By Laura Fitzgerald, Senior Staff Writer
Professors and students are expressing mixed opinions on the use of trigger warnings in the classroom.
Trigger warnings are verbal or written warnings that warn students of content that might be emotionally distressing and trigger an extreme emotional reaction. Violent and sexually abusive content are usually accompanied by most trigger warnings.
According to a recent National Public Radio (NPR) survey, about half of 841 professors surveyed at public four-year institutions give trigger warnings. The overwhelming majority used trigger warnings of their own free will, not because of an administrative policy.
John Ward, associate director of clinical services at Miami University, said trigger warnings are helpful because it allows students to make their own decisions surrounding material that may be emotionally distressing to them.
Trigger warnings may also help students deal with difficult topics by giving them time to prepare for the content ahead of time.
“So instead of the information being launched upon them, they have a trigger warning to prepare their feelings and their thoughts ahead of time,” Ward said. “It might actually facilitate in some instances a student’s’ ability to express themselves in the classroom.”
Glenn Hartong, visiting faculty of photojournalism, uses verbal trigger warnings on extremely graphic images because he said he views it as a courtesy to students who may have personal trauma.
“Sometimes you don’t know the history of a person. Somebody may have had a family member killed in an accident, some may have been killed in a fire,” Hartong said. “It may be disturbing for them because it triggers memories.”
Hartong said that of the hundreds of pictures he has shown in class, he has used a verbal warning for only a few pictures. He thinks trigger warnings should be used very sparingly and only when the material warrants it.
“It should be a very high bar for when you have a trigger warning,” Hartong said. “It should be something very graphic, showing death, disfigurement, burns.”
Despite whether an image has a trigger warning or not, difficult images should be viewed because it is the only way for students to truly learn about the reality of our world, Hartong said.
Hartong has not had a student walk out of a classroom or opt out of viewing disturbing images because of a trigger warning, and some students were actually more interested in the content when Hartong warned them of an upcoming graphic image.
William Flint, associate professor of sociology, does not use trigger warnings because he said it gives students a chance to retreat from reality.
“It’s important that if you care about people that you help them understand they have to go out and make the world and face it and be responsible for it regardless of how uncomfortable it is,” Flint said.
Flint said students should face their fears and the trauma they may have dealt with, instead of turning away from it. He believes students can deal with trauma better if they learn to face it and that universities are responsible for exposing students to reality and a diverse range of ideas, even if those ideas are challenging.
“Public universities are supposed to be honest enough to leave everything open to discussion,” Flint said.
Other universities are opening up debate on trigger warnings. The dean of the University of Chicago sent a letter to incoming freshmen stating there would be no trigger warnings or safe spaces on campus, sparking controversy over the role of trigger warnings in student learning.
Senior Amber Taylor uses trigger warnings on the writing she posts for her creative writing classes because she would not want to trigger an emotional reaction in one of her classmates.
Taylor said professors should use trigger warnings because if a student is triggered by class material, it actually inhibits learning.
When considering trigger warnings, she said it is important that students understand mental illness. Taylor herself has had panic attacks and took off two semesters from school to deal with anxiety and depression.
She said when she had panic attacks and anxiety she couldn’t focus on school. Panic attacks and anxiety look different for everyone, and could range from not eating to being distracted.
Trigger warnings can prevent students from having extreme emotional reactions like panic attacks, Taylor said.
“Some people just can’t eat or just can’t focus, can’t pay attention to anything,” Taylor said. “And you don’t want your students to be that way because they won’t be able to learn anything.”