Are Trigger Warnings Inherently Anti-Education?
Oberlin College tables its trigger warning policy amid criticism that warnings threaten the mission of higher education.
By Colleen Flaherty
Trigger warnings, which are common in blogs but also have begun to appear on college and university syllabuses, are supposed to signal to readers that forthcoming material may be uncomfortable or upsetting. Trigger-warned subject matter—in literature, films, or other texts—usually relates to sexual assault and other kinds of violence, racism, and the like, and advocates say students have a right to know of sensitive material in advance.
But some critics of trigger warnings say that higher education is rooted in confronting uncomfortable ideas and experiences. And more practically, critics say, it’s nearly impossible in classes with students with differing sensibilities to define what deserves a trigger warning.
Given the lack of consensus on trigger warnings in the classroom, it was perhaps unsurprising that the extensive trigger warning policy Oberlin College published in its Sexual Offense Resource Guide proved controversial earlier this academic year. Faculty members criticized the policy from within, saying it had been drafted largely without their input, even though they stood on the front lines of such a policy.
And criticism flowed in from outside Oberlin as well, with outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic questioning the policy’s implications for academic freedom and for the liberal arts, so central to Oberlin’s mission.
Now, Oberlin has tabled the policy, pending additional faculty input.
“What could trigger off somebody in the abstract is almost anything.”
Marc Blecher, Oberlin College
“This section of the resource guide is currently under revision, after thoughtful discussion on campus suggested that some changes could make the guide more useful for faculty,” Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of the Sexual Offense Policy Task Force, said via email. “As the resource guide has always stated, the task force values both academic freedom and support for survivors of sexualized violence. We do not see these as contradictory projects, but rather that both are necessary to create an appropriately challenging and effective learning environment.”
Oberlin’s sexual offense policy page for faculty contains a similar message under the heading “How can I make my classroom more inclusive for survivors of sexualized violence?”
Until recently, however, that heading gave faculty members lengthy and explicit guidance on the topic. (Oberlin officials note that the policy was to recommend trigger warnings, not to require them. Critics saw even a nonmandatory policy as raising issues about academic freedom.)
It advised faculty members to “[u]nderstand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings.” It defined a trigger as something that “recalls a traumatic event to an individual,” and said experiencing a trigger will “almost always disrupt a student’s learning and may make some students feel unsafe in your classroom.”
“Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” the policy said. “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.”
The policy said that “anything could be a trigger,” and advised professors to “[r]emove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”
In the event that a work is “too important to avoid,” the policy said professors could issue a trigger warning by avoiding “spoilers” but giving a “hint about what might be triggering about the material,” and explaining its academic value.
For example, it said, “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
The policy also said faculty members may “[s]trongly consider developing a policy to make triggering material optional or offering students an alternative assignment using different materials.”
Marc Blecher, a professor of politics and East Asian studies at Oberlin who has been one of the policy’s most vocal critics, said in an interview that many faculty members were surprised to see the intricate trigger warning policy upon publication. The task force’s work had been mentioned in earlier faculty meetings, he said, but because it bypassed established channels for curricular proposals—elected faculty committees—professors were caught off-guard.
The task force included one vice president who is also the dean of students; three deans, including Raimondo (who was appointed as a faculty member before she was named dean); and three students and two recent alumni.
Beyond questions of shared governance, Blecher said the problem with the policy and trigger warnings generally is that “what could trigger off somebody in the abstract is almost anything.” That means that professors in all kinds of disciplines could have to rethink what they teach and how—and how to warn students about it ahead of time.
Referring to language in the tabled policy, he said, “it had this long list of ‘isms,’ so you’d end up having to fill your whole syllabus with their advice or suggestions, depending on what you’re teaching.”
As to the policy’s alternative reading suggestion, Blecher added, “What are you going to do, have two syllabi?”
Blecher said several dozen professors expressed similar sentiments at a recent meeting for concerned faculty members. Others raised new points, he said, such as whether highlighting sensitive material in advance could worsen its impact on students, and that professors may want students to “feel the shock” of such material for pedagogical reasons.
But not all professors are openly opposed to the policy, and a recent editorial in Oberlin’s student newspaper, the Oberlin Review, called the argument that trigger warnings interfere with academic freedom “flawed.”
“Trigger warnings exist in order to warn readers about sensitive subjects, like sexual violence or war, that could be traumatic to individuals who have had past experiences related to such topics, not to remove these subjects from academic discussion,” the editorial says. “They do not ‘glorify victimhood’; instead, they validate the life experiences of certain members of our community and allow individuals to make informed decisions.”
“[W]hen students feel so upset by memories tied to a particular subject that they feel they cannot participate in that dialogue, a process integral to liberal arts education is interrupted. Trigger warnings are a viable method of alleviating these situations. Ideally, individuals who are part of an academic institution should be challenged and forced to articulate and defend their perspectives, but in order to have a fruitful discussion about these topics, as many people as possible need to feel comfortable participating.”
The editorial does, however, acknowledge the “problem of how to effectively create these spaces.”
In his own classroom, Blecher said he’s used verbal warnings about a violent murder in a film he was about to show. So while he’s not categorically opposed to trigger warnings, he said, “I think you just rely on sensitivity and common sense.”
He added: “Trying to codify it is very hard.”
Blecher said it wasn’t yet clear how faculty feedback would be solicited for an amended trigger warning policy, but that Oberlin seemed to be “sincerely” addressing the matter, including through the recent faculty meeting.
Raimondo said that throughout the review process of the offense policy, “the task force has solicited faculty input along with other members of the Oberlin community.”