Hazardous warnings

“Trigger warnings” shouldn’t be required on all class syllabi, but students can request accommodations for class material

Image by: Arwin Chan

Tamarra Wallace, ArtSci ’16

“Trigger warnings” shouldn’t automatically be required in all university classes.

The use of these warnings — a notice to students that class material may cause trauma — has been a contentious topic in academia over the past year.

In March 2014, the student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara requested that the university begin to implement trigger warnings in classes, so students could be alerted about class content before a lecture.

Ohio’s Oberlin College created instructions in spring 2014 on how to include trigger warnings in syllabi — to the dismay of some professors, who saw the instructions as an infringement on their academic freedom.

The directives indicated that professors should place a trigger warning on material that could “disrupt a student’s learning”.

For individual students who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), asking for accommodations for triggering material might be necessary.

Pre-emptively providing blanket trigger warnings for course material, though, isn’t an essential form of classroom accommodations.

Instead of a trigger warning on the syllabus, instructors should discuss course content with the class to see if students feel uncomfortable about course material before it’s taught. Professors should encourage students to come forward if class material may be upsetting.

Dealing with triggering material can be a beneficial learning experience, as long as the subject is written ahead of time on the syllabus and the instructor regularly communicates with students.

University is the ideal time to expand our worldview and understand that not everyone has access to a sheltered life. In dealing with emotional material, we can develop our capacity for compassion.

As a history student, I’ve been regularly exposed to upsetting events like the Holocaust and African slave trade. From reading the course syllabi, it was evident that emotional material would be covered in both classes.

A trigger warning would have been unnecessary in this situation, since the violent nature of the course material was self-evident.

Before watching a violent film, instructors could notify students that they’re free to walk out at anytime and avoid testing too heavily on the film. I’ve taken a history class where the professor warned us about graphic material in a film about misogyny, and to skip certain parts if necessary.

Instructor should use potentially triggering course material to start a discussion.

If there was a book detailing the separation of the protagonist from their family, instructors could ask what students’ emotional response to this scene was. As history students, the more we can relate to our subjects of study, the more we are able to better understand their point of view.

Students from any discipline would benefit from learning material that challenges them. It encourages empathy and compels students to gain a different perspective than what they’re used to. The purpose of higher education is to expose ourselves to new ideas, even if some ideas may be upsetting.

Opponents of blanket trigger warnings in syllabi believe this kind of accommodation isn’t appropriate for all students.

Lisa Hajjar, a professor at Santa Barbara, told the New York Times in May 2014 that a “one-size-fits-all approach” to trigger warnings in classrooms is wrong. She said all students shouldn’t be able to avoid topics that make them uncomfortable.

In an article published in the New Republic in March 2014, Jenny Jarvie wrote that “trigger warnings” can create a fear of discussing uncomfortable topics and characterize a classroom as “full of infinite yet ill-defined hazards”.

Accommodating students who have been diagnosed with PTSD, of course, may require instructors to modify course material or assignments on a case-by-case basis.

Under provincial law, students with disabilities and mental health issues are allowed to receive classroom accommodations. A student with depression may need extra time to complete assignments, and they have the right to request any accommodations they may need.

Trigger warnings could be determined to be a form of accommodation for an individual student with mental health issues. A student with a diagnosed case of PTSD may request an instructor in a gender studies class to place a trigger warning on material pertaining to sexual violence, or to speak prior to a lecture that may cause harm. This accommodation should be treated like any other. The student should make this request at Health, Counselling, and Disability Services (HCDS), who would then notify the professor.

Classroom accommodations can empower students with disabilities to participate in learning on a more equal playing field.

But trigger warnings aren’t necessary for the general student population, since all course material is listed on the syllabus. Instead, regular communication between the instructor and the class is the most effective way to prevent potential trauma.

Aversion to the horrors of human history is a natural response. We should celebrate this part of our humanity by confronting subject manner collaboratively — in the hopes of learning how to prevent atrocities in the future.

This would negate potential harm and allow students to better understand the course material.

Tamarra Wallace is a third-year history major.


classroom accommodations, Mental health, trigger warnings

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