U students seek 'trigger warnings' before disturbing topics taught

Angela Carter posts a trigger warning
Angela Carter begins a class session with a presentation that mentions a trigger warning for an upcoming reading at the University of Minnesota.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

The "Queering Desire" class at the University of Minnesota takes on some wrenching topics, including rape, homophobia and domestic abuse.

That can be traumatic material for students who've suffered violence or sexual abuse, which is why the instructor gives everyone a heads-up when a class is about to venture into potentially disturbing territory.

"If people are given warning — at least of the content — they can prepare," said Angela Carter a graduate instructor in the university's Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies.

Such "trigger warnings" could soon become more common at the U. A student-government panel recently encouraged faculty to warn students in class and on the syllabus about material that could trigger traumatic reactions. Student leaders also want professors to assign alternative materials to students and not hold them accountable for the material they can't emotionally handle.

"Queering Desire" class
Students in Angela Carter's "Queering Desire" class participate in a discussion on Oct. 22.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

"A university is supposed to be a safe space," said the resolution's author, political science sophomore Abeer Syedah. "Our conduct codes — and most conduct codes for universities — guarantee a safe and comfortable environment for students."

Critics might dismiss it as coddling, but supporters say certain material — such as graphic descriptions or lengthy discussion of abuse, torture, rape and suicide — can trigger real trauma.

Some experience flashbacks and show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as rapid breathing, sweats and panic attacks.

Carter, who says she was raped in college and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, said she was once blindsided when a national academic panel discussion she was attending unexpectedly turned to the topic of rape.

"My heart started beating really fast," Carter recalled. "I felt like I couldn't breathe. I started shaking. It sort of feels like the room is spinning and you can't hear."

Abeer Syedah authored the proposal.
Political-science sophomore Abeer Syedah, 19, of Rosemount, authored the trigger warning proposal.
Alex Friedrich / MPR News

Unable to bear it, Carter said, she abruptly returned to her hotel room.

That's the kind of incident that Syedah is trying to prevent, because she says such reactions make it impossible for students to participate in learning.

She envisions a short warning similar to one posted on a movie, such as: Trigger Warning: Description of sexual assault, accounts of self harm and depression, discussion of suicide.

The people who need such warnings aren't on the fringe, trigger warning supporters say.

Colleges are enrolling large numbers of combat veterans and refugees from war-torn countries, they say. And they point to reports that estimate one in five college women have suffered a rape or attempted rape during their college careers.

Class trigger warning
Angela Carter uses trigger warnings in a Powerpoint presentation.
Courtesy Angela Carter

Syedah said she hopes the U's faculty senate will implement its own policy encouraging the use of warnings.

If it does, it would make the U a leader in the issue. Despite calls for trigger warnings at several other campuses in the U.S., those familiar with them said they knew of few if any schools that have implemented policies.

Campuses have seen a "flurry" of student proposals, but that the actual practice is not widespread, said Henry Reichman, first vice president of the American Association of University Professors.

They're fairly common at Scripps College in California. Oberlin College in Ohio drafted a policy on their use, but set it aside until professors had more of a chance to weigh in.

The student government at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania has passed a resolution asking the faculty to consider using the warnings, and the faculty Senate at the University of California-Santa Barbara is considering a warnings policy.

Students have written editorials calling for them at George Washington and Rutgers universities, but campus officials say no one has come forward with a proposal.

Critics say it's not a university's job to protect students from disturbing material.

In an August report, Reichman's group came out against the warnings. It said an administration's recommendation for trigger warnings might cause some professors — especially those without tenure — to avoid controversial material for fear of receiving student complaints.

Reichman said professors are sensitive to the needs of those who suffer from PTSD. But he said they should be allowed to make accommodations for individual students as they do with any other medical disability.

He called even voluntary trigger warnings "ill-advised," saying they can prejudice a reader's view of a work.

"Let's say you assign a novel," Reichman said. "And the novel includes some [potentially disturbing] sexual passages. A warning about that might, in fact, affect the whole way the entire class reads the novel — looking for things that are perhaps not of central focus."

The U's student newspaper also expressed skepticism in an editorial this month, saying the warnings might give an easy out to students who want to shirk assignments related to the material.

But political science professor Daniel Kelliher — another instructor who notifies students of potentially disturbing material — says few students ever opt out.

Syedah says much of the national criticism of trigger warnings is "overblown."

"A trigger warning is one sentence ... and ends there," she said. "That's not too much to ask, because even television and movies are willing to do that. And I don't necessarily consider television and movies to be the epitome of social ethics."

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