Better Safe Than Sorry?

I’m concerned about the initiatives for college instructors to provide a list of “trigger words,” or words included in a text or discussion that may trigger a student to relive some past trauma. Students behind the initiatives claim that providing a list of these words in advance will help victims of trauma better understand what they will face when working with a class reading. They say that they’re advocating for the voiceless. So-called victims advocates claim to represent the majority, when really they represent from three to five percent of the student population, but because they’re the loudest, the advocates sound like they represent a much larger percentage.

Opponents of this idea claim that providing such a list violates the First Amendment (such lists include the word “violate,” by the way. Using this word might trigger a rape victim to relive the assault). In fact, Oberlin College, the instigator of such a list, has since “tabled” its forward motion to provide these warnings to students. In part, it’s because it’s impossible to tell what might trigger a panic episode, and in part it’s because no instructors were involved in the list’s construction, yet they were in the forefront of those expected to use it.

In college, we try to teach our students to be self-advocates who work toward independence. If we pander to marginalized groups who might be offended by references to trauma (or racism, or any variety of “isms”) within a chosen text, we are enabling hypersensitivity. After all, great works of art and writing are about controversial subjects. Students would be better served if we help them get a wider perspective, and to view things from multiple angles, rather than assuming that because a piece of writing contains some controversy or offensive language, it will automatically cause pain. We should teach our students to confront these issues, and to develop strong points of view that they can defend with logical proof, rather than teach them to cower in a corner, afraid to read anything because it might bruise their delicate psyches.

I teach in a college near three military bases. Many of my students are active-duty or veterans who share the classroom with high school dual-enrollment students, second-career working professionals, stay-at-home parents, twenty-somethings, and immigrants from all over the world. I’ve had some really intense training on sensitivity to triggers, but even after meeting with the students several hours a week, I can’t possibly predict what might trigger someone. One time, for instance, I wanted to start a reading response lesson in a class where students kept getting up and leaving. I warned the class that I didn’t want any interruptions once the lesson started, and that they needed to stay in place once we began. “You can’t leave,” I said. The second those words were out of my mouth, a student stood and left my class. “The nerve!” I thought. Later, I found out that those were trigger words for that student: he had been held for four months inside a compound while he was deployed the previous winter and was told he couldn’t leave. The student explained that he had been advised by his therapist that if he was triggered (by a multitude of things, I discovered), to leave a room immediately before he had a panic attack, rather than suffering through it while remaining in the classroom. It’s a coping skill I wish was more widely used and accepted.

Finding a balance between sensitivity and censorship takes getting to know the students. Instructors should actively engage with their students to create an environment of open-mindedness in which they help students to understand that their reactions to texts are a reflection of how they’re going to react outside of school. Conflict will happen. Things will trigger them to relive past trauma. Having these discussions in a classroom, where triggers are relatively benign, is a healthy way to learn to approach possible conflicts in the real world.

Instructors are not therapists, but we can give our students the skills to examine the things that they read, view and experience more objectively, and to consider the source, background, and context of a situation before snapping to judgment. Hopefully they’ll grow a thicker skin as a result. Rather than creating a “safe space” where the discussion is all mundane, safe topics, I’d rather create an atmosphere where discussion of, and respect for, individual opinions is not only tolerated but encouraged. Students tell me that the class discussion of a chosen text is what helps them understand the point of view of the author. They also claim that other students’ viewpoints help clarify fallacies in the arguments. That’s the whole point of discussions, which in turn makes my students’ response writing more effective—their essays are much clearer and more focused, not to mention balanced, as a result of hearing other people’s opinions, and voicing their own, on the topics I choose to present.

Yes, I know certain things might trigger a flashback or panic episode, but I think formalized trigger warning lists imply that instructors are not to be trusted, and that they are insensitive and uncaring about their students, and therefore must be told how to teach. Or rather, how not to. Choosing the right text or response reading can be tricky, and sometimes a quick warning of, “there’s a rape in this reading” might not be a bad idea. That is something I can manage, and it’s something I do intuitively anyway. But a list of words I have to avoid feels too much like censorship. At some point it needs to become the students’ responsibility to deal with their own reactions to the text. It should not fall solely on the instructor.

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