Trigger or Content Warnings in Academia

Trigger or Content Warnings in Academia

by Clara Moser

Consider most of the objects you use on a typical day. Almost all of them use cautionary labels in order to avoid liability: pain and sensitivity may occur when using a certain brand of toothpaste, medications have possible side effects and may cause drowsiness or dizziness, alcoholic beverages caution against operating a vehicle under the influence, plastic bags have suffocation warnings, tampon boxes contain a pamphlet on toxic shock syndrome, etc.  All of these labels pertain to circumnavigating bodily harm.

We forget that words and images, as well as objects, have the ability to inflict bodily harm. No thing, material or not, exists free of consequence. This does not mean that we do not use these things, only that we make ourselves aware of their possibilities and act with care.

Mental illness and post-traumatic stress trigger physiological responses. The affect of trauma on our bodies can force us to leave school, jobs, social gatherings, and more, because we may be physically unable to remain in traumatic spaces or have aggressive and persistent physical reactions to stimulus or at random.

For example, my panic disorder causes me to vomit when triggered (something I cannot control even with medication). Sensory experiences, as well as words, can cause me to react this way– a reaction that is chemical as well as emotional. One of my friends experiences a complete dissociation from their body, another develops heart palpitations that feel like a heart attack, and yet another becomes completely mute and frozen. 

This does not mean my friends or I avoid things that scare or trigger us, only that we develop methods of coping and healing. However, that development is neither quick nor immediate and some days my natural reaction is to avoid and protect myself. Other days, I am able to push past it and engage myself fully without anxiety.

A trigger warning or content warning does not shield us from scary ideas. It allows us to ready ourselves before exploring them. Harry Houdini was famously said to have an “iron stomach.”  However, to create the illusion that he could take any punch thrown, he had to prepare himself to handle the blow. When he did not prepare himself to take a punch from J. Gordon Whitehead, it led to his death. Trigger warnings are a way of reckoning, not of avoiding. We use them to open discussion, not to close it.  Providing a trigger warning in curriculum does not excuse individuals from participating in challenging material, it acknowledges the presence of violence in our lives and works to restore a sense of justice. Warnings allow us to calm ourselves so we can best engage and participate in a discussion.

 When an entire classroom has acknowledged the presence of these events in our daily lives, we are better equipped to support those living with trauma so that they can express their views, rather than sitting through a conversation in pain or, god forbid, self-harming later or ending up in the hospital.

Last semester, I took a course on Feminist Performance Art taught by visiting dance professor Ariel Osterweis. In the course syllabus was printed the first trigger/content warning I had encountered in academia:

Please Note:

Danger and safety are both integral to education. I invite you to break free from safe thinking: take risks. Try out ways of thinking that feel weird. Approach strange performances with curiosity. Don’t be afraid to sound stupid. Be brave. At the same time, I invite you to commit, with me, to making our classroom a safer space for us to take these risks. Listen to each other. Help each other think a little deeper or differently. Don’t be afraid to disagree with me or with your classmates, but do it with an attitude of respect. Be mindful of the power we have to inflict damage on others. Be aware of the structures of oppression (racism, cissexism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, and ableism) that can make learning environments unsafe for many. If you anticipate that some material might generate more than reasonably expected discomfort for you, let me know early in the term so we can work something out. In other words, as you embark on this class, I encourage you to be both brave and compassionate. (Adapted from Professor Laura Horak of Carlton University)

This note invited the class into difficult thinking and challenging discussions. It didn’t hide material from the light but trusted us with the maturity to be able to act discerningly and in our own interest. 

As a class, we watched many explicit, violent, and upsetting performances that oftentimes left me feeling sick. Yet, I still went home and wrote a paper about performances that upset me, and was able to determine when a subject matter was one I did not want to engage further with.

After one particularly racist performance piece was shown, many students called the professor out for not providing a trigger warning for that particular video, and some were angered at her for not inserting her opinion as a preface to the piece and agreeing that, yes, it was heinously racist. Two students expressed concern and contacted the professor. 

Osterweis responded immediately, writing:

“In doing my work, I have identified Ann Liv Young as an anti-racist artist who uses a strategy of deliberately offending her audience in a very self-conscious way. But she does so without revealing her knowledge of the subject at hand. In other words, as many of you astutely observed, she just may be always performing, even when she comes to speak to us in class. She allows us to feel disgust toward her as part of her strategy. It is our job as scholars to try to ascertain some of the strategies she calls upon and some of the socio-cultural issues she is identifying by using offensive spectacles as part of her strategy. As you may have noticed, she rarely mentions the fact that she is Native American (and only did so in an intentionally arbitrary way during her performance); I believe this is also a strategy of staging (white) privilege. 

 Nevertheless, by no means would I ever attempt to defend her; it is entirely up to you to make an informed analysis of her work, work that leeches emotion from its viewer. Your reactions are valid and I validate them. 

I always strive to foster a safe environment amidst an ethic of intellectual risk-taking. Thus, material in my courses (especially this one) will be challenging on many levels, and will be differently challenging for different individuals. Each person has an individual threshold for what could be triggering.

I respect you and want you to remember that you have agency here. Your education is your right and your responsibility, and I encourage you to take advantage of scanning the syllabus and/or Blackboard (or class discussion) for material that could be triggering for you and to come to me if you want to check ahead of time (even though I have been clear about content). In taking responsibility for your education, I encourage you to take the time to come speak with me anytime. 

The professor validated student’s experiences while simultaneously justifying her personal opinions and beliefs.  She supported and cared for students while also educating and challenging them by delving into and questioning the intent of the piece and its will to provoke as a means to expose.

While her response was by no means perfect and many were still upset by the video, it allowed us to move forward from the experience with the knowledge of how the piece could cause harm, and how we may support our peers in the future when triggering material is shown. Some students went to Osterweis during office hours to engage in conversation about the piece further, and others wished to move on from and forget the piece completely. Either way, the professor encouraged the conversation to continue while still attempting to protect those who were triggered from further harm.

There is no way to avoid triggering material in daily life. A wolf whistle, fireworks, a motorcycle that sounds like the crack of a gun, someone’s voice which resembles that of an abuser or someone who resembles an abuser, articles, books, newspaper headlines– all have the ability to grab and potentially harm. We cannot sensor and protect everyone from re-experiencing trauma. Triggers, unfortunately, are inevitable. However, in classrooms, where learning remains paramount– why not work to provide a space where all can learn optimally?  One where we can engage with these issues that seep into our lives in a myriad of ways with respect, support, and understanding.

This is not an oversensitive request. It is a request to better connect and empower student to seek justice and employ “an ethic of love” (as famed feminist author Bell Hooks writes) in all areas of our lives.

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