Higher Edge: Challenging Without Triggering

October 20, 2015

“I don’t believe in trigger warnings,” my professor tells the class, proud of her refusal to succumb to the excessive coddling of college students.

The problem with the discussion around trigger warnings, is that it’s not a question of whether or not professors choose to believe in them. Regardless of what anyone says about political correctness or the campus cocoon, the truth remains the same. One in four women will be the victims of sexual assault while at college and 50 percent of survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. Knowing these statistics, professors are obliged to provide warnings, regardless of what they call them, when potentially triggering material is being discussed. This allows survivors to either mentally prepare for the material being discussed or to seek out available mental health resources if they are not already receiving help.

The issue is, of course, more complex than that, though. “It’s time for students to learn that Life is Triggering,” Jerry Coyne wrote in an article in New Republic last May. Coyne argues that after graduating college, students will constantly have to face viewpoints that challenge their own, and therefore classrooms cannot shield them from uncomfortable material. His argument, however, fails to understand the intention of trigger warnings. Material can still challenge students without triggering survivors’ PTSD.

College, especially literature classes, require students to dissect charged material, grapple with the meaning, and understand its historical context. Professors, if attentive, will present both sides of any issue with weight and consideration, preventing students from becoming comfortable in their views. This furthers the imperative for professors to provide warnings to their students. If college courses want to challenge students, to provoke, and to offend, as they should, then they need to make sure that the discussion is not unsafe. There is a fundamental difference between provocation and threatening a student’s mental health, and the discussion around trigger warnings demands that we not conflate the two.

This is not a question of policy because if we institute a policy dictating what ought to be labeled as triggering, then we dismiss the legitimacy of the professor’s discretion when it comes to identifying potentially harmful texts. For this reason, legitimizing students’ call for trigger warnings also means refusing to infantilize both students and professors. Professors have to trust that students want to be challenged and made uncomfortable by literature and that they will only disengage with triggering material if their mental health is at stake. And, we, as students, have to trust our professors to be experts in their fields and know how to approach material in a way that isn’t dismissive of the challenging nature of the text.

Labeling material as “triggering” does not mean that we ban charged material or give students the option to hide from it. Rather, it is choosing to believe that students and professors want to grapple with difficult texts and that trigger warnings will not stand in the way of doing so.


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