Some followup from my earlier discussion of this topic. My friend Keffy Kehrli, on twitter and in private conversation, emphasized the difference he sees between trigger warnings and content warnings. It’s a distinction I hadn’t thought about, but I think it’s a valuable one. A trigger warning implies an assumption of responsibility on the part of the teacher for particular traumas the students might have, and also reinforces the false idea that triggering is a predictable phenomenon. A content warning, on the other hand, is a way of being sensitive to the potential for troubled responses to difficult material, but still leaves the responsibility for self care with the student. Now that this distinction has been pointed out to me, I agree with Keffy that content warnings seem more appropriate than trigger warnings, and all of my thoughts in support of trigger warnings apply as well or better to content warnings.
Brittney Cooper published an essay in Salon titled, “No Trigger Warnings in My Class: why you won’t find them on my syllabi.” Cooper worries that trigger warnings will stifle education. She writes, “this call from students to censor their own education before they even receive it is designed to keep them from being challenged,” and makes several meaningful points about the importance of a classroom being a place where preconceived notions are questioned. I have two responses to Cooper’s article. First, that I also don’t think trigger or content warnings belong on a syllabus, for the same reasons she mentions. I think they should be part of classroom discussion. Second, a warning isn’t an invitation for students to excuse themselves from crucial material. In the anecdote I shared before, the triggering concepts were entirely unrelated to those that were pedagogically relevant to my class. If I, like Ms. Cooper, were a professor of gender studies classes, then content warnings for things like rape or racism wouldn’t be offered so students could ask for alternate assignments, but so students could determine if the class itself was right for them. Those who took the class would still be required to engage on difficult issues. And I’m personally not comfortable asserting that those who chose not to would be “censoring their own education before they receive it” as opposed to engaging in reasonable self-protective measures. Young though they may be, college students are adults, and deserve the benefit of the doubt that they are competent to design their plans of study.