Throughout the last five years, articles and campus discussions of trigger warnings have become commonplace. However, a controversial University of Chicago letter this summer brought the issue to the forefront of college conversations.
The college sent a letter to their incoming freshmen class about a policy of non-tolerance for trigger warnings and safe spaces on campus. The letter quickly incited praise and backlash as a result, some of which came from 150 professors from the University of Chicago who protested their dean’s stance.
For senior Kat Whittenburg, trigger warnings policies are personal.
“I have PTSD, so for me trigger warnings take a much deeper meaning,” Whittenburg said. “When you have PTSD, there are certain things that bring back flashbacks, which can put you out of commission for a while. … To be caught in a flashback is really devastating. It can ruin your entire week. Not only does it make it hard for you to heal, it makes it hard for you to do anything else.”
Director of Counseling Services Janell McGruder defines a trigger as “a reaction to some type of stimuli that causes an individual to flash back to a certain trauma, a certain period of their lives.” Triggers differ from person to person, McGruder explained, and individuals can have different reactions to triggers.
Trigger warnings, then, are “a warning about some subject or materials, or anything that may induce a trigger,” McGruder said. Trigger warnings can also be alternately called content warnings, however content warnings do not have the same implication of being linked to trauma. For example, movie ratings which warn for sexual content or violence are content warnings.
At Knox, professors have the ability to decide whether or not to use trigger warnings in their classrooms. Chair of the History department Catherine Denial makes her policies clear on the first day of class.
“I ask students on the first day that if they want a trigger warning for something to email me, because I don’t want them to have to speak in class about it,” Denial said, who is open about having PTSD herself. “And then if they email me and let me know, I will go through all the texts and assure that I will put warnings on the course classroom pages for anything that has to do with that particular trigger.”
If a student wishes for the trigger to remain private, Denial emails students directly about the content. Denial also gives a general warning students if she believes it might be upsetting to students. For example, in her History of Reproduction class, she warns whenever mentions of sexual assault arise.
Denial makes note to distinguish between being triggered by something and having a “strong emotional reaction,” which Denial said are at times confused with triggers.
“Strong emotional reactions are things that we all have, especially when we’re engaging with texts that are about social justice issues, and things are really angering or upsetting in some way,” Denial said. “And so one of the things I do is work with my students around this issue of strong emotional reactions and how do you anticipate them and work with them and think about how you might handle them in class.”
Other professors hold a different view on trigger warning use. Promoting a stance used by multiple members of the English department, Associate Professor of English Emily Anderson explained why she does not warn her students.
“I don’t use trigger warnings,” Anderson said. “I tell people at the beginning of class that I don’t use them. … It’s difficult to teach literature and film with trigger warnings because so much of the material depends upon the surprise of the thing. So if I told people in advance what is happening, then the effect of the narrative is disrupted.”
However, Anderson added, if a student approaches her and asked to be made aware of certain content, she follows through with that student’s wishes.
“Of course, I always make modifications for any students who have documented needs and I’m also willing to work with students who ask me to give them a heads up about something in particular,” Anderson said. She often recommends students get help from Disability Support Coordinator Stephanie Grimes.
Grimes approaches trigger warnings from a perspective of helping treat the cause of triggers.
“Even as an individual comes in and identifies a trigger, typically what I do in talking to that person and say ‘If this is a trigger for you, what are the things you do with which to address that trigger?’” Grimes said. When it comes to potential problems in the classroom, Grimes encourages students to speak with their professors or, if they have academic accommodations, embed information about their triggers into those accommodations. Grimes also focuses on strategies for students to work through and lessen their reactions to triggers in situations beyond the classroom as well.
Students, like professors, are also split on trigger warning usage in the classroom. Freshman Jared Smith worried about abuse of trigger warnings by students for “intellectual reasons” instead for health reasons to avoid content they did not wish to learn about.
“I feel like in an English class there is always going to be some sort of agitational comment,” Smith said. “That’s kind of to be expected.”
Discussing whether there should be an official policy on trigger warnings, freshman Carly Gilbert said, “If you have problem with something you can go to your professor and say, ‘Hey, I have a problem with this.’ Or if you were upset about something you could go to the Counseling Center. É I feel if [these support systems] weren’t in place I’d be a bit more inclined to have some sort of trigger policy.”
Whittenburg disagreed. “I understand, we’re at college and we cover controversial topics. That’s just the way it is in an educational environment and I’m perfectly fine with that, but for people who have been put through trauma in the past, it’s really good if they are given warning É it can be as simple as okay, I would have you watch this documentary but you can write something else.”
The college does not currently have a trigger warning policy and does not intend to create one. Speaking on this, Dean of the College Laura Behling said, “It really it is at this point left to the faculty. My hope of course is that people are having conversation about, in say department meetings or over lunch, about how we create that respectful campus where students feel both intellectually challenged and safe.”
The majority of people interviewed by The Knox Student agreed that the decision should be left to faculty discretion.
“I think it is cruel to expect our students to have to withstand being triggered in order to get an education,” Denial said, but added that implementing a trigger warning policy would not be the right move. “One of the governing principles of being faculty is that you are free to make the classroom what you want it to be and so it would be the administration overstepping its bounds. I would rather that we had a process of education so people knew why these were so vital to people and then could make a decision on their own.”
Behling recommended weighing the different sides of the argument. “This is not a black and white issue, it’s not a yes or no. I think what people are looking for is a sense that there is a thoughtful campus environment that recognizes people … have had different experiences which are worth recognizing and respecting.”