On Trigger Warnings in Academia

parental advisory

tw: rape, sexual assault, suicide, neuronormativity, n word, hate speech, ableism, racist language

When I first read Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in my junior year of high school, I cried. For an hour. 16 years old in an AP English class, and I cried. For an hour. The next day, I approached my teacher and said something along the lines of, “Look. This thing made me bawl my eyes out last night. I can’t handle discussing it for an hour. I can’t do it.” She let me and my friend (who had read a piece earlier in the year describing that time freshman year she got raped at knife-point) go to the library.

With all the recent conversations in and around academia about trigger warnings, I thought it important to share that story. The American Association of University Professors issued a report last year in which they called trigger warnings a “threat to academic freedom.” They also say, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.” These particular academics seem to think that their right to intellectual discourse is more important in any given moment than, say, a student trying to avoid having a panic attack in the middle of class.

a1980904083_10Here’s the thing. Trigger warnings aren’t for things that make us uncomfortable. They aren’t for things we don’t feel like talking about. They’re for things that cause panic attacks, flashbacks, and similar symptoms. They’re for things that shut us down so completely that we cannot function for the rest of the day.

A lot of academics seem to think that by asking for trigger warnings, we are asking for censorship. In my experience, this could not be farther from the truth. I have never once asked a professor to stop teaching any given material just because it triggered me. I have never once asked that an assignment not be discussed in class simply because I am there. What I have asked for is permission to step out. When someone shows a film with a violent depiction of, say, suicide, I want the option to leave the room before it comes up. I want the option not to see the film at all. That doesn’t mean I want “special treatment.” I will gladly take a 0 for my participation grade, if that 0 means I don’t have to relive sex with my ex abuser in the middle of a Tuesday morning.

Before you tell me to get used to it, that the real world doesn’t have trigger warnings, allow me to draw your attention to, say, movie ratings. Parental Advisory warnings. Synopses on book jackets. Before you tell me that it’s too hard to remember all the possible triggers in the world, consider this: you don’t have to. Simply ask students to put any triggers they may have on the “get to know you” note cards you have us fill out at the beginning of the semester and write the ones you get back down. There probably won’t be that many. Odds are, they probably won’t come up that often.

Trigger warnings aren’t that difficult a concept to master. When it comes down to it, wouldn’t you rather give a student a 0 for the day’s participation than a panic attack?


9 thoughts on “On Trigger Warnings in Academia

  1. I thought this was a great post explaining the seriousness of trigger warnings. I was a little confused before because of the people that said they are censoring learning, but now I understand that it’s all about letting those specific people opt out, not taking the material away from the whole class. I agree that trigger warnings should definitely be used on subjects like this so that people who have experienced trauma aren’t forced to relive it without warning in front of other people. It’s the right thing to do to let people opt out.


    • Thank you for commenting! I’m glad I could help clear things up for you. And I’m glad you understand the seriousness of the situation. Thank you for your support.


  2. Tw: real life
    High schools should certainly challenge their students and be free to discuss all aspects of life to properly prepare them to live outside of the sheltering bubble that a strict school and home life can provide. I don’t really see what adding trigger warnings to classes (that are already mandatory) will accomplish except to further infantilize the student experience. Real life does not come with bumper lanes and if the student populace isn’t ready they will fall into the gutter before they know what hit them. The idea of adding trigger warnings, while not directly censorship, can be compared to the people calling for a ban of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in schools because it has the word “nigger” in it. Adding trigger warnings at first seems harmless but imagine the outcry of parents when little Sally’s syllabus comes home with trigger warnings of murder, rape, torture, and suicide because they are going to learn about WWII that year and teachers will then be under pressure from administrators to whitewash their lessons to be as inoffensive (tumblr definition of offensive here) as possible to avoid any backlash. Overall, adding trigger warnings is just going to generate endless controversies (about what does or does not deserve a trigger warning) and complicate everything immensely for both teachers, parents, and students.
    Now here’s the thing, if a student does have a legitimate psychological problem, then their parents should do their due diligence and notify the school and the kid will get an IEP (Individual Education Plan). That will allow the teacher to plan accordingly (read: notify the student of what’s coming up the next lesson) and the student will have neither a 0 nor a panic attack as those plans require the teachers to bend over backwards to accommodate an enormous range of things.
    You bring up movie and game ratings but those systems do not work. Any album gets an explicit content rating on it if there is cursing but you don’t hear any fewer people cursing at each other in public. The same goes for movie ratings: watching people get brutally murdered is apparently A-OK for a 13 year old but god forbid there’s a tit and you’ll get an R-rating, a little more and you wind up with NC-17 and you can kiss a major theatre run goodbye. Another flawed system is the last thing this society needs.


    • Thank you for your comment. I’m a little uncomfortable with your use of the n word; I know you were quoting from the book but I’d rather not have hate speech on my corner of the blog in any form. Perhaps you could go back and edit it to something like “n****r?”

      Since you’ve written so much, my response may be a little scattered.

      On diagnosis and the IEP: Not every family is supportive. Not every family is safe. Not everyone can go to their parents and say, “Hey, so-and-so raped me and now I have trouble watching movies with rape scenes, could you maybe pay money to get me diagnosed with PTSD so that I can go through a complicated, drawn-out process to get an IEP?” Not every parent, on hearing that, would actually help their child go through with it. It is far easier and simpler to have a policy in which a student can say to a teacher, “Hey, could you warn me if any of the films we’re going to watch in class have rape scenes?”

      On “little Sally’s syllabus”: Are those things secret parts of WWII? If a student comes home and says “We’re going to learn about World War II in Social Studies class,” are the parents going to assume that they’re not going to talk about genocide and torture? I’m just a little confused as to why the trigger warnings associated with such topics would cause an uproar when most adults already know what happened there.

      Look at it this way: If someone walks up to the counter in McDonald’s and says, “I’m allergic to peanuts, can you check to make sure that you don’t cook your food with peanut oil?” the cashier isn’t going to require a doctor’s note. It should be the same for triggers.


      • I am sorry that my use of the word “n*****r” made you feel uncomfortable. As you said, I am merely quoting from the textbook and as a person who do not grow up in this culture, using the word as it is does not make me feel uncomfortable. Moreover, as I am not using the word “nigger” to demean anybody, I wonder why it would be a problem. You are asking someone to self-censor when they are talking against censorship, and I refuse to self-censor as this is an open forum and my use of the word is not intentionally inflammatory.

        Firstly, I would imagine your scenario of the child asking the teacher if they could not watch movies with rape scenes would lead to a conversation with the school counselor and then perhaps a visit from social services to their parents as it is the school’s responsibility to protect the children, same with cases of abuse. Thus I would imagine a family not reporting the rape of their child would get into some serious trouble. A child in the home situations you describe has bigger problems than what movies the teacher decides to show in class. The system you are proposing seems like it would normalize these serious problems by letting them simply be avoided rather than actually addressed.

        The WWII example was to show the potential for creating controversy where there shouldn’t be any. Surely, a rational parent would just see that they are covering WWII and that would be the end of it. On the other hand, some would look no further than those words and consider them completely out of context, hence the Huck Finn example.

        Finally, your last scenario is not a very fitting analogy. Your example is someone asking if the food has a chance of killing them, not making them emotionally uncomfortable. I understand that the student still suffers from panic attack and that is definitely a problem we cannot ignore, but there can be a better solution to that problem (IEP for example) than incorporating trigger warnings into the syllabus.


  3. Not only are trigger warnings unnecessary, they are also potentially dangerous and counter-productive for those who hope to recover from their traumas. Please see this video for a better explanation than I could possibly give.


    • Thank you for sharing your opinion.

      tw suicide, rape, sexual assault

      A couple of things: First, I find it interesting that while the woman in the video (which is extremely invalidating and ableist for anyone thinking of watching) cites a number of studies when she says that trigger warnings are actually harmful, she doesn’t have or use any evidence of trauma survivors who agree with her. In fact, the only survivors she quotes speak in favor of trigger warnings. Wouldn’t the survivors of trauma (be it physical violence, emotional abuse, or something else entirely) be the highest authority on what they (we) need in order to get through the day?

      On that note (and I do apologize if this comes across as angry; I am trying to temper my passions here), I would like to reiterate that asking for trigger warnings is not the same thing as asking for censorship. We are not asking for lesson plans to be changed or altered in any way. What we are asking for is the chance to plan ahead. I have had multiple experiences where I have been asked to read or watch something that contained something that triggered me and where I was not warned about it ahead of time. In one instance (this one involving a suicide scene), I ran out of the room and cried in front of a complete stranger for about 5 minutes. At the Long Night Against Procrastination, I wound up in the corner in the fetal position because no one warned me that Thelma and Louise had a rape scene in it. Last year, I found myself in the middle of class on a Tuesday morning reliving sex with my ex abuser (visual, auditory, and tactile flashback). Going through flashbacks and anxiety attacks is hell, and if I’m going to do it, I’d like to at least know it’s coming ahead of time.

      I guess my point is, I don’t see how trigger warnings could be harmful. All they do is give people a heads up, and let them know what to expect. I have never once heard someone who has been through trauma say “I would rather live in a world without trigger warnings.” I wish there were more I could say, but honestly I think this is about it.


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