Trigger Warnings and the University Classroom

[Just as a heads-up, this post contains brief descriptions of violent acts that take place in the game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, as well as a link to a video from the game. The descriptions are as neutral as possible and the link in question is clearly identified in the text to prevent confusion.]

I realize that this will be my third post in a row focusing on aspects of post-secondary education. Even though the posts in question all address different specific subjects, I still don’t like the feeling that I’m getting repetitive, so I promise that next week’s post will be on a new topic. Video games, brass instruments, global warming, I don’t know. Something like that.

Anyway, now that I’ve hopefully gotten you all amped up for some mysterious hypothetical topic I’m not even discussing until next week, let’s talk about trigger warnings.

If you’ve spent a considerable length of time on the internet, specifically Tumblr, you’re likely familiar with the concept of trigger warnings. If you aren’t, the basic premise is that any piece of content featuring elements that could cause psychological pain or stress to someone consuming said content (for example, references to a traumatic event that the consumer has personally endured) should be preceded by an indication that these elements are present.

The reasoning is that this allows the consumer to know what’s in store before they engage with the content, so that they can either mentally prepare themselves for the unpleasant topics to be discussed, or simply choose not to consume that content. Similar practices have been used in specific forms of media for quite some time now: both movies and video games have rating systems that identify potentially objectionable subject matter and even recommend minimum ages for consumption.

So what does any of this have to do with post-secondary education? Well, there’s a growing trend of university students requesting that their professors provide trigger warnings for their course material. The PBS Idea Channel on YouTube (which, by the way, puts out fantastically insightful content on a weekly basis) recently uploaded a video on the subject, which I would highly recommend watching.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem like something to worry about. With the increasing (and much needed) attention being given to mental health on university campuses, it’s reasonable that students should expect to know when a class will be venturing into difficult and potentially stressful territory. Actively making students aware of these topics looming on the horizon should be an inherently beneficial choice.

But I’m not sure if it’s quite that simple. Trigger warnings serve as yet another tool for both students and professors to use in the context of a university classroom, but just like any tool, they can used either well or poorly by both parties.

To explain what I mean by this, let’s revisit the aforementioned examples of trigger warnings in other media, starting with movies. Most people don’t just pick out a movie to watch at random; they read synopses or reviews, watch the trailer, or hear about it from friends before they ever set foot in the theatre or pick up the DVD/Blu-Ray. Even on Netflix, you’re given a short description of the film and its genre before you play it. By the time you see the rating screen, you can predict most of what it says and place its warnings in context. As an example, of course Black Mass is rated R. It’s a drama about the Irish mob in Boston, for goodness sake.

Same goes for video games. A quick look at the visuals and descriptions on the box will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect before you even notice the rating. It shouldn’t be surprising that a game featuring the words “Modern Warfare” in its title is rated M because of the violence it contains.

That last example — namely, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — also provides a perfect example of how not to use trigger warnings. The game includes a controversial level titled “No Russian,” wherein the player (acting as a military operative working undercover alongside the game’s primary antagonist) watches and potentially participates in a mass shooting of civilians at an airport. If you wish to see a recording of this level (recognizing that it does feature graphic violence), watch this video.

The player is not forced to (nor rewarded for) shooting civilians themselves, and is also given the option to skip this level with no penalty. The problem is that the player is only prompted to make this choice at the beginning of the game, and is only told that the level contains “disturbing content” before deciding whether or not to skip it. Admittedly, you can pause and skip the mission after you’ve started it, but you’re never explicitly reminded of this option.

To reiterate: the player must choose whether or not to skip this “disturbing content” with no context (though they can change their mind later), and the only real options are either experiencing or not experiencing the content. There is no real engagement, no critical discussion, no analysis of the “why” that underlies both the inclusion of the level and its disturbing nature.

This, at least from what I’ve seen, is much more analogous to the use of trigger warnings on Tumblr than the rating systems for movies and games. Because Tumblr posts obviously don’t have trailers or, in many cases, even titles, a user’s only real source for what to expect from a post before they start reading it is what that particular Tumblr-er has posted previously, which isn’t a very good predictive indicator of the topic of their next post.

Trigger warnings may be given at the beginning of a post, which is the best place for them, but these warnings are often just one or two words in length, providing little in the way of context. The psychological stress caused by a passing allusion to a certain trigger might be minimal or nonexistent compared to a detailed textual depiction, but both posts might be labelled with the same simplistic warning. A hesitant user may shy away from either instance, when the former post might have been completely fine.

I should clarify that the user is not at fault here (particularly if they were legitimately seeking to safeguard their mental health), nor is the person who made the post. Both of them were working within their established system. The system itself just has a lot of problems.

This becomes even more clear when you note that Tumblr trigger warnings are also often conveyed in the tags for a post. Functioning in a more or less identical manner on many different sites, tags are little custom classifiers that a creator can attach to a post, allowing users to effectively group and find content with similar subjects.

However, these tags are often only visible to users at the bottom of the post to which they apply, meaning they don’t really help anyone decide whether or not to read a post the first time they see it. Furthermore, a number of methods exist to systematically block Tumblr posts with specific tags, meaning users can automatically filter out potentially triggering posts in a method that, again, completely ignores any semblance of context.

I haven’t given any mention to the implications of all this on the university setting in about 800 words now, so I’ll start to tie it back in. People have a lot of conflicting opinions on the question of trigger warnings in post-secondary education (I’ll link to some articles at the end of this post), and I think a lot of them stem from how this new tool might be used, both by the professors and their students.

Personally, I would be entirely on board with a system of educational trigger warnings similar to the rating systems used by movies and video games. As students, we generally have a basic idea of what to expect from a course before it begins. For example, I was well aware that my “Abnormal Psychology” course would likely feature discussions of mental illness, and that my “Postmodern Gothic Literature” course would likely feature some intentionally disturbing texts.

Furthermore, the professors in both cases were open and forthright about the things we would be discussing in the course, and provided context for these discussions and why we were having them within the first week of classes.

My psych prof explained the necessity of discussing and researching mental illness and different methods of treatment so as to both help affected individuals and further the discipline, while emphasizing that the field is all about people, no matter what disorders they may face.

My English prof contextualized the Postmodern Gothic movement as a reaction to the ideals of what many authors deemed to be a flawed and overly optimistic societal outlook, citing the use of potentially shocking and horrifying scenes as a way to “wake up” the reader.

It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: when our well-educated and respected professors choose to include material that could be seen as “triggering” or “offensive to the sensibilities,” they do so knowingly, deliberately, and often for a good reason. They are not looking to be gratuitous or “edgy,” at least not if they’re doing their job right.

In this sense, it is absolutely a good idea for a professor to take some time at the beginning of the course to explain some of the more stressful topics they may be discussing, the format in which they’ll be discussing them, and crucially, why such a discussion is important. If the course is named and described effectively in course guides and the like, many of the students could probably guess a lot of this information, but stating it clearly is definitely beneficial.

The responsibility of the students, then, is to use this information effectively. Recognizing that scholarly conversation on these topics is worthwhile, students who are concerned about the stress or psychological hardship of such a conversation can mentally prepare themselves ahead of time, or discuss the situation with the professor and hopefully reach a conclusion or compromise that works for everyone involved. This may involve an alternative syllabus or study plan, the use of the campus mental health resources for support, or just affirming a student’s right to leave the room if a discussion becomes too unsettling.

A system closer to the one used on Tumblr, however, would be fundamentally flawed and could impede the goals of higher education. For example, if professors give no explanation, context, or justification beyond saying that the course will be addressing “mental illness” or “shocking and horrifying scenes” — that is, if they provide trigger warnings only in the most basic and literal sense — then they will have failed their students.

On the other side, if a professor has effectively contextualized the issue (and explained why the discussion is necessary) and students still shy away from the topic or even drop the course without exploring their options or meeting with the professor, then I believe they have failed in their responsibilities as a student. Issues of mental health make this into much more of a grey area, but the options discussed two paragraphs back still apply, and I believe that they are by far better choices than trying to protect oneself from the merest mention of a particular subject.

I’ve seen a lot of posts alternatively vilifying or applauding the introduction of trigger warnings into post-secondary education, and I think a lot of them have made some good points here and there. Like I said, I’ll provide links to some of them below as optional further reading.

Still, I sustain that the issue depends entirely on how both professors and students address trigger warnings and incorporate them into their courses. Used well, they can be an incredible way to help students understand why certain unpleasant conversations are valuable in scholarly contexts while keeping stress and psychological discomfort in check. Used poorly, they can stunt academic development and cause students to learn only that which makes everyone happy.

By the time the use of trigger warnings in the classroom has become ubiquitous (and I have little doubt that it will), the reality may be at either of these extremes, or it may be somewhere in the middle. Like the introduction of any new tool, practice, or technology, we’ll just have do our best to use it well and hope that others do the same.

Further reading:

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