Friday, April 18, 2014

Trigger warnings and why they matter

Trigger warning: references to sexual assault, violence, and PTSD. 

I've been following some of the online articles recently about trigger warnings for course content, especially in light of the currently tabled trigger warning policy at Oberlin College and UC Santa Barbara. (Sidenote: I absolutely agree that the Oberlin faculty should have been consulted more fully before a policy was established.) And now I'm frustrated by some of the objections being commonly raised. Academic freedom? Infantilization of students? Not every trigger can be predicted? Or, as one article points out, "There is no trigger warning for living your life."  (Also, you may be interested in reading Roxane Gay's complex and very personal AND POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING essay "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion" BUT make sure you read it all the way to the end.)

While I have plenty of responses in my head to each of those objections, I'll just share my own experiences of using trigger warnings in my courses. Two experiences stand out in particular. 

1) In my English II and 20th-century Literature by Women courses, I've regularly included Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been." If you've read it, you know that there's a scene that not only implies sexual assault but that takes readers through the cajoling and intimidation that lead up to that assault. It's a powerful and frequently anthologized story, and it's great for discussing literary concepts like symbolism, character development, epiphany, and exposition, as well as discussing women's roles in society. BUT, it has significant potential to trigger survivors of sexual assault and abuse. So I use a trigger warning (written in the Course Calendar and verbal in the class meeting prior to the day it will be discussed), and I include an optional reading for anyone who chooses not to read it because of the potential trigger. I've had several students, sadly too many, thank me individually afterward for providing that trigger warning, usually because they had similar experiences. In one case, a student came up to me after everyone else left and said that she really appreciated the warning ahead of time and the opportunity to choose. She explained that she'd been through therapy, and she'd come to grips with what had happened to her. So she chose to read the Oates story anyway--but she was able to brace herself for it, not blindsided by it. And she was able to appreciate how well the story conveyed the experience. It's not my place as an instructor to force students to "face their trauma," especially in a literature class, which is not a therapy session. It's not my place as an instructor to re-traumatize students by making them re-live their own horrors so I can teach them literary concepts. 

2) Similarly, I regularly teach Tim O'Brien's short story "The Things They Carried," which is also frequently anthologized separate from the book with the same title. I also frequently have students who are former military veterans, too many of whom are suffering PTSD. O'Brien's short story has significant potential to trigger vets. One semester, I had such a student who specifically asked me to provide him with warnings if any potentially triggering readings were to come up. So I gave a warning when assigning the O'Brien story. As with the previous anecdote, this student likewise thanked me for the warning and likewise read the story. In fact, it was perhaps the single most deeply affecting reading for him that semester. But, again, he was able to brace himself. He was able to decide what he was ready for. And both his own reading and his contributions in class discussion were powerful and ultimately positive because he was prepared for it in advance. 

I realize many of the objections to trigger warnings are due to the extension of such warnings to more nebulous things (more of the "-isms" like racism, sexism, ableism, etc.). Personally, I'd rather err on the side of warning students of some potentially traumatizing content elements than not. No, we can't know what might trigger a student. No, we can't protect them from their lives. But, for instance, even TV shows include notes of what can be potentially problematic (violence, language, etc.) And that's primarily for entertainment, for voluntary experiences, rather than a compulsory experience like so much college course material is. Someone who is, for instance, triggered by having someone behind them can actively take steps to minimize those occasions, even if they can't avoid such occasions entirely--they can choose to go through therapy to address such triggering. They have agency over their psychological health. It takes so little for me to give a brief warning, a brief heads up, in class and in writing--why should I as their instructor not offer them that level of agency in my courses? 

For these students I've described, and for many others like them, I will continue to use trigger warnings and to offer alternate assignments in my courses. These students are bright and thoughtful and dedicated, and they get to decide for themselves. Sure, I could just remove such stories from these courses, but they can clearly be powerful for students, even students who could be triggered. They can perhaps be especially effective for students who've shared similar experiences, as long as they can go into these works with their eyes open. I certainly don't want to re-traumatize these students myself in the name of academia when so many other potential triggers already exist for them in everyday life. I do trigger warnings for them.

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