Trigger Warnings Scare Students When They Should Be Gently Guided

Advice from an acting teacher on how to help students process sensitive material in the classroom

August 11, 2014

Is there a right approach to teaching potentially "triggering" material in a college classroom? Should certain books be avoided, or should students be forewarned of what might lie ahead?

There has been a good deal of discussion on the use of trigger warnings in the classroom, with some critics expressing their skepticism or their irritation at what they see as political correctness run amok. Meanwhile, other academics defend their use and suggest that professors are almost insensate when it comes to exposing students to deeply disturbing work. In that view, we risk retraumatizing students who have fresh wounds or submerged memories that may surface when they encounter violent, sexually aggressive, often brutal scenes that characterize much literature.

What to do?

I teach acting and dramatic literature to college students. I’ve also taught theater in prisons and youth detention facilities, and to very young students from marginalized and severely disadvantaged neighborhoods. Most of the plays we work with have, at their core, emotionally explosive scenes. They deal with addiction, abandonment, rape, murder, suicide, gangs, illness, mortality, despair (and those are the comedies!).

Classical theater, which is often far more bloody-minded than contemporary work, has the advantage of distance. Students often find it more difficult, at first reading, to make firsthand connections because the language and style are somewhat unfamiliar. But close reading and embodied performance bring plays to life, and classical material is experienced as vividly and as forcefully as the contemporary plays we explore.

Now allow me to intrude for a moment with a bit of autobiography. I was a runaway, 2,000 miles from home, when I was raped at 16. The next morning I watched a man being brutally beaten, after which I was arrested and put in solitary confinement for several days (for an unrelated issue). For two decades I often recounted the beating I witnessed, but never once referred to my rape. Instead, I was pathologically promiscuous. Moreover, as a child I endured emotional terror and extreme verbal abuse at the hands of my mentally ill mother. Like Angela Shaw-Thornburg, writing in the June 20th issue of The Chronicle Review, I have certainly lived through my share of trauma.

Given the statistics (addiction, alcoholism, rape, and so on), it is highly likely that many of our students have some of those experiences as well.

Central to the teaching of acting is helping students learn how to process sensitive material. I have the feeling that that is also important in most humanities classrooms. Good teachers regularly try to deal with racial, ethnic, and religious insensitivities in the classroom or with a lack of awareness around issues of national identity, class, and privilege. None of us would be satisfied with avoiding such issues or simply parroting a politically correct stance.

But with "triggers" we are walking into another type of minefield. Trauma is real, and fresh wounds are easily reopened, particularly among the young. In acting courses, there are a number of strategies we employ that I believe are easily transferable to other classrooms. I mention a few of these approaches here in the hope that they will help you as you evaluate your own teaching techniques on this front.

To be clear: Never, ever would I advise telling students to avoid thorny material. To the contrary, I ask students to bring themselves into dialogue with evocative drama because I believe it will, when presented correctly, serve them well.

Because I encourage personal reflection as part of any literary or dramaturgical analysis, students will frequently try to link their own experiences to the material under examination. I make it very clear at the outset that acting—or reading—while often therapeutic must never be construed as therapy. We are looking at works of fiction, and fiction intentionally provides a mask, a safe space where thoughts and feelings are explored and then released. What these works ignite in us is private, and our own experiences will enrich our understanding and give context to what we read and perform.

Actors engage fully in emotionally charged performances, and a good acting teacher encourages students to dig deeply to find truthful responses to the imagined circumstances of the play.

But as the teacher, I am always there with students: supporting them, alert to their bodies, aware of any discomfort or resistance, regularly checking in to see if they are OK with what they are doing. Students can stop at any time, and leave the room to take a moment for themselves if they need to. I encourage them to take responsibility for themselves and to set parameters, stopping if they feel in any way unsafe or ill at ease.

Finally, we always "de-role" after an intensive performance work or discussion. That entails deep breathing, "shaking out," changing physical position, speaking up verbally, and/or just running around the room. No one ever leaves the classroom without leaving the heavy stuff behind.

Students are resilient, curious, and eager to explore the wide range of human experience, which must include life in extremis. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be both alert and compassionate in the face of very real pain. Shaw-Thornburg, in her column, is right to bring up Elaine Scarry’s work on empathy, from which we could all learn a great deal.

But issuing warnings about "triggers" is a sure way to scare off students before they can be gently and ably guided to the very material that may speak to them deeply and offer insights, connections, and pathways to a healing that they had never imagined.

Ellen Kaplan is a professor of theater at Smith College.