Trigger Warnings Are Your Friends!

The Trigger Warning debate is back. Did it ever really go away?

Here’s my new piece of the argument: Trigger Warnings preserve access to offensive content that, nevertheless, has educational value.

A year ago I wrote this piece for CNN in the context of the TW discussion. I argued that best practices for teaching any content requires preparation or “scaffolding,” and good scaffolding would cover many of the functions of what students are asking for in trigger warnings. I continue to argue that “content notes” is a more useful pedagogical context.

Here’s an excellent essay by a TW-skeptic, Sarah Marian Seltzer, who interviewed teachers and was persuaded by their methodology. She writes:

Educators who choose to utilize these warnings in their classrooms often see more nuance in the issue. “We have to take [students demanding trigger warnings] seriously… because being more acutely aware of how students are responding to challenging material is just better and more responsible pedagogy,” wrote Aaron R. Hanlon last week. Faculty in this camp say that they’re committed to academic and intellectual freedom, but also to honoring students’ experiences, in particular the often silent presence of rape survivors — a trauma-prone group — among the college-aged population. Rather than debating whether to teach troubling material, as much of the anti-trigger warning contingent fears, they say they’ve moved on to asking how to do so in a respectful way.

So that’s good and very much in line with my own approach. I especially liked this:

“Trigger warnings allow me to have a conversation, to say, ‘This is not a class about your personal life,’” Heldman told me. “This actually helps to make the class more academic. And it has the benefit of letting students prepare for what might come.”

This is very much my experience. I teach all kinds of difficult texts – stories of massacre, anti-Jewish polemic, Inquisition trials, anti-Latin polemic (Byzantium). Because I’m a medievalist, it’s less directly emotionally affecting than if I taught the Holocaust, or say 20th-century American popular culture. Still, the pre-conversation about what we’re going to read provides a framework for students to respond to potentially upsetting material. There are no spoilers in the history of the First Crusade.

Last August, I wrote about the need for a content note in This American Life’s re-broadcast of a David Sedaris piece, one filled with jokes about the intellectually disabled. TAL uses content notes when they talk about sex and racism, but not for other kinds of troubling material, and that bothered me. Moreover, I suggest it should bother them, too, because without content notes, such pieces all go the way of “Little Black Sambo.”

The trigger warning, therefore, emerges as a pathway towards preserving content, preserving material as its language ages our of the mainstream into the widely and wildly offensive. Because without the trigger warning, well, then I have to advocate that this never be aired again.

Norms change. Studying changing norms or just previous eras requires engaging with material that is offensive. Content notes are a way to say – I recognize the problem, here’s why we’re reading/discussing/viewing this, and let’s go learn something.

Trigger Warnings are about keeping material in the curriculum, not banning it. Embrace them.

5 Replies to “Trigger Warnings Are Your Friends!”

  1. Altereggo says:

    Yeah, no. Defining something as "problematic" is just the first step to getting rid of it entirely. It's the best way to define something as alien and outside the realm of acceptable discourse, making it impossible to engage with except as something to defeat.

    1. Altereggo says:

      Start eliminating departments until you stop hearing the word "problematic", and we can return to having a respectful dialogue with historical sources… rather than "future-splaining" to them.

    2. Altereggo says:

      The people who aren't interested in conversation are punishing professors with Title IX investigations. But that's just "a new triumph in the history of progress", clearly.

      Good luck avoiding one yourself. I'm sure nothing _you_ blog about could be denounced as problematic someday.

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