How 3 Professors Use Trigger Warnings in Their Classrooms

September 06, 2016

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Everyone’s got an opinion about trigger warnings in the classroom, but when people debate their validity and necessity, they often talk right past one another. Are the sides closer to agreement than they know?

After the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming students informing them that the classroom is no place for trigger warnings, a debate about their use has reverberated within academe and beyond.

One thing has been made apparent through these often fierce arguments: In the phrase "trigger warning," people often see what they want to see.

To help bring the debate down to earth, The Chronicle informally surveyed faculty members to see how and when they issue trigger warnings in their classes. Here are three professors who say they use the pedagogical tool to both consider their students’ pasts and deepen the conversation about emotionally charged subjects:

Martha J. Reineke, a professor of religion at the University of Northern Iowa, says she agrees with the general sentiment of the Chicago letter. (Years ago, she says, when administrators tried to force professors to use some form of trigger warning, she objected and joined an effort to inscribe "We Are Here to Offend You" in Latin at the entrance of the university.)

Ms. Reineke says she uses a trigger warning for just one assigned reading — The Birth of the Living God — in one of her courses that deals with the psychology of religion. The book includes four case studies of mentally ill people who were hospitalized after a lifetime of abuse.

When Ms. Reineke first taught the text, a student confided in her that a case study that depicted parental abuse had brought up entrenched pain from his childhood that he thought he had forgotten, she says. He was distraught, and he didn’t know where to go for help.

So when she taught the course again, she remembers thinking, "I don’t want a student to be startled and at a loss and maybe drop the class because of their feelings."

Now Ms. Reineke delivers a short speech to students about how difficult it can be to read some of the case studies, and she points out the places students can go on the campus to get mental-health support.

She offers no alternative readings, she says, and she doesn’t use the warning to skirt talking about a difficult topic. Rather, Ms. Reineke says, the warning gives anyone who has experienced deep trauma a heads up that it might reappear in unexpected ways.

That is vastly different than just trying not to offend someone, she says, which is what she believes some students are asking for when requesting the warnings. But something that offends and something that traumatizes are not the same, she says.

"Trauma comes dredging up. We’re not in control of it … we can be incapacitated by it," Ms. Reineke says.

Patrick J. Keenan, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says he uses trigger warnings to help his students engage with ideas that have been ignored for far too long in his field. (He doesn’t call it a trigger warning, however, because he says the term "obscures more than it illuminates.")

Mr. Keenan teaches international-law courses in which he often discusses crimes of sexual violence committed during war. On the first day of class, he mentions how hard it is to learn the horrific details of those crimes. He tells students that if there is a day when the material is especially troubling to them, they can sit quietly and just listen.

“I wouldn't invite someone to my house and say we're going to watch 'Finding Nemo' and then show them a snuff film.”

Sexual violence during war has been ignored by both international law and law schools, Mr. Keenan says. He knows professors who refuse to talk about rape in their classrooms. His content warning is a way to talk openly about those crimes so that the class isn’t "pretending that bad things don’t happen in the world," he says.

Mr. Keenan has had two students in particular who shaped his philosophy: One was a victim of a violent crime, and another was a military veteran who had mentioned that reading about certain subjects was difficult for him. Springing those topics on them without warning would be unprofessional and "just rude," he says.

"I wouldn’t invite someone to my house and say we’re going to watch Finding Nemo and then show them a snuff film," Mr. Keenan says.

David R. Andersen-Rodgers also issues trigger warnings to acknowledge the variety of contexts that his students bring into the classroom.

Mr. Andersen-Rodgers, an associate professor of government at California State University at Sacramento, says that many of his students either are veterans, some of whom battle post-traumatic stress disorder, or are from war-torn countries.

One encounter, in particular, made an impression on him: He remembers a student who was openly texting during class. The student approached Mr. Andersen-Rodgers afterward and apologized, saying that his neighborhood in Yemen had just been bombed.

Moments like that made the professor realize that his students’ experiences with war were much more profound than his own experience studying the subject from afar at an "upper-middle-class, liberal, elite college."

Mr. Andersen-Rodgers began putting what he calls a "word of caution" in the syllabus, which he points out on the first day. He talks about the powerful emotions some topics evoke, as well as telling students where on the campus they can seek help if the feelings overwhelm them.

What some professors do not understand, he says, is that most students who require trigger warnings are not asking professors to abstain from espousing controversial viewpoints.

"It’s not that these students are cowering," Mr. Andersen-Rodgers says. "They’re braver. They see the realities of the world."

He remembers teaching a class as a graduate student when the photographs of prisoners being tortured at Abu Ghraib, in Iraq, were all over the news. He showed the photos to his students without much warning or context, and they were shocked and turned "ashen white," he says.

In that moment, Mr. Andersen-Rodgers says, he asked himself, "Was that really fair to do that in that way?" And also, "How could I have prepared them better?"