Trigger Warnings: Considerations for a More Learner-Centered Environment

Todd Zakrajsek University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Trigger warnings caution that a particular subject matter will be addressed in class and the material may be distressing enough to “trigger” a memory of a traumatic event. At the surface, giving such advance notice is innocuous; yet, the use of trigger warnings is hotly debated in higher education. Ironically, this debate has been among faculty and administration, with students less involved in the discussion. A recent study in medical education showed only 11% of the students surveyed even knew the term (Beverly, et al, 2017). Students who have seen trigger warnings used were evenly split between finding the warnings helpful, being indifferent to the warnings, and finding the warnings detrimental to education. The practice of giving students advance warning about sensitive topics has drawn criticism by those who argue using trigger warnings coddles students in a way that stymies education, limits academic freedom, and censors student-faculty discussions (Lukianoff & Haidt 2015). Additionally, critics voice concerns that this practice is consumer driven rather than pedagogically based and may even put faculty at risk for punitive action. Supporters of trigger warnings; however, take a fundamentally different perspective. Advocates note this process allows students to more effectively engage in sensitive discussions by giving them notice that sensitive material will be presented or debated (Manne, 2015). Those promoting the use of trigger warnings propose that although using trigger warnings benefit all students, these caution statements specifically benefit marginalized students who otherwise may be emotionally or physically debilitated during select classes. When evaluating the use of trigger warnings, faculty must question what’s really gained by using trigger warnings versus the extent to which trigger warnings stifle academic dialogue? Trigger warnings, like all strategies to promote student learning, have multiple perspectives and implications to consider. Considerations for Faculty As faculty members, there is no way to know the emotional and physical traumas our students have previously endured. Yet, statistically we know the prevalence of rape, physical abuse, chemical dependency and other social problems in the general population; and as such, it is safe to assume that our students bring these experiences with them to campus. There are several ways to implement a trigger warning. For example, faculty members have the option to identify sensitive material in the course syllabus, giving students advance notice of the content addressed. This is similar to the motion picture rating system that alerts viewers that the movie contains adult content or language, graphic language, violence, nudity, or strong sexual content. Faculty members may also alert students at the beginning of a specific class period that the discussion that day will contain sensitive topics. This is similar to pop up ads projected in TV programs just prior to a graphic scene that is about to occur. Using trigger warnings increases transparency in the classroom as well as serves as a caution for lesson planning. Handling specific content with a trigger warning provides an opportunity for faculty to model professional communication, critical thinking, empathy, as well as compassion. Trigger warnings remind faculty to prepare for presenting sensitive content with purposeful guided discussion. In this example, broadly speaking, trigger warnings are a mechanism for creating an environment where all students come to class prepared to: hear and share current descriptive definitions, facts, and statistics; examine social implications and interventions that will provide students with a deeper understanding of the subject matter; increase communication skills, develop understanding, and promote personal growth addressing both the cognitive and affective domain. Considerations for Students Science tells us one cannot processes or retain information accurately during periods of distress, fear, or panic. Giving advance notice of sensitive material allows affected students to emotionally and physically prepare for the class. Incorporating trigger warnings may be the first step to encourage students to adequately prepare in advance for class (Manne, 2015). For those students whose personal narratives include an experience with the identified subject matter, trigger warnings let them: employ coping skills before, during, and after the class as a means to manage their emotional and physical response to the content; prepare physically for the class, e.g., wear comfortable, soothing clothing, use prescribed medication if necessary, and plan self-care time before or after class; and prepare emotionally, by perhaps contacting a support person before or after class. Likewise, students who do not have a personal experience with the topic, but most likely hold pre-formed opinions regarding the emotionally charged topic, also benefit from the incorporation of trigger warnings. For these students, trigger warnings provide an equally useful message to prepare for class in a way that allows them to: think about constructing and sharing their discussion points respectfully; come to class ready to speak aloud as well as equally ready to actively listen; be open-minded when considering new facts or counter-arguments; take time to consider a different point of view; and gain empathy for others’ experiences. The distinction is that trigger warnings are a means to encourage learning by all students in a compassionate, caring, and dignified manner. Trigger warnings do not give marginalized students an advantage, nor are they “given a free pass” to avoid sensitive material. Addressing sensitive material from an angle that promotes individual well-being and dignity is a desirable aspect of reasoned debate and dialogue. Learner-Centered Teaching Environment When compared side by side the arguments for using trigger warnings or for abolishing trigger warnings is less an issue of legality so much as it may be a struggle between two different sets of convictions. The direct comparison of the two different teaching stances is clear: the former embraces a learner-centered, nurturing approach which encourages personal growth while respecting individualism, promoting dignity, and recognizing understanding as power. The latter approach reflects a traditional teacher-student relationship in which the expert faculty knows best with an emphasis on knowledge as power, and the belief that the student will have to learn to survive in the classroom if they are ever going to make it out in the “real world.” The decision to use trigger warnings reflects greatly upon one’s own beliefs and value system as an instructor. Deep at the core of this debate is both sides firmly believe in what is best for students. Higher education requires that difficult concepts be addressed. The real question at hand is: As an educator, how best can I: introduce sensitive and potentially traumatic material, to a varied group of individuals, from vastly different backgrounds, and in a way that is maximally conducive to learning? Consideration of the individual characteristics and experience(s) of the faculty member, the content being taught, the way in which the content is learned, and student characteristics must also be taken into account. There is no easy answer to this debate, and I would challenge anyone who claims there is one definitive way to go for all courses, with all students, and in all situations. As with any contemporary challenge, over time we will find that the best practices will come from reasoned discussion and debate. Discussion Questions 1. What do you see as the primary concerns/benefits of using trigger warnings or not using trigger warnings? 2. How might one best introduce sensitive material in a way that holds students responsible for the information and the discussion, yet minimizes the shock and fear that can inhibit processing of that information? 3. Who, or what office, on campus might be of assistance in helping you to design or think through the use of a trigger warning? 4. What resources exist on your campus for students who have a very negative reaction to course material? References and Additional Resources A guide to feminist pedagogy from Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from https://my.vanderbilt.edu/femped/ Beverly, E.A., et al., (2017). Students’ perceptions of trigger warnings in medical education. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 1-10. Lukianoff, G. & Haidt, J. (Sept. 2015). Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ Manne, K. (September 19, 2015). Why I use trigger warnings. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html?mcubz=0

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