Trigger Warnings in Classrooms

I had a unique experience teaching my Evolutionary Psychology class this semester, and see, from a recent article in the New York Times that I am not alone.

[Note: the following post discusses “trigger warnings,” and, therefore, refers to topics that some might find unpleasant to read about.]

The above warning is, more or less, the issue. As the Times reports, campuses across the country are increasingly discussing the question of whether faculty members should warn students ahead of time if topics that might evoke unpleasant feelings might be discussed in class. People who have been traumatized, for example, might find it difficult to hear discussions or depictions of an event similar to the one which they have been involved.

My interest comes from having gotten feedback from my teaching assistants – so my experience, I should be clear, is second hand – that two students in my class were upset that I did not warn them about the content of the class, which included a discussion of research and data on sexual coercion and rape. I gave a presentation not unlike the one that I gave last year, discussing the adaptation/byproduct debate surrounding sexual coercion, and some of the data on victims, about which I wrote a little post.

I was surprised to get the complaints, if for no other reason than I had briefly discussed sexual coercion in the prior lecture, and the one that elicited the complaints was more or less continuing that discussion, which made me feel that students might have been able to predict what I would be talking about.

Another connection for me is that the institution where I received my PhD, the University of California Santa Barbara, has recently been in the news cycle on this issue. Back in February, the student senate asked the university to require warnings from professors when they plan to discuss material that might trigger symptoms of PTSD.

From the two articles that I read, it seems to me that there is actually more than just a single issue here, the question of warnings. In particular, the report in the Daily Nexus, the student paper, includes the point that the senate also wants professors to “refrain from docking points from those who opt out of attending class that day.” Another source indicates that the resolution states that “students who feel they may have a negative emotional response to such content, including distressing flashbacks or memories, should be allowed to leave the classroom or skip class altogether without being penalized.”

The first quote makes it sound like professors are being asked not to penalize people on the basis of attendance. The latter quote makes it sound like the professors are being asked to allow students not to be responsible for learning the material in question.

I myself am unsure where I stand on all of these issues, but it seems to me that this is a topic that might be relevant to people who teach evolutionary approaches to behavior, which includes topics that might be on the list of potentially triggering topics, including rape, intergroup aggression and violence, and so on.

The Times article lays out the arguments from various angles. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to try to minimize unnecessary trauma to those who have experienced unpleasant prior events. It seems to me that the question is how the weight of that concern compares to the arguments on the other side.

I myself don’t feel that it infringes on my academic freedom to tell students in advance what I’m going to discuss. My syllabus is, I admit, a bit sparse, especially compared to others I’ve seen. The week I discussed sexual coercion – in addition to other topics – is listed as “Mating Strategies.” This is, to be sure, vague. I’m not sure I would feel terribly put out to be asked, or even required, to indicate when I was going to discuss various topics, as long as the topics that I had to announce were sufficiently well specified that I could comply without too much trouble.

Of course, I would be a lot less sanguine about being asked to forgo covering material in my class because some people might find it disturbing or offensive. My sense isn’t that this is likely to happen at Penn or elsewhere any time soon. But I think that the risk of some harm to students is outweighed by the potential pedagogical loss of not being able to address particular topics at the behest of an administration. As I say, I don’t think this is yet a serious issue.

To me, however, there is a potentially genuine issue arising from those two quotations above that go beyond the question of warnings. Should be excused from class, and, further, excused from responsibility to learn the material?

I haven’t taken a firm stance on this, but I think I would oppose such policies. In essence, one aspect of the tradeoff seems to be the amount of discomfort saved by excusing such students set against the amount of harm done by excusing them from learning the material. Instructors wouldn’t, more or less, put material in their courses if they didn’t think there was value in learning it. Excusing students, then, undermines the pedagogical mission, which it seems to me ought to be given a great deal of weight. There could, I suppose, arise issues of equity. Are the students not so excused unfairly burdened with having to learn more material? Should there, then, be a some sort of test to qualify for being excused?

As I say, I think this issue might arise for members of the evolutionary psychology community because of the nature of the material that we teach, which includes – among many other topics of course – sex and violence. I would be interested to hear – offline or not – others’ experiences with this issue. My suspicion is that this issue will get increased attention in the near term, and those of us who teach classes might take this moment to reflect on our own views on the topic.

20. May 2014 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 4 comments

Comments (4)

  1. I find discussions of evolution unpleasant, and so I stopped reading this post after the first sentence. I can’t be held responsible for understanding your arguments, but I will happily argue with you about them later to tell you you’re wrong.

    On a more serious note, students should be, and indeed are, entirely free to avoid learning about or hearing certain material if it makes them uncomfortable. What they are not free to do is be free of any and all consequences of that decision. For instance, let’s say that one has recently broken up with their significant other. Seeing that ex might cause some degree of emotional pain. If one wanted to avoid that pain, it might require avoiding certain locations or certain sources of information. You’re allowed to, for instance, not attend a party because you know you ex will be there. However, if other people don’t feel like holding a second party just so you can show up, you might have to forgo the other positive consequences of attendance.

  2. I
    use trigger warnings three times during the semester: Once before
    showing a documentary on pornography that includes blurred scenes of
    simulated sexual violence that relates to a lecture on the links between
    pornography use and sexual assault, once before showing a video of a
    cop shooting an unarmed black suspect for no reason as part of a lecture
    on shooter bias and unconscious prejudices, and once before showing
    some horror clips as part of an inclass demonstration on within subjects
    studies. Also, I note on the cover slide if there will be nudity
    (e.g., when covering the biological underpinnings of sex determination,
    differentiation, and intersex). There have definitely been a few times
    when some girls in class have not been comfortable with the sections of
    the pornography documentary focusing on simulated sexual violence and
    have opted to skip that portion of the video, in one case due to past
    traumatic experience. I think it is natural for people to try to make
    personal connections between their own lives and material in class,
    which can evoke strong reactions for some people with certain
    experiences. Occasional use of trigger warnings isn’t problematic in my
    eyes. Excluding important and relevant material, however, is

  3. Thanks for this post, Rob. I was blithely unaware of the controversy about this until I read your post, which motivated me to read a bunch of other stuff about it.

    It’s worth emphasizing that the reason these are called “trigger warnings” is specifically in reference to PTSD: A rape victim might be (truly) traumatized by watching a graphic video of a rape, or a war vet might be traumatized by a graphic video of warfare. That seems to me a legitimate concern, and although the number of students potentially vulnerable to such PTS reactions to classroom content is (in most contexts) probably quite small, it seems appropriate to issue “warnings” under certain circumstances.

    However, as tends to happen with most such things, the well-intentioned idea of trigger warnings was quickly hijacked for purposes other than the noble causes for which they were originally intended: Now students are coming out of the woodwork claiming that they should be excused “if topics that might evoke unpleasant feelings might be discussed in class,” as you put it. My response to this — not to put too fine a point on it — is, “tough noogies.” The point of a college education is to learn about the world, and as it turns out the world is full of both pleasant and unpleasant stuff. It is not an option to only learn about the stuff you like, and skip everything you don’t. The world is full of unpleasant things: Get used to it!

  4. The potential for traumatic PTSD triggers should be treated like any other learning/social disability. Fair warning of potentially traumatizing topics should be provided up front in the syllabus. Then students can go to the university’s disability center, counseling center (or similar establishments), and get a legitimately produced accommodation letter that they can bring to their instructor. Whether the student would be so significantly negatively impacted by the topic that he or she can be excused from doing any make up work is a decision that can be left up to the counselor/therapist/advisor.

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