Trigger Warnings: Academic Freedom or Censorship?

There is a new debate sweeping across college campuses all over the nation. The debate this time is over trigger warnings and whether or not colleges should require them in the classroom. People from all sides of the campus community, from faculty to administrators to students, are weighing in and giving their opinions on the matter.

Trigger warnings are meant to alert students to potentially psychologically-triggering material, whether it be a topic, reading or photo. Typically the warnings are given verbally in the beginning of the class to warn students that there is sensitive material ahead.

However, according to an Atlantic article titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” trigger warnings are expected to be given by professors “if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.” The main difference in the definitions, and why one strays from the actual definition, is that one deals with a strong emotional response, not a psychological one.

“I don’t have strong feelings either way, but requiring them suggests that faculty aren’t smart/decent enough to decide for themselves when to alert students to difficult material,” said sociology professor Dr. Kim Hansen. “On the other hand, that suggestion might actually be valid.  It’s hard, especially for privileged faculty members, to understand or anticipate all the ways in which the material they cover is experienced by every student.”

A few students said they think that trigger warnings are actually helpful to some, however, they do feel that forcing trigger warnings could take away from the classroom experience and their liberal arts education.

“There has to be an openness between students, faculty and staff but also a sensitivity to a student’s situation,” said Communication professor, Dr. Mary Catherine Kennedy. “You have to find a balance between being politically correct and realistic.”

Trigger warnings are used properly in several websites and group meetings for people who struggle with psychological vulnerabilities like PTSD, according to the Atlantic. The use of these warnings helps people brace themselves, and if need be, leave before the troubling material is discussed. Colleges are now requiring trigger warnings to be given for material about race, religion, sexual orientation and politics, among many others.

“I usually warn students before showing a film about death and dying that it may be difficult to handle if they’ve recently suffered a loss and are grieving,” said Hansen. “I’ve also warned students about potential topics they want to explore in research papers.”

An article titled, “Trigger Warnings on College Campuses Are Nothing but Censorship” from the Pacific Standard, said that using trigger warnings in this way can take away from student’s education and ability to learn. Knowledge is, by definition, the trading of ideas, which is the reason a lot of people against trigger warnings use. They claim that by giving the warnings and limiting what they discuss, they are taking away from the student’s classroom experience.

“In terms of the issue of trigger warnings in universities, I feel balance has to be achieved in the classroom,” said Professor Dana Sauers, Institute of Leadership Director and Teaching Fellow. “The university is a place where we seek and testify to the truth and this can be very harsh for some. Being an emotionally-sensitive person myself, I am always careful in the class to be respectful. The best way is to create a trusting and safe environment on day one in order to discuss sensitive issues later. That’s called front-loading in education. It has worked for me.”

These warnings might also create a hostile classroom environment for those who do not believe in what the majority does. According to the American Association of University Professors, trigger warnings can create a “chilly, repressive climate for critical thinking.” This means that for the students who think differently, trigger warnings limit how much of their viewpoint and opinions they are allowed to share because the other students could report it as “triggering.” Unfortunately, there is no way of proving if a student is triggered by what is discussed in class, so if a student says they are affected by the content, it has to go.

Due to the restrictions trigger warnings place on student and teachers alike, they are becoming less like warnings and more like censorship, according to Pacific Standard. Censorship is largely viewed as an infringement on our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, as it places limitation on what people are allowed to discuss in public forums. University heads are, in a way, forcing professors to censor themselves by mandating trigger warnings.

With all this being said, trigger warnings are beneficial to people who have psychological disabilities which can be triggered by sensitive material, if they are used in the correct way. In many cases, students have left or missed classes with triggering information, and teachers have been fully understanding of the situation. Also, some professors do give a warning if the material to be covered is controversial or potentially triggering.

“I have been to several presentations wherein pictures of bodies that have been blown apart by suicide bombing were shown and there was no warning given. That always bothered me so that when there is something I’m showing in class that I think might be disturbing, I let students know in advance,” said Dr. Virginia McGovern, Chair of the Sociology Department. “Also, when we’re discussing race or gender issues, I will warn students beforehand if offensive language is used in a video. It’s a common courtesy as far as I’m concerned.”

So, this begs the question: do you think trigger warnings are beneficial or harmful to the students? Would you prefer to have trigger warnings in the classes here or do you like being able to hear from all different perspectives?

One thought on “Trigger Warnings: Academic Freedom or Censorship?

  • September 28, 2016 at 3:33 pm

    I think trigger warnings are important. This allows for students that know they will not be able to handle the graphic content within the classroom to step out. However, this is not to say the the students within the class will not be affected, as well.

    Why is the focus on the trigger warning, rather than the after-math? There should be more discussion on ensuring that the students leave the classroom having a stable emotional state, rather than the topics not being addressed whatsoever.

    It is important for difficult topics to be discussed- in fact, it is necessary. However, I agree that it is common courtesy to place a warning before-hand, but it is also important to ensure that students are at least informed of where they can go or whom they can speak to on campus if they have been left feeling uneasy due to the discussion.

    I wish this factor would not be left out.


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