Resources: Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

The issue of trigger warnings in the classroom, whether they are useful, attack academic freedom, are to protect our helicopter-parented elite students, or what, has become a fairly important topic in higher ed circles. I’m writing an essay on it now.

Here is a list of resources. Please recommend additional materials.

  • Start with Amanda Marcotte (one of my absolute favorite feminist writers) on “The Year of the Trigger Warning.” It’s from the end of 2013, which suggests that the mainstreaming of trigger-warning is, in fact, relatively new. I always wonder if I’ve just missed it when a new idea suddenly seems everywhere to me, as the “TW” discussion now does.

But what happens when a student is trapped in a classroom where a discussion brings up terrible and traumatic memories? How can a student easily and subtly remove herself from that moment?

I have thought about prefacing our discussions with a trigger warning introduction to the class but I question how effective that would be. By saying that we are going to discuss topics of a sensitive nature that may make some people uncomfortable and offering students the chance to leave, aren’t the very students meant to be spared then singled out and isolated in front of the entire class? While well intentioned, that offer seems useless at best and marginalizing at worst.

The other option? Steering clear of volatile topics in the classroom and playing it safe. But by not talking about harassment, the sorry state of gender equality, and the heroic efforts put forth by activists seems akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There has to be a better way. But how does one work trigger warnings into the classroom lesson plan? How does a teacher effectively and sensitively negotiate topics that require trigger warnings and how are escape options presented in a sensitive and appropriate manner to students whose past traumas follow them into the classroom?

That’s what I have so far on the “origin” of the Trigger Warning – Higher Ed debate. You can also read these Shakesville threads for a general defense of Trigger Warnings: here and here.

Things changed when the media started covering student-driven efforts to mandate trigger warnings in syllabi.

  • The earliest piece I have comes from March, in The New Republic. The author, Jenny Jarvie, culled lots of information from student newspapers. I’d be interested to know if anyone has anything earlier?
  • Scott McLemee, on Inside Higher Ed, worked through teaching a book about rape in the era of the trigger warning. I’m a little confused by this piece, as it seems to conclude that triggering trauma is real then says, nah, no need for warnings as they don’t do much good. Am I reading it wrong?
What interesting pieces as I missing?
Finally, here’s a piece on “Exposure Therapy” – a treatment for PTSD on encounter, not avoidance, of trauma. I offer it just as a counter-model to avoidance. Is all trauma that has triggering episodes a form of PTSD? I think so, but am not an expert. Are you?


In the UK, professor of English at University College London John Mullan said the issue had “never come up, as far as I know”.
“I think academics talk quite a lot about how particular literary texts might play to or provoke particular sensitivities – we do talk about that privately. But once we have taken the decision about courses and reading lists, we do not put health warnings on. Essentially literature is full of every kind of upsetting, provoking, awkward-making, saddening, embarrassing stuff you could ever think of. That’s what it is like. [And] the time you would start labelling it with warnings – it seems to me that that way madness lies,” said Mullan.
“What do you decide is upsetting, and what actions does it leave you open to [if you get it wrong]? It’s treating people as if they are babies, and studying literature is for grownups at university. You might as well put a label on English literature saying: warning – bad stuff happens here.

Dismissive. Professors, we can do better!

4 Replies to “Resources: Trigger Warnings in the Classroom”

    1. David Perry says:

      That's a good post, Walt. Thanks for sharing it – both in your acknowledgement that these kinds of PTSD triggers are real and serious AND that you, as a professor, can't really guess what is or isn't going to be a trigger, so the best thing you can do is to be clear about the content. I'm really glad you made it clear that the issue here is triggers not offense.

      In my piece on this, I'm going to say that prepping students to read is, anyway, just good teaching. So do good teaching!

  1. Gayle Crabtree says:

    The term "trigger warning" came about as a way to protect survivors of sexual assault. We began using the term in a chat room that I moderated back in late 1995 or very early 1996. People looking for support would read each other's stories. The graphic nature would sometimes trigger flashbacks and sleepless nights. We adopted the method of writing the term very early on and it was followed as "TW" almos immmediately.

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