Students seek trigger warnings for disturbing class content

Some students want instructors to issue warnings about potentially upsetting content used in teaching materials or discussions.

Trigger warnings are not mandatory in university classrooms. Photo: Rachel Richard

When Sage Beatson sat down in her Canadian literature class at Dalhousie University last year, she found herself encountering vivid descriptions of a violent rape. Without warning.

The class was assigned Ray Smith’s “Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada,” his 1969 collection of short stories. Towards the middle of the book, the author suddenly delves into an unexpected rape scene in one of the stories only to proceed with more benign accounts of life in Cape Breton.

“I was disturbed enough to be stopped in my tracks and to be thinking about it for the next few days,” Beatson says.

Her objections in class to the unexpectedly graphic discussion were largely met with silence from her fellow students after the reading. The professor not only failed to warn his students about the content of the reading but also to tactfully address the issue of sexual violence in class — thus worsening Beatson’s unease.

“I thought maybe I was in the strong minority,” says Beatson. “And that people were judging me for being oversensitive or assuming that I was being a victim.”

Beatson isn’t alone. Students as far as the University of Minnesota want their school to implement trigger warning policies. The same can be said for the University of California, Oberlin College and Rutgers University. They’re used liberally on blogs and social media and they’re gaining momentum in academia. Slate even dubbed 2013 as the “Year of the Trigger Warning.”

Anika Roberts-Stahlbrand, the King’s Student Union’s external vice-president, says the union has heard complaints from several students in the last few months and takes them seriously. The issue was briefly addressed during the union’s last student council meeting.

“We want to be able to facilitate everyone, Roberts says. “Students [should be] able to safely and productively participate in academic life here.”

She says it’s the type of issue the KSU would normally collaborate on with the university’s equity officer, Kim Kierans, who is also the institution’s vice-president.

“There is no explicit policy concerning trigger warnings, Kierans says. “I think this is something we obviously need to address.” Since King’s doesn’t have a police regarding trigger warnings, their use is left to the discretion of instructors.

Censoring academia

A trigger warning is a verbal or written alert that precedes disturbing subject matter, such as a graphic description of sexual assault. They’re employed to alert readers to a potentially traumatic subject matter.

Their use allows for the participation of the full audience in discussions of potentially taboo topics. A warning is not intended for censorship purposes. If professors include a trigger warning before a lecture, they’re bound to address the problematic issue it contains instead of bypassing it entirely.

This delicate matter raises the question of whether or not it’s possible to discuss distressing issues such as sexual assault in an academic setting — as easily as one would with grammar — without considering the potential harm to students. There’s even a debate among King’s students over their use.

Teri Boates, a student at King’s, wants instructors to issue trigger warnings before lectures so students can better prepare in advance. She says she experiences additional anxiety when she’s singled out by her peers when she leaves a class because of triggering content. While she believes life can’t be always be censored, certain topics deserve “more sensitivity and care.” This belief is shared by many students at the university.

“There are a lot of general topics that really require trigger warnings,” says Alexandra Trnka, a student at King’s. She says instructors are insensitive if they think they’re not necessary.

Concern over mental health

Trigger warnings can prevent further disturbance to people who suffer from mental health disorders. People who have experienced a traumatic experience often suffer for mental health conditions such as panic attacks or post-traumatic stress disorder. Unexpected references to their initial experience — whether it be sexual assault or violence — can trigger symptoms of their mental health problems. Zealand Fernandez is a student who suffers from vasovagal attacks and supports the use of warnings ahead of time to prevent unexpected triggering information in class.

“I know that leaving and staying [in class] can both be terrifying,” says Fernandez. “But warnings help me mentally prepare and get through my attacks.”

Katie Douglas, a King’s student with PTSD, also supports the use of trigger warnings as a means of dealing with her illness. She finds them “exceedingly useful” in her preparation for class discussions. The lack of warning about triggering content has hindered her participation in class in the past.

She wants trigger warnings to be included in class syllabuses because she says triggering content shouldn’t have a negative effect on any students, nor should it limit class content.

Not everyone agrees on their use. While King’s student Danielle McCreadie accepts there should be warning for universal triggering topics — such as graphic content, violence or rape — she thinks it is the ultimately the responsibility of individuals to deal with their own sensitivities.

In the best of cases, McCreadie believes “triggers should be worked through so one can live without them and the negativity they bring.” This would be ideal if mental health services had the capacity and the funding to help every student in need. But they don’t, and the number of young people demanding mental health services is increasing.

Trigger warnings are only a fraction of the problem when it comes to student mental health. James Pottie, a student co-ordinator for King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective, believes that the university’s counseling services are “severely underfunded” and understaffed. However, students seeking counselling services at Dal face long wait times and a cap on 10 sessions.

Zoe Brimacombe, a student and KSU’s member at large, agrees. She says if the school wants to support the mental health of its students, it should make sure they don’t have to expectedly face triggering topics in their classrooms by adopting a policy on the use of trigger warnings.

“If we don’t allow people the opportunity to feel safe in their classrooms, Brimacombe says. “We are failing to support our students.”

Pottie says that if students are talking about trigger warnings in academia, it means it’s an issue.

“Hopefully this conversation will encourage others to speak out with vigor to denounce the current system and demand change,” says Pottie. “The mental health and well being of multiple student bodies depends on it.”




One thought on “Students seek trigger warnings for disturbing class content

  1. While I agree more needs to be done to address mental health issues across the country (and let’s face it, the world), trigger alerts could be a slippery slope towards censorship. Unfortunately, upsetting things like rape, murder, and assault do happen, and I argue that the mainstream discussion of these topics should take place, rather than suppressed. In an academic setting, avoidance of topics that could be labeled as uncomfortable or distressing can limit understanding, and ultimately avoidance of tough topics can be dangerous to academic integrity. While I truly feel for sufferers of PTSD and the like, individuals should empower themselves to bear witness to the deepest injustices of society as communicated through the academic setting. Sadly, those who have been assaulted in any way must live with these memories every day of their lives. Learning to cope with this reality is imperative, and I hope that these individuals can find the strength to compartmentalize this fact in academia. Life, though often difficult, strides on: whether there are warning signs along the way or not.

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