The role of trigger and content warnings is under constant discussion at colleges and universities. From student petitions requiring that professors give trigger warnings on course syllabi, to debates about the responsibility of professors in alerting students about upsetting materials, this issue is pressing on educators’ minds.
In March 2023, at Cornell University, the student assembly voted to require the official adoption of a trigger warning policy. The resolution was almost immediately vetoed. This incidence, amongst many others at institutions of higher learning, prompts questions including, but certainly not limited to: What are the roles of trigger warnings and content warnings on course syllabi? How do they help students, and what are other holistic ways to support students and faculty tackling challenging subject matter in class? Although there may not be a clear answer for this multifaceted issue, there are considerations for professors and instructors to put into practice in their classes.
Selecting Course Materials with Intention
The question of how to select, introduce, and navigate literature that deals with challenging topics is not new to any classroom setting. Teachers at the high school and elementary level are especially conscientious of the appropriateness of the literature in their curriculum and how that material meshes with students’ developmental stages. At the collegiate level, however, students are considered adults; the difficulty of course material increases in both content and rigor.
Amy E. Glaser, Licensed Professional Counselor, with over twenty years of experience in practicing therapy, observes that young adults in college today seem “especially aware of how their past traumas continue to impact them,” and “they’re calling for an increase in mental health support at their schools.”
Discussions over what is and isn’t appropriate to bring into a college-level course have always been present and are ever-evolving. The language of “trigger warning” and “content warning” is relatively new, and, in the context of higher education, borrows from clinical language regarding PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Glaser notes that symptoms of PTSD can include flashbacks, during which an individual “feels as though they are experiencing a past traumatic event in the present.” Flashbacks are often caused by “triggers.” A trigger can be anything that sends an individual into a flashback. In addiction terminology, a trigger is also used to describe anything that can lead to an addictive behavior.
As education and awareness of mental health disorders continue to grow, it only makes sense that college students are thinking critically about how they are impacted by what they learn and discuss in class. This heightened awareness, in turn, has demanded intentionality in the presentation of course materials.
Evaluating the Benefits & Limitations of Trigger Warnings
Ideally, content warnings help students to prepare if subject matter would be triggering or upsetting to them to the point that they cannot engage in their studies. If a student needed an accommodation, it would also give them time to go through the necessary pathways, such as therapy to treat underlying trauma, before starting their coursework. However, the effectiveness of these warnings, in isolation, to prevent emotional distress is uncertain.
Ms. Glaser suggests that at the beginning of a class, professors could prompt students to identify what their “action plan” will be if they encounter something triggering or disturbing to them. If a student needs to leave the room, that’s fine, but do they know what they will do when they leave? Having an action plan in place would help secure the safety of students who are distressed and create a constructive way to handle the heat of the moment in a classroom.
Glaser also shares that in the treatment of PTSD, removing exposure to triggers is not necessarily helpful for healing and that protocols for treating trauma vary depending on the treatment model being used and the patient.
A clear limitation of content warnings in an academic setting is that the definition of what constitutes triggering material is nearly impossible to define. Furthermore, anticipating everyone’s triggers presents an enormous challenge for educators. Noting these limitations, are there additional ways to support students and create a classroom that prepares students to discuss challenging topics?
Creating a Supportive Classroom Community
No matter how effective they may or may not be, trigger warnings can’t solve everything. In fact, they may act as a band-aid on deeper issues and discussions or be most effective in tandem with other strategies. Building a strong classroom community and a culture of respect is a way to support students and faculty alike.
Dr. Kate Sjostrom, senior lecturer and associate director of English education at the University of Illinois Chicago, offers her approach to encouraging positive communication in her classrooms. “I encourage student surveys and community building activities first thing in a class,” she says. “I also give specific invites before specific texts when I know a topic could be tough. That said, I recognize that I can’t predict all the ways texts can hit students, which is why initial relationship building is so important.”
Regarding her students who are preparing to going into the teaching field, she says, “When I assign literary texts to the pre-service teachers with whom I work now, I talk them through my process of text selection and share with them language I use for giving students a heads-up about topics to come and inviting students to share concerns with me. I did this before I had the ‘trigger warning’ language but now discuss in those terms, too.”
Applying Warnings & Referral to Campus Resources
The role of trigger warnings in higher education is a complex topic to look at from many angles, including administrative policy, mental health services, student preferences, heightened awareness of mental health issues that affect student bodies, and more. Trigger and content warnings are a piece of a much larger network of campus resources, including counseling services, that support the well-being of students and faculty.
By examining how warnings can help and their limitations, institutions of higher education — as well as individual educators — can make more informed decisions for everyone’s educational benefit.