide, among other difficult topics, and she warns students about the content in advance.

Beyond rape and violence, students have asked for warnings about issues including abortion, racism, and homophobia. Some say the demands have gone too far.
Angus Johnston, who teaches history at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College, characterizes trigger warnings as a "heads up." He wants to make sure students aren’t caught off guard, and he tells them that they’re always welcome to step out of class if they feel overwhelmed by a discussion, although they’re responsible for any material they miss.

Many critics see the warnings as censorship, and perhaps an easy way for students to get out of attending class or doing assignments.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, mocked trigger warnings in a fake syllabus for "Introduction to United States History." Regarding the course’s discussion of World War II, for instance, he wrote: "No need for Germans, Italians, or Japanese — or their descendants — to show up. We won, they lost. Any questions?"

What qualifies as a "trigger"?

Notions of what justifies a warning have evolved since the term "trigger warning" became popular, about a decade ago.

Originally the warnings were used primarily on blogs and forums about feminism and self-help issues. The idea was to ensure that, for example, someone who had been raped would know in advance that the content of a forum or post touched on sexual violence, so that the reader could avoid proceeding.

A Slate article declared 2013 to be "the year of the trigger warning." But the first mention of "trigger warning" in The Chronicle didn’t surface until the next year. The warnings quickly became hotly debated in academe.

A sexual-offense resource guide at Oberlin College that surfaced in 2014 endorsed the use of trigger warnings on course materials that referred to sexual violence and recommended that professors "avoid unnecessary triggers" in their classes. "Anything could be a trigger — a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on," the guide read. (The recommendations were removed after faculty members protested.)

The list of academic topics considered deserving of a trigger warning has grown over the past two years. Beyond rape and violence, students have asked for warnings about issues including abortion, racism, and homophobia.

To some observers, demands for warnings have gone too far. For example, a Rutgers University student wrote an op-ed essay in 2014 arguing that professors should use trigger warnings when teaching Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, because the novel examines suicidal tendencies, or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, because it includes what the student described as "gory, abusive, and misogynistic violence."

Where are trigger warnings used on college campuses?

They appear most commonly on syllabi or in statements made in class by a professor. They also might be affixed to assigned readings or books in a course. Professors might include the warnings at the request of students, or they might do so voluntarily.

Mr. Johnston, at Hostos, has used trigger warnings on his syllabi for the past two years; he calls them "content notes." "My students haven’t heard of the term ‘trigger warnings,’ " he says.

They also crop up outside of the classroom, before film screenings and speaker events. In 2012 the student newspaper at Amherst College included a warning at the top of a column providing a firsthand account of a sexual assault.

How widespread are the warnings?

Many academics, including Mr. Johnston, believe that the use of trigger warnings is increasing. He wrote a blog post about his "content note" in 2014. Since then he’s noticed through online searches that several dozen professors include some or all of his suggested statement in their syllabi.

Not everyone sees that as a positive trend. "What started out as a slow trickle of trigger warnings is now a tsunami," wrote Laurie Essig, an associate professor of sociology and gender studies at Middlebury College, in 2014.

Last year the National Coalition Against Censorship surveyed 800 members of the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association about the warnings. More than half of the respondents said they had provided "warnings about course content" at least once. Fifteen percent said students had requested warnings in their courses, and 12 percent said students had complained about the absence of such warnings.

But Ms. Manne, the Cornell professor, believes that fears of the warnings’ prevalence are overblown. While she might have reason to use them at times in a course about feminist philosophy, she says, she probably wouldn’t have a reason to include them in a course about logic.

"They’re a pretty small kindness to offer students in a pretty small range of subjects," Ms. Manne says. Many students in her classes, she adds, aren’t even aware that they’ve been given a trigger warning.

Few, if any, colleges require faculty members to use the warnings. A proposed student-government resolution called on the University of California at Santa Barbara to mandate their use for particular subjects — such as sexual assault, suicide, pornography, and kidnapping — but it failed.

Are the warnings influencing debate and discourse on campuses?

Trigger warnings have become a staple of arguments suggesting that political correctness has run amok in higher education. Supporters of that view say the warnings create classroom environments in which debates are dumbed down, sensitive material is eliminated from classes, and safe spaces are prioritized over intellectual rigor.

Many professors who use trigger warnings say the cautionary messages do nothing of the sort. "One thing that really troubles me about the University of Chicago letter," Ms. Manne says, "is that it suggests that those who use trigger warnings condone students’ skipping discussions, or that their classes are ‘teaching lite.’ "

How does it stifle debate, she asks, to simply tell students in advance that a discussion might grapple with sexual violence?

[Updated (8/27/2016, 3:21 p.m.): This article has been revised since its original posting with editing changes for clarity.]

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.