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How trigger warnings could really work

People stroll in front of Stanford Chapel on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. The university cancelled a performance of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” after protests by some students. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
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In his long essay on a supposed resurgence of political correctness, one of Jonathan Chait’s targets was the proliferation of so-called trigger warnings. Commonly presented as notes at the top of articles or course syllabi explaining the subjects of discussion, it’s not unusual to see trigger warnings as a stay-away sign for people who don’t want to read about sexual violence, racism, or other troubling things. And that’s how Chait discussed them. “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma,” he wrote, “an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.”

He’s right, though the Institute of Medicine was talking about combat veterans, writing that “the evidence is sufficient to conclude the efficacy of exposure therapies in the treatment of PTSD.” But what if trigger warnings could facilitate that kind of exposure, helping readers and students brace themselves for encounters with subjects that they might find effective? (It’s worth keeping in mind that triggers are highly specific to individuals, and usually not so broad as a simple subject.)

One of my correspondents, Angus Johnston, teaches at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College. And when I learned he uses a trigger warning–or, as he calls it, a content note–on his syllabus, I asked him to send it to me. The most recent version of the note looks rather different from the one-line warnings that appear at the top of blog posts across the Internet:

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you are aware of particular course material that may be traumatizing to you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have with it before it comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to such material with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually to discuss the situation.

What struck me about the statement was its focus on accountability. This is not a laundry list of subjects that students can use as a checklist, deciding whether to engage or not. It’s a road map to engagement that recognizes that some students may do better when certain material is presented in a different context, or with a little extra help from a professor.

“The really big brouhaha around academic trigger warnings was around exactly the issue that you’re raising, the idea that students could get out of doing certain work by claiming they were triggered. None of that that I have seen was coming from professors. That was all model trigger warnings, all suggested trigger warnings, that were coming from activists or coming from students,” Johnston explained when we spoke about the statement. He suggested there has been an “assumption that if professors implemented them, they would implement them that way. It’s possible that some have, but I haven’t seen much of that.”

Johnston said that his decision to use the content note was inspired in part by conversations with students who have post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses. While campus disability officers had ways to help students with physical disabilities, they were less prepared to help students who were coping with trauma in the classroom. Johnston is very clear that he doesn’t intend to act as a therapist. But if he can provide those students with reasonable accommodations, he’s happy to do it.

“What I am coming from with this is the premise that, in most cases, the expert on how a student needs to deal with a particular issue is going to be the student themselves,” he argues.

Chait quoted an unnamed professor, who said she was afraid of running afoul of students who do want a chance to opt out of certain material, or who might react in unexpected ways to fairly neutral material. Johnston’s approach might not solve these hypothetical concerns. But as a historian of student life, he also thinks that people like Chait should have a little more faith in college students, who might be cancelling certain plays on campus, but have also picked up on nuances their predecessors might have missed.

“One of the things that really strikes me is how far the average student on campus, or how far the average student-activist, has come in terms of being more inclusive and more understanding about issues of identity and less knee-jerk. A decade ago, there was this huge, huge fight between feminists who were objecting to sexism in rock music that was played at a party,” Johston recalled. People who lived through the era of political correctness Chait worries is coming back could only envy “the level of sophistication [at] which that debate would be held today.”