A Professor Weighs in on the Trigger Warning Debate

I haven’t the time nor inclination to get into this increasingly fraught topic (it has been too rough a day to give the apparently big issue its due focus and assessment); let’s just say I was a bit on the fence about the issue.

But the following excerpt of a New Republic article by  offers what I think to be a pretty sensible and balanced take on the matter. 

Between these two extremes—of teachers buckling under students’ demands and of teachers coddling oversensitive students—there’s the reality of teaching. While a miniscule number of colleges and universities have gone so far as to codify trigger warnings for professors, most trigger warnings exist as a pedagogical choice that professors make in situations over which we exercise considerable control. (And have existed as such for much longer than the present debate suggests: While “trigger warning” was not part of my vocabulary as an undergraduate, introductory comments like “we’re going to spend some time today on lynching images, so prepare yourselves for graphic and difficult material” were indeed.)

Professors give warnings of all sorts that, when not explicitly entangled in the national politics of political correctness, amount less to coddling than to minimizing chances of disengagement with material. “Block off more time this weekend than you usually do, since the reading for Monday is a particularly long one”, for instance, is a reasonable way of reducing the number of students who show up unprepared by issuing a warning. “Today we’re discussing a poem about rape, so be prepared for some graphic discussion, and come to office hours if you have things to say about the poem that you’re not comfortable expressing in class”, meanwhile, is a similarly reasonable way of relieving the immediate pressure to perform in class, which stresses out so many students.

Those of us who occasionally use trigger warnings are not as naïve as we’re made out to be; we understand that there is no magical warning that will assuage all anxieties and protect students from all traumas, nor is there a boilerplate trigger warning or trigger warning policy that professors can be reasonably expected to follow formulaically. Rather, trigger warnings are, in practice, just one of a set of tools that professors use with varying degrees of formality to negotiate the give-and-take of classroom interactions. If you take away the media hysteria surrounding trigger warnings, you’re left with a mode of conversational priming that we all use: “You might want to sit down for this”; “I’m not sure how to say this, but…” It’s hardly anti-intellectual or emotionally damaging to anticipate that other people may react to traumatic material with negative emotions, particularly if they suffer from PTSD; it’s human to engage others with empathy. It’s also human to have emotional responses to life and literature, responses that may come before, but in no way preclude, a dispassionate analysis of a text or situation.

I’m not blind to the problems with trigger warnings and hyperbolic political correctness. The examples Lukianoff and Haidt cite are alarming: Harvard law students asking professors not to use the word “violate”; Brandeis students calling even critical acknowledgment of racial stereotypes of Asian-Americans “microaggressions”; Northwestern professor Laura Kipnis being accused of Title IX violations for an article she wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education. But I’m not convinced that we can lay these problems—and by extension, adverse developments in the mental health of college students—at the feet of trigger warnings.


The trigger warning problem isn’t actually a trigger warning problem; it’s what happens when the messy business of teaching and learning, and the complex challenges to students’ mental wellbeing, become flashpoints in the culture wars. The effect of this entanglement is an exaggerated impression of trigger warnings that draws on the most extreme examples, a tactic that mirrors and plays into the very currents of partisan politics that Lukianoff and Haidt lament as a threat to American democracy. Of course, the authors consider trigger warnings to be “bad for American democracy,” too, and call on universities to “officially and strongly discourage” them. Instead of seeking new sources of outrage around trigger warnings, though, we should understand more thoroughly why this particular pedagogical choice, one of so many, has become a national wedge issue. That trigger warnings are rare, and may be of occasional benefit to professors like me who employ them, is too inconvenient a reality for those who are busy waging war on political correctness.

Seems like a matter best left for professors and their students to sort out (and perhaps relevant university authorities), rather than the wider public. What are your thoughts?

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