Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces: Reflections and Strategies

by | Feb 7, 2017

In recent years, there’s been much ado about trigger warnings. Some have argued that they are a crucial step to establishing a safe, accessible classroom environment for diverse students; others have framed them as a threat to educational integrity. But what exactly are trigger warnings and how can they be used effectively to foster safe(r) spaces of learning?

What Do Trigger Warnings Do, and What Issues Arise around Them?

Trigger warnings have a history. At their simplest, they are defined as a warning to students that material they may come across that semester could trigger memories of traumatic experiences. They emerge from the classification of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a medical condition and the negotiation of trauma in the age of the internet.

In the last decade, the practice of flagging content as potentially disturbing became a mainstay of a progressive blogosphere invested in granting readers agency over what they may encounter there. Within an educational framework, trigger warnings gained traction with teachers invested in a feminist, intersectional, queer praxis as a way of being inclusive to students. They are intended to make the classroom a safer space for those who have dealt with or are dealing with trauma.

Although trigger warnings are meant to make educational spaces, particularly those dealing with material about sexual assault and racism, accessible to the very students who have been marginalized by these violences, some people have argued that they do more harm than good.

It can be difficult—even impossible—to pinpoint what might trigger someone, critics point out. So in the name of protecting students from potentially harmful material, trigger warnings might instead prevent them from doing the work of critical thinking the classroom requires. Others have called out trigger warnings as divisive, parsing, as Jack Halberstam wrote, “politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.”

Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces—Why Do They Matter?

In short, the subject of trigger warnings brings up polarizing responses. But in a moment of political turmoil, under an administration that is actively attacking the civil liberties of many groups already marginalized in our society, the question of how to foster safer spaces is one very much worth returning to.

Now more than ever, we need to think about how to build classroom spaces that are communal, that acknowledge a gathering of people with varied backgrounds and experiences, and that lay the groundwork for empathy and solidarity. Trigger warnings, when used thoughtfully and with intention, can help in that mission.

Using trigger warnings doesn’t necessarily mean radically shifting the way you teach if you don’t want it to. Instead, try seeing them as a flexible tool whose usage can evolve depending on context and circumstance. Trigger warnings can be a small but vital step in fostering an inclusive classroom environment. They can take shape as:

A Statement on Your Syllabus or at the Start of the Semester

Making a statement at the start of the semester, perhaps reinforced in print on your syllabus, acknowledging that the class might cover difficult or disturbing material can go far in creating a safer space for your students. This step then allows you to prime the entire class, collectively, for what they may come across in the next few months.

Material-Specific Warnings

In addition to or in place of a general statement, you may want to emphasize that specific content might be triggering for students. This is an especially important move if you are teaching content that deals directly with sexual assault, racism, violence, and discrimination.

However, triggers are deeply personal and subjective, so content you might not personally identify as triggering might be for someone else.

With this in mind, a statement on your syllabus or at the start of the semester might be a more inclusive way of preparing students for the effects many things they might encounter that semester will have on them.

A Case-by-Case or Blanket Policy Approach to Supporting Students Who are Triggered

A key part of successfully implementing trigger warnings into your curriculum is thinking through, in advance, whether you will use a case-by-case or blanket policy approach to supporting students who might be triggered.

Do you want to offer all students the possibility of watching/reading on their own time material they identify as triggering ? Are you open to allowing students who request it to opt-out of certain material altogether? Will you give students the option of leaving class if they are triggered, without penalty? Will you require (and do you realistically have time for) students to meet with you outside of class to find alternative ways for them to cover material they may have missed? Are you willing to substitute new material for triggering content for some or all students?

These are crucial questions to answer for yourself before the semester begins. Trigger warnings don’t necessarily have to mean that anything shifts on your syllabus, but if material turns out to be triggering to many students, you may have to regroup and decide how to move forward with your course objectives. Because of this possibility, you should make clear to yourself and your students whether your policy on handling triggering material is flexible, and exactly how so.

Building Community Beyond Trigger Warnings

If you are considering whether or not to use trigger warnings in your classroom, you are already doing the necessary (and important!) work of thinking about how to make your classroom an inclusive and safer environment. This work goes beyond trigger warnings, and trigger warnings are most meaningful when deployed in a classroom space where trust has been built.

Take the time to build this trust, regardless of whether you decide to employ explicit trigger warnings in your pedagogical practice. Ask students how they are, regularly, before diving into coursework. Make room for students to come speak with you about challenges they may encounter with the course by making it clear you are available to talk to them. This doesn’t have to be about meeting in person, which is not always possible. Rather, it is about letting them know you are open to listening, even virtually.

Take the time, if nothing else, to familiarize yourself with your school’s mental health and support resources (counseling services, student support organizations, where to report an assault, etc.) and make that information available to your students on the syllabus and course site. This effort will go far in creating a classroom where students are equipped, intellectually and emotionally, to work through difficult material.

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Tags: teaching
Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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