Updating the Trigger Warning in Contentious Times

With sexual assaults, racism and anxiety spiraling on college campuses, such warnings are needed now more than ever, argues Michael Bugeja.

By Michael Bugeja, Copyright 2021 by Inside Higher Ed 

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I know what you’re thinking: we’ve covered trigger warnings for more than a decade, and you don’t need a refresher. Some of us use or refuse to use them, and you can find reasons to do either.

Pro-warning rationalesthey prepare students for content that might distress them. Students are still responsible for the material, and we can best solve individual issues during office hours, one on one. We cannot risk classroom disruptions with students crying and leaving class while others espouse ignorant or hateful views.

Con-warning rationalesthey coddle students, who need to be exposed to challenging topics. You cannot excuse some while requiring others to know the material. Disruptions are a fact of life. We shortchange students deleting controversial content from lectures and lesson plans.

But we need to revisit the idea of trigger warnings now because, in fact, times have changed. Although reporting levels remain low (Links to an external site.), one in four undergraduate female students and one in 15 undergraduate male students have been raped through physical force, incapacitation or violence, according to some estimates. Moreover, according to reporting in Inside Higher Ed (Links to an external site.), Black students continuously experience racism, coping with emotional trauma, increased anxiety and poor mental health outcomes.

Indeed, a mental health pandemic (Links to an external site.) is occurring on America’s college campuses, exacerbated by COVID-19. Recent statistics show an estimated 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness. Worse, 73 percent of students with mental health conditions have experienced a mental health crisis while on campus.

Add to that the anxiety of returning this fall (Links to an external site.) to face-to-face classes after a year of online and blended classes — a transition that will affect teachers as well as students.

Also factor in this: today’s multimedia classes differ significantly from those a decade ago when the issue of trigger warnings — the pros and cons — erupted on college campuses. Gone are clickers, overhead projectors and whiteboards; they’ve been replaced by YouTube videos, machine learning (Links to an external site.) and virtual and augmented reality (Links to an external site.). In other words, we’re recreating a facsimile of reality with the potential to trigger flashbacks without warnings.

Viewpoint Matters

According to a 2015 report (Links to an external site.) by the National Coalition Against Censorship, trigger warnings are defined as alerts to students that course material might be emotionally upsetting or offensive. The coalition states the origins were associated with content about sexual assault but now include “materials touching on a wide range of potentially sensitive subjects, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture and other topics.”

The organization also notes that requests for trigger warnings often come from students and that many (but not all) educators believe warnings have an adverse effect on academic freedom.

Another report (Links to an external site.) by the American Association of University Professors also states that trigger warnings are a threat to academic freedom: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”

Then there is the 2016 letter (Links to an external site.) by John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, which sparked a national discussion about intellectual safe spaces. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Some evidence supports his stance. A 2019 study (Links to an external site.) published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that trigger warnings do little to reduce stress in the classroom. Experiments exposed students to graphic videos, and some students were shown a trigger warning about the contents being disturbing while others did not view the warning. Afterward, participants reported emotional distress. They responded similarly whether or not they saw a trigger warning. Researchers concluded that trigger warnings had little effect on stress levels.

So why am I all in?

Measuring distress in a clinical experiment is one thing; encouraging discussion about distressing topics over an entire semester is another. Warning an incoming class about the absence of intellectual safe spaces is one thing; providing those spaces is another. Concerns about threats to academic freedom is one thing; exercising freedom responsibly is another.

Trigger warnings are as much about class discussion as graphic content. Professors who use or respect the use of trigger warnings typically are on alert about risks of discussing distressing content or reiterating racial slurs. They approach those conversations with sensitivity and decorum. Others who do not have been suspended (Links to an external site.) or fired (Links to an external site.).

You can label this “cancel culture (Links to an external site.)” and rail against it. Or you can acknowledge that professors are being held to rigorous standards apart from course content, typically involving discussion in a politically partisan environment (Links to an external site.).

Further, reports and studies conducted years ago fail to consider the audiovisual and multimedia nature of today’s engaged classroom. We show a lot more than PowerPoints. As noted earlier, we employ video, audio and multimedia platforms that recreate and, at times, reactivate intense experiences.

A case in point: in my media ethics class, we discuss how bystanders with mobile phones are changing attitudes about race with on-the-scene videos of discrimination and brutality. Those videos have had more impact in society than many news reports. Students also explore timelines of Black deaths at hands of law enforcement, like one the BBC recently published (Links to an external site.).

Should we show accompanying YouTube videos without warnings, knowing students of color regularly experience racism (Links to an external site.) and perhaps as many as a quarter of the students in every class have personal survivor memories of sexual misconduct?

Previously cited demurrals about trigger warnings have one flaw: they indirectly affirm the professor’s viewpoint rather than the student’s.

Campus crime alerts do the opposite. When my institution issues such an alert, it begins with a warning: “Any recipients of this notice who have been a prior victim of sexual misconduct or assault should be aware the following message could invoke an emotional response.” It also states the intended outcome: “to provide information that promotes safety; facilitate individuals being able to better protect themselves; and describe details regarding the date, location and type of crime involved.”

Institutional review boards use similar language when approving surveys that might trigger intense emotions. The perspective of human subjects outweighs that of researchers. At Iowa State University, our review board’s purpose is “to ensure that the rights and safety of human participants in research are protected,” advising investigators to design projects “that minimize potential harm to participants.”

That is the goal when it comes to students.

Words of Warning

In 1995, I started assembling information in advance about possible triggers in each media ethics class. Data are collected in our “trigger word game,” conducted electronically now via Zoom. You can see responses here (Links to an external site.).

Using the anonymous chat function, students send me a word or short phrase that evokes an intense positive or negative emotion. I’ve instructed them to use proper nouns rather than lowercase words that might harken to past personal experiences. Capitalized terms can be traced to culture, pop culture, government, media, social debate or “other” category. That’s instructional. (Links to an external site.)

I compile a comprehensive list of words from the entire class. We use the chat function again, asking students if each term also constitutes a trigger for them. After all votes are tabulated, we compile a “Top 10 Trigger” list.

Here’s one from spring 2021:

  1. COVID-19 [media]
  2. Black Lives Matter [social debate]
  3. Trump [government]
  4. MAGA [media]
  5. #MeToo [social debate]
  6. George Floyd [social debate]
  7. [Iowa governor] Kim Reynolds [government]
  8. Kamala Harris [government]
  9. Planned Parenthood [social debate]
  10. Christianity [culture]

We cover Nos. 1 through 6 and 10 in my ethics classes. That gives me knowledge about where warnings may be warranted.

As instructor, I am obligated to ensure that everyone still knows the material. To do so, I provide a schedule of each lecture with description of content and digital study guides covering material needed for exams.

The schedule appears in the syllabus under “Content of Lectures (Links to an external site.),” containing this disclosure:

In media ethics we deal with several sensitive topics. As such, you will see trigger warnings on segments that require such. You can miss class during these sessions and view website content on your own. You also may decide not to view that content but instead access a digital study guide without certain multimedia to acquaint you with concepts that may be covered in exams. If you decide to miss class, just send an excuse email stating that you will view the study guide.

Before class I send out an email reminder about content of the day’s lecture. Here is one that contains a trigger warning:

Lecture #22. Temptation. Temptation is something we all live with, as part of human nature. It involves ethical choices, especially ones we make in our personal and professional lives. Case studies illustrate risks. Trigger Warning: Content deals with conflicts of interest, Iowa State Daily coverage of sexual assault, and information about alcohol and misconduct. Note: You don’t have to attend class if the content elicits an uncomfortable emotional response. Just send an email about the absence and view this study guide: https://myethicsclass.com/temptation-edited/ (Links to an external site.)

Students also know that those attending class will engage in spirited debate as my syllabus includes a free speech statement, required by my institution, upholding “open inquiry on a diversity of ideas.” Students are not penalized for germane viewpoints conveyed in an appropriate manner.

By adapting the traditional trigger warning model, you can enhance learning with a detailed schedule about content, email reminders about that schedule, advance notice of sensitive material, modification of attendance policies and alternative venues and study guides. Yes, that’s a lot of work on part of the professor. But it accomplishes one of the best practices for student learning: organization (Links to an external site.).

Trigger warnings respect the student’s viewpoint. Study guides allow students to opt out of a session while still being responsible for material. Free speech and civil discourse are encouraged. Content of lectures in syllabi puts everyone on notice that sensitive topics will be discussed on a particular day and in a particular manner, helping to maintain classroom climate.

I adopted this standard during pandemic Zoom sessions. I had always used trigger warnings on my websites and in-class lectures and videos. But several students asked me to do more, providing detailed schedules, study guides and advance emails about content.

I listened to them and revamped my course, understanding their concerns about this tumultuous time in our history and improving my instruction in the process.

Bio

Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine and Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms (Links to an external site.) (Oxford University Press, 2017). The views expressed here are his own.

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