Disturbing material in the classroom: on content notes and trigger warnings in teaching

Researching and teaching about the Yugoslav wars means that, for more than a decade, I’ve been coming into contact with horrific material on pretty much a weekly basis. During my PhD, when I spent months reading Croatian newspapers from the 1990s, I was confronted almost every day with photographs of dead or wounded bodies, or newspaper testimonies about people’s suffering during the 1991-95 wars. Some of the documentary sources and academic studies that I assign when I teach about my specialist area, likewise, can contain a level of horror that these days I take as part and parcel of my work but which might be unexpected to students learning about this moment in history for the first time.

Alternatively – and here’s where it gets even more difficult for teachers – it could be all too much like something from their own lives.

For this reason, I’ve been following the debates about whether and how teachers ought to warn students about uncomfortable topics with particular interest. There have been articles by university educators all year about requests that students at some US universities have made for instructors to warn them in advance about material which could be upsetting to read or watch, especially when it covers topics such as suicide or rape. (And please be aware, if this matters to you, that I will discuss those in some more depth as I go on.)

This academic year, Oberlin College introduced a resource guide advising teachers to provide content notes or ‘trigger warnings’ to make classrooms as inclusive as possible for survivors of sexual violence, then rolled it back after journalists and some of Oberlin’s own staff criticised it as an attack on academic freedom. Meanwhile, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking tutors to note content on their syllabi that might have an adverse effect on students with PTSD if they encountered it without being able to adequately prepare themselves.

The thinking behind these requests is about more than students just being ‘upset’, and recognises that, after someone has experienced trauma, certain sensory reminders of what happened can (though not ‘will’) make the brain prepare to experience it all over again. The term ‘trigger warnings’ originated from online communities formed by survivors of abuse and violence, where users warning each other about the content of posts made it more possible for people in a community to have discussions with each other.

It’s existed for long enough in social media and online fandom that some students in a contemporary classroom would have known about the convention of trigger warnings in those spaces before they ever came to class – which means that in one respect the whole current discussion about trigger warnings in teaching is part of a wider context about the digital literacies and textual practices that students may be bringing to the classroom now, and there’d be a lot of scope for educationalists to think further about this.

‘Warning: this report contains flashing lights’

The Oberlin and Santa Barbara cases made national news in the USA, and commentators who already disliked trigger-warning culture online saw the Oberlin/Santa Barbara demands through the same lens. Academics who blog have been discussing them extensively online ever since: the Chronicle of Higher Education website, for instance, has featured several posts arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship that insulates students from having to deal with the harsh world outside, as well as posts by instructors disagreeing with them because the impact of trauma on the body deserved to be taken seriously.[1]

However, even before this year, educators had already been confronting the problem of what to do about disturbing content: the American Philological Association, for instance, held a roundtable about teaching about rape in classical literature in 2009, and Liz Gloyn has written thoughtfully about how this has played into her teaching on Ovid.  (She’s also had a teaching note on the same topic in Classical World, which has a version without subscription here.)

Gloyn makes the point that, statistically, tutors should expect that every class will contain students who have experienced sexual violence: with numbers like these, it stops being a case of ‘what if’ material like some of what I teach affects a student personally, and starts being a case of how do I anticipate and mitigate the possible impact it could have.

The idea of giving a heads-up about upsetting content isn’t even an internet-age invention. In the UK at least, broadcasters have been using warnings for years – for instance, alerting viewers to disturbing images about to come up in news footage. After programmes that have represented topics such as abuse, eating disorders or suicide, they generally provide information about resources for viewers who might need support after recalling their experiences while watching the programme.

Perhaps the most direct parallel to content notes in teaching is with warnings about flashing lights. (Indeed, I have to remember to give one of these in class every time I show excerpts from the opening ceremony of London 2012.) It’s more and more widely accepted that television/stage audiences need to be advised about flashing lights in performances because they can set off seizures in people who are photosensitive. This is literally a ‘trigger warning’ – anticipating a harmful consequence because of a known risk, and advising viewers so that they can use their awareness of how it affects them and decide how to manage it.

Some theories and practices of content warnings

The most recent long academic post on content notes and trigger warnings is Jack Halberstam’s, which I’ve seen being both praised and critiqued all weekend. (My own thoughts on it are going to be much more by way of critique, not praise.) Halberstam argues that accusations of speech being ‘triggering’ are used to shut down discussion, and as such are ‘neoliberal rhetoric’. More broadly, he argues that the contemporary left has been distracted by ‘identity politics’ which emphasise individual trauma and offence.

Halberstam posits a curious generation gap between his generation of queer activists in the academy and the students they teach, and ultimately suggests that the individual demand to be able to feel safe will lead communities into complicity with state power and oppression, although I have to say that at this point I struggled with the analogy: is every student really in the same structural position inside and outside the academy (where, let’s not forget, most of them are paying for their tuition) that gentrifying white gay activists have held in relation to US urban space?

(His article dismisses, in particular, trans women who have asked other queer people not to use the T-word. Yet, as Morgan Collado, a trans Latina poet and writer, explained in response to his post, ‘The t-slur is used to dehumanize trans women, specifically trans women in the sex trades, and is justification for our murder […] The way Jack frames the problem as trans women being divisive by telling non-trans women to stop using the t-slur shifts the focus off the people who are actually being oppressive, namely Jack.'[2] It’s also worth reading Julia Serano’s response to Halberstam on the generational politics of US queer activism.)

The objection to content warnings which has given me most pause for thought is Brittney Cooper’s, which is much more attentive to the power dynamics inside and outside classrooms than many of them have been (and certainly much more than Halberstam’s has been):

[P]art of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers. The classroom is unsafe for rape survivors who encounter students in the process of learning why getting drunk at a party does not mean a woman deserves to be raped.

But learning about these topics are all necessary forms of education. […] Overwhelmingly students let me know at the end of each semester that though the discussions were hard, they are glad we had them.  Trigger warnings might have scared these students away from participating in discussions that they were absolutely capable of having. And in that regard they do more harm than good. So for the sake of my students, you won’t find them on my syllabi.

Cooper is concerned that students with ideological objections to material could use institutional mechanisms to have a reading removed or cause problems for instructors. In particular, she is anxious that students could get out of examining their own prejudices and privileges by saying they had been ‘triggered’ by material that challenged them.

All this is possible, which is why mandating them could be counter-productive. But there are still ways for content warnings to be good practice, if they’re understood not as censorship but as facilitation (or even, as Andrea Smith suggests based on her work in Indigenous social movements, as part of a collective rather than individual approach to reducing harm).

Sayantani Dasgupta, a practitioner of storytelling and medicine, takes this view in explaining why she’s used them in her classes (though she isn’t responding to Cooper, but to bloggers who have objected to trigger warnings much less thoughtfully):

[P]reventing little Johnny, José, or Jamila from getting a tad misty-eyed in a classroom is not, ideally, what trigger warnings are about. With their roots in the feminist blogosphere—where writers often want to give readers warnings before discussing explicit situations of sexual violence—trigger warnings in classrooms are about acknowledging that each student has her or his own specific life history, family context, identity, body—and that these realities have an impact on how a student understands and interacts with texts. […]

[D]oes my use of trigger warnings in the classroom mean I think my students are weak? Not at all. Rather, it’s because I respect my students, and know that they all come with varied life experiences of which I know only a fraction. Who in my class has a brother who was killed in a homophobic attack? Who in my class survived a sexual assault last year, last month, last week? Who in my class fled their homeland as a result of ethnic cleansing? I don’t always know, but I do know that my students did not somehow hatch, fully grown, the moment they entered my class. Rather, they live complex lives outside of my classroom, lives which bring richness to our collective learning.

The day after I originally published this post, the therapist Meg Barker posted a long essay that tries to get beyond a binary of being ‘for’ or ‘against’ content notes and trigger warnings by thinking through what they can open up and close down:

Perhaps the main point of trigger warnings is to open up the possibility for people to determine what they engage with, when and how. The idea is that, if we provide people with a brief overview of the kinds of topics and issues they are going to be confronted with (in a novel, a movie, a lecture, or a workshop, for example), then they can make an informed decision about whether they wish to engage with it or not. Advocates of trigger warnings regard this as a form of consensual practice, and a good way of modelling, and enabling, a more consensual culture than we currently have. It is also a potential way of recognising the structural constraints around agency. Not all people are as free as others, and one key limit on our freedom are the scars left by experiences of discrimination and oppression. Trigger warnings are one way of giving people greater agency within the structural limits on this. […]

However, there is also the potential – of course – for this approach to close down possibilities as well as opening them up. One risk is that, if taken too rigidly, we start to divide the world in binary ways between the powerful people who get to give trigger warnings, and the powerless victims who require them. […] This potential alerts us again to the risks in line-drawing between traumatised and non-traumatised, oppressed and non-oppressed. Perhaps instead it points us towards recognising the inevitability of traumatic experience during a person’s life, and the complex net of intersecting oppressions in which each person is located.

I have used content notes in teaching when necessary, and would certainly encourage other teachers to think about using them, because I take the view that when they’re used as part of a holistic approach to learning they can make students more able to participate rather than less. (I don’t use the specific wording ‘trigger warnings’, because if students haven’t heard the phrase before it might distance them from thinking about what’s in the note.)

I could still put them in a more prominent place – next year, I’ll try to – and I’m still experimenting with how best to actually run the sessions on the most difficult topics.

It obviously isn’t just the Yugoslav wars where these problems arise in teaching History: anyone teaching a first-year survey course on the 20th century, for instance, will have students who are reading, hearing and seeing more detailed depictions of the Holocaust than they will have done before. Dasgupta’s reminder about bearing in mind what students and those close to them might have experienced is one that every educator needs to think about.

So what can I do?

My own starting point for thinking about disturbing material and teaching is that other people know their own personal circumstances, and the psychological and physical effects those have on them, better than I do. Yes, there could be occasions when my research and professional experience might make me aware of a piece of context around what someone has experienced that they might not have thought about already. That still doesn’t translate into me knowing better than they do about how they actually sense it affecting them.

By defending content warnings, I don’t mean to imply that certain topics are too harmful to be taught. Quite the opposite. One of the most interesting new books on post-Yugoslavia that I’ve seen this year, for instance, has been Elissa Helms’s Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. It hadn’t come out when my Yugoslavia module began last year, but in this year’s module we could potentially do more with it.

Large sections of Innocence and Victimhood are about the activism of Bosnian women who were raped during the 1992-95 war, and how war rape has been used for political point-scoring (by Bosniak nationalists, and by Western liberal feminists). I’d like students to be able to understand Helms’s argument about gender, nation and narratives about collective victimhood in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’d also like them to appreciate an even broader point she makes, which is that in order to understand the post-Yugoslav present we need to consider the effects of wartime violence and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism. Clearly, I’m not going to say that we can’t ever use this book because it discusses rape.

Yet if students are confronted with this material unexpectedly (and Helms’s writing is much less graphic or emotive in this respect than some of the earlier scholars she critiques), is there a risk that some of them wouldn’t be able to finish the reading or even participate in the class? That would work against my objectives as an instructor,  and so I ought to do the best I can to mitigate it.

(And of course Innocence and Victimhood is only one of many books on the Yugoslav wars where this would come up. Dubravka Žarkov’s book The Body of War, for instance, is a critical study of the wartime Croatian and Serbian media, examining exactly the kind of imagery that I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post; but in order to make her argument she needs to illustrate what was shown.)

The other reason I’m sympathetic to student-driven demands for content warnings is that, as teachers, we want students to be thinking deeply about what they’re learning. Being able to make serious proposals about changes to teaching means that students must have thought about what the content, structure and methods of teaching already are and how those knits together into a system of knowledge.

Last year, for instance, economics students at Manchester formed a society that called for a revised Economics syllabus with a greater and more critical range of theoretical frameworks, and SOAS students have similarly written a report asking for gender analysis to be integrated into Politics and Development teaching. To me, this is evidence of precisely the kind of critical thinking that the humanities and social sciences strive to develop, even though they’re uncomfortable situations for a department to be in.

Angus Johnston, a historian of US student activism, writes that after this year’s controversies, he’s decided to use content notes in his syllabi where appropriate – not in any way to change the way he teaches, but to clarify the approach that he already has. This is the way that I’d see content notes as well, and next year I’ll probably expand mine along his sort of lines to try and say more about what I aim for my teaching to be like. The purpose isn’t to signal to certain students that some of the module content ought to be off limits for them; rather, it’s to continue to meet the stated outcomes for everybody’s learning while making the material as accessible as I can.

[1] This has been continuing since I wrote the original version of this post on 6 July, so some of the links in this post now point to articles that appeared after the 6th.

[2] In the first version of this post I linked to Liam Bechen’s response at this point as a critique of this part of Halberstam’s argument. Collado’s post has appeared in the meantime and I’ve worked it into my text because she’s someone who has been directly harmed by the slur that Halberstam argues isn’t a problem. It’s also worth reading Tobi Hill-Meyer’s response to Halberstam which provides some more context about the specific incident Halberstam was referring to in that section.

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10 thoughts on “Disturbing material in the classroom: on content notes and trigger warnings in teaching

  1. Thank you for this information-filled well-written piece. As someone who occasionally suffers from “triggers” (though only very rarely nowadays), I found this useful and informative. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Having read your post I am still at a loss as to what your opinion is on the topic. Do you think student demand to be warned about content they may encounter is justifiable?

    Personally, I think its not. Students signing up for a course have in most cases adequate information as to what they can expect. And if they do not – well, that’s exactly what they came in for – to learn. I assume you’re talking about university students, and I think that an 18, 19 or 20 year olds that have been exposed to news and media for a couple of decades can be safely assumed to be familiar with the world as a (sometimes) evil, nasty place. If they are not – then their parents and school teachers have failed in preparing them for life in a place that is not always giving you a “trigger warning” about the next thing that might be uncomfortable to you.

    Its a slippery slope to cushioned environement where students will be able to cherry-pick what they learn. Any content can be labelled “offensive” – where to draw the line? Will book publishers be required to put a list of what can be encountered on the cover for readers that can be disturbed by the content?

    I think that if a course contains disturbing material, it can be included in the course description. But I think being too specific about what it is that makes it disturbing is a step too far. After all, students that are disturbed by whatever material they are exposed to can and should be proactive. They need to be aware of their limitations and sensitivities and doing what they can to deal with them in their life – including in the class room, without demanding a constant heads-up in advance. And I believe its their responsibility, not their teachers.

  3. I taught in the days of aids, when it first reared its ugly head, it was a discussion we avoided in the classroom. It was current events and scared the crap out of most. It was like talking about the plague in a classroom in the thirteenth century. Not only were the students confused but the teachers were also. I empathize with you for I have been there.

  4. I live with triggers on a daily basis, so this was an insightful blog to read. However, I wonder if there’s a point where pushing past certain triggers can be necessary for healing? I suppose that would depend on what the trigger is. Certainly a woman suffering from PTSD from being raped shouldn’t be required to read a book containing graphic rape scenes, but what about pushing through smaller triggers? For me, this means not leaving a public space if I hear my abusive ex’s favorite song playing, but telling myself there’s no power in it anymore.

    1. What if a book containing graphic rape scenes is the subject of the course? I’d say this is a matter for the woman herself to deal with, perhaps with her therapist and family, not her teachers. With all the respect for the trauma’s people have, I don’t think its the job of university lecturers to protect their students from the world and themselves.

      1. If students didn’t know that it was coming up, they wouldn’t be able to take whatever the steps were to get support that they knew they needed. I don’t see this as artificially keeping students away from things, but about giving them as much information as possible so that they can make their own decisions responsibly about how they want to handle it. For those who don’t need the advance knowledge, great, but providing it makes a big difference for those who do.

      2. That reminds me of Prak from the Hitchhiker’s guide – http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Prak

        Giving as much information as possible results in a flood of information, some of which may be relevant to some people, but most of it completely useless for most people.

        I wonder whether the whole issue is an American one, driven by fear of law suits for emotional damage. Would be interesting to see a USA-Europe comparison of the issue of trigger-warnings.

  5. Thank you for this. I was one who benefited from knowing in advance if the “tough topic du jour” would be something I found to be triggering. I could handle it fairly well with that notice; it was only if I was blindsided or caught unawares that I ended up with anxiety and other issues. I tried to remember that as I went through college – in a psych class, for instance, I cleared with my professor before doing a presentation on self-injury, and my first slide was in fact a trigger warning on the topic. A few students thanked me for that warning and said that like me, were fine with the advance notice.

  6. I appreciate the clarity with which you articulate these issues. I hear the phrase bandied about, but have been out of academic life long enough to be unaware of the debate. Thank you.

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