The Associated Student Senate of UCSB passed a proposal to require professors to issue trigger warnings on classroom materials. Today, twitter has been fairly active with discussion both for and against such a practice. I’d like to share an anecdote that informs my feelings on the subject.
In 2013 I taught a course for the University of Iowa on writing fantasy short stories. One of the stories I assigned was Karen Joy Fowler’s award-winning story “The Pelican Bar,” which is about a teenage girl forcibly sent to an abusive boarding school in the Caribbean. I assigned the story to spark discussion of the boundaries of the fantasy genre, as the story is structured like a portal fantasy, but contains no definitively speculative element. It’s a fascinating story that reads differently depending on the reader’s own familiarity with fantasy fiction. But, as it happens, boarding schools like the one in the story actually exist. I knew that when I assigned it, but as that wasn’t relevant to my pedagogical purpose it never occurred to me to mention that information to my class. So I was shocked when I received an email from a student which read, “I am incapable of writing any sort of response, or participating in any discussion, concerning Fowler’s ‘The Pelican Bar.’ May I please have a replacement assignment?”
When I read the email I felt sick to my stomach with guilt. I immediately gave the student an alternate assignment, permission to leave the room during discussion, and offered to meet if desired. In our discussion the student let me know that that their past experiences were too close to those depicted in the story to be able to engage with it critically. The student didn’t use the words “trigger” or “PTSD,” but described feelings of panic while reading, the sensation of a “mind racing,” having a “hyper-emotional, fight or flight” response. It was obvious to me that triggering was exactly what had occurred.
I stand by “The Pelican Bar” as an excellent story, and the pedagogical purpose to which I put it as a justifiable one. But if I were to teach it again, I would absolutely offer a trigger warning first. The purpose of my classes isn’t to shock my students or force them to confront/get over their own pasts, it’s to create an environment where the students can engage with the ideas I believe are necessary to learn the subject. If my curriculum has built-in barriers to such engagement, then I’m not doing my job.
The only concern I might have with a proposal like the one at UCSB is the possibility for abuse by the students. But it seems to me that this would be easily preventable. If I, as a professor, offer trigger information, it is then the students’ responsibility to communicate with me in a timely fashion about about their mental health needs so we can work together to accommodate them while still pursuing the goals of the course. Professors already do this in universities all over the country for things like giving extra time on exams to students with ADD diagnoses, or making participation accommodations for students with social anxiety disorders. Sometimes it’s just between the professor and the student, and sometimes it’s in conjunction with the university counseling office. But in either case, this is already part of the professor’s job description. I don’t see why trigger warnings are any different. It’s just an expansion of the number of mental health considerations we’re accommodating. That’s a good thing.