When it comes to the debate around the use of trigger warnings on university courses, my feelings are mixed. While I applaud students’ political investment and concerns with issues of equality and well-being, I also have my own concerns about what the roll-out of trigger warnings could do to teaching – both for students and academics.
I often teach sensitive subjects such as gender, sexuality, and their representations in modern and contemporary visual culture. And because my teaching navigates, and tries to make sense of these topics and their political nature, I am worried about the impact trigger warnings might have on my ability to teach subjects that are simultaneously deeply personal and inherently political.
Students’ arguments calling for the use of trigger warnings are of course grounded on important concerns. They are worried that the use of learning materials depicting violence or its aftermath – be it novels about the horrors of slave trade or artworks addressing sexual assault – might cause students who have experienced traumatic events to be “triggered”. This is when people who have experienced trauma – either directly or indirectly – go through painful “flashbacks”. In other words they relive part or all of the traumatic event after being “triggered”.
But assuming that violent or explicit images will “trigger” students is a rather simplistic view of how trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) actually work. As researchers have argued, anything can be triggering for someone with PTSD – from the odour of a perfume to a song, or an “innocent” pat on the back. So assuming people with PTSD will all be triggered by the exact same experience is overlooking the specificity of their pain and life story. And who am I, as an academic, to decide in advance what is or what is not triggering to others? What right do I have to make such assumptions?
For students who need it, universities already have specific systems in place that allow academics to take into account the particular learning requirements of a particular student. In these cases, academics can provide information ahead of lectures, discuss their individual needs in advance – and even tell them about lecture content if necessary.
These protocols already exist and, when functioning properly as they should, they allow students to be looked after without academics having to make dangerous generalisations on what might or might not be triggering.
And this is important, because one of the fundamental principles of equality and diversity on our campuses is not to assume what students need. As academics we should avoid generalising students’ requirements, and always discuss individually with students what their actual learning needs are.
Then there is also the risk that trigger warnings might end up leading to certain materials no longer being allowed in our classrooms. Materials that have, for decades, been themselves so central to discussions of violence, gender inequality, racial discrimination, or sexuality.
In that way, trigger warnings – if taken up by senior management and rolled out across lecture theatres – could well end up jeopardising the teaching of all those sensitive and yet very much needed topics. And by their very nature, these warnings would almost exclusively target academics teaching on race, gender or sexuality. Topics that I’m sure our student activists would not like to see removed from our university campuses.
As researchers and teachers, we know learning does not happen without challenge and it always involves taking students outside of their comfort zones. If trigger warnings were to become widely used in a university environment, it could lead to students not turning up to classes – meaning they avoid having their preconceptions and views of the world challenged – because they want to remain “safe”.
So while I am fully invested in the pastoral responsibilities that come with my job, while I care for my students and their well-being – and I’m more than willing to address individual learning requirements on a one-to-one basis – I will not adopt trigger warnings when teaching on visual cultures of war, gender, race, or sexuality. Because I want my students to feel challenged. And I want students to empathise with the lives of others which might be different to their own – even if this is at times uncomfortable.