November 3, 2015

Cornell Community Debates Merits of Trigger Warnings

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On Sept. 11, 2014, Hannah Dancy’s ’17 chemistry professor demonstrated the chemical reaction that occurred in explosions during the 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers. Dancy, who is from Manhattan, said she felt uncomfortable with the in-class demonstration and said she thought “people in that room who might have lost someone” might have felt even worse.

“My mom and dad watched the towers fall,” she said. “My mom still has really bad [post-traumatic stress disorder] from it. I was like, ‘I didn’t want to see that.’”

Before Dancy’s professor showed a slide about the demonstration, she said he had not warned students that they were about to see potentially upsetting material. This type of notification — commonly referred to as a trigger warning — lets students know in advance about topics that could cause negative emotional reactions. The warning allows students to prepare themselves mentally or excuse themselves from discussing a triggering topic.

Garnering National Headlines

Trigger warnings have garnered significant media attention lately, with many articles focusing specifically on the role these warnings should play in higher education.

An article published in The Atlantic in September argued that protecting students from upsetting material “prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong.”

Allowing students to see triggering material in classes without a warning could also act as exposure therapy — a process used to treat anxiety disorders by exposing people to their source of anxiety in small doses, the article argued.

However, responding to The Atlantic piece in an op-ed in The New York Times, Prof. Kate Manne, philosophy, defended her use of trigger warnings and said she has been using trigger warnings since she began to lecture.

By providing students a simple warning about potentially uncomfortable or sensitive topics ahead of time in the syllabus, Manne wrote that she hopes students are prepared for any emotional responses they may have and can better interact with course material.

“The thought behind trigger warnings isn’t just that these states are highly unpleasant (although they certainly are),” Manne wrote in the column. “It’s that they temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so. Trigger warnings can work to prevent or counteract this.”

Beyond the positive or negative effects of trigger warnings on the mental health of students, however, the debate surrounding trigger warning usage has extended to its implications with free speech. Some people worry that fear of showing potentially triggering material could hinder free speech, while others argued that trigger warnings create environments that better allow free speech.

In a meeting with reporters last month, President Elizabeth Garrett said while she “would never require” professors to warn students about triggers, she believes professors’ freedom to teach certain topics was inextricably tied to their freedom of speech.

“If they wish to do that, they have that right,” Garrett said. “If they wish not to do that, they also, in my view, have that right.”

‘This is the polite thing to do’

While Manne wrote that trigger warnings began on the Internet as a way to accommodate users with PTSD, Prof. David Pizarro, psychology, said that they have been around for a much longer time.

“I think professors have been aware that this is the polite thing to do for quite some time,” Pizarro said. “Ever since major academic institutions have had professors teach about things that are sensitive, kind and patient and good professors have tried to [warn their students].”

Explaining the use of the term “trigger,” Pizarro said it was used to account for a wide range of responses, but that the vagueness of the term had led to more debate on the topic.

“‘Trigger’ is a word we use to label when somebody does anything from becoming upset that a discussion is being had, all the way to having full-blown panic attacks or extreme anxiety,” Pizarro said. “It’s attempting to capture a whole wide range of discomfort.”

Prof. Julia Markovits, philosophy, specified that a trigger is linked to trauma.

A trigger is “a graphic or detailed depiction or discussion of a common cause of trauma … that may induce an extremely unpleasant, disorienting emotional and physical reaction in someone who has experienced such trauma,” Markovits said.

Student Reactions to Trigger Warnings

Just as academics and administrators have debated the topic, Cornell students have also remained split on the use of trigger warnings.

Sarah Zumba ’18, who defined triggers as something that causes “any kind of negative reaction, in your own personal version of what ‘negative’ means,” said she does not believe the argument against trigger warnings made sense. In particular, she said The Atlantic’s reasoning that trigger warnings were “coddling” the minds of college students “doesn’t make any sense.”

“They don’t have control over what might be triggering,” Zumba said. “You’re not coddling them [by providing trigger warnings], you’re preventing them from going through an ordeal.”

Dancy’s chemistry class was one of many small incidents of professors bringing up potentially triggering material in class. Students also expressed discomfort with graphic slides in anatomy classes and discussions of mental illness.

Rowan Garrison ’17 also expressed discomfort over professors “brushing over racism and sexism” in class.

“Professors shouldn’t talk about mental illnesses or rape in class in a way that they think nobody in the class has been affected,” Garrison said.

However, Julius Kairey ’15,  a former Sun opinion columnist, said students sometimes use the label of “trigger” simply to avoid topics they dislike. He added that discussing sensitive topics in class is an opportunity for students to expose themselves to a variety of viewpoints.

“It’s important that students deal with material that they might find objectionable, just so that they’re able to learn how other people think,” Kairey said.

“Trigger warnings are increasingly being applied to material that isn’t objectionable to a large percentage of students,” Kairey said. “They’re being used by just a few students to try and rid syllabi of material that they find personally offensive.”

While the debate about triggers has centered on the effect warnings may have on the quality of higher education and free speech, many professors and students argue that warnings should simply be a common courtesy in class.

Pizarro said that professors should aim to be able to discuss potentially triggering topics in a way that makes students comfortable.

“Any good professor ought to be sensitive to the fact that they might talk about distressing or disturbing things,” he said.

Manne also argued that while professors cannot predict every time some material may prove triggering for a student, that it was simple enough to avoid topics that are likely to cause stress or trauma for a student.

“It’s important to respect what other people want to see or can see without having some sort of panic attack or anxiety,” said Robert Chirco ’18.

  • Dr. Necessitor

    This article by a now former POC (professor of color) best describes how damaging trigger warnings are to the learning process and to the infantilized students who most need exposure to real-world issues:

    My trigger-warning disaster: ‘9 1/2 Weeks,’ ‘The Wire’ and how coddled young radicals got discomfort all wrong

    “… For the rest of the semester, I gave trigger warnings before every scene I screened. Every. Single. One. This wasn’t enough. A student came to me and asked that I start sending emails before class outlining exactly which disturbing scenes I would be showing so that I wouldn’t ‘out’ survivors if they had to walk out of class when hearing what I was about to show. This took all the free form and off the cuff ability to teach. It stifled the teaching process. There would never be a moment for me to educate them by confronting them with the unknown, by helping them become aware of their own biases by making them feel uncomfortable.

    “Nevertheless, I did it. Each night I sent a meticulous email detailing which scene I was showing, where in the film the scene was, and what the content of the scene included. My role as a sexual assault prevention services specialist and survivor advocate eclipsed my role as a professor as I tried to accommodate students over and over again.

    “The next film to piss them all off was 9 1/2 Weeks. …”

    * * * * *
    “I went to get advice from a colleague in the department. … I asked him if he ever had such a hard time with his students and he said, ‘No, I am an old white dude, I really think that as a young woman of color they probably just aren’t afraid of you, they see you as a peer.’ For the record, I’m not that young but he may have been right. And here’s the irony, all of the students who were upset were the feminists, the activists, and there they were, treating a woman of color professor like she wasn’t an authority while treating old white dudes like they are.”


  • Randy Wayne

    The way I see this issue: College can help educate people to be more like Winston Churchill, or to be more like Neville Chamberlain. Personally, I am opposed to trigger warning because I would not like to see us train a generation of Neville Chamberlains.

    • joe

      Unfortunately most students don’t know enough about nuanced history to have a clue who Neville Chamberlain is.

  • Randy Wayne

    Today I read, “Anecdotes for Fear” in the book, “Strength to Love” by Martin Luther King Jr (1963). I highly recommend reading it to anyone interested in the subject of this article. It can be found online: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/antidotes-fear

    Fear knocked at the door.
    Faith answered.
    There was no one there.

  • WTF

    Why tf is Juilius Kairey still commenting on events that happen at Cornell? He graduated. Couldn’t the Cornell Sun find one current student who opposes trigger warnings?

  • Annie Tomlinson

    “Manne also argued that while professors cannot predict every time some material may prove triggering for a student, that it was simple enough to avoid topics that are likely to cause stress or trauma for a student.”

    I’m shocked that a Cornell professor is advocating such an illiberal and and intellectually dangerous position regarding trigger warnings. By her own logic, professors a) cannot predict every instance of a material triggering trauma, and therefore should b) avoid topics likely to cause trauma for students, which means c) professors should avoid teaching a wide range of topics so as to not hurt anyone. Shall we really teach our students that it’s okay to withdraw into their shells whenever something hard or emotionally challenging comes up in a discussion? Is our job to nurture ignorance and fear?

    Life is difficult. Horrible things happen to people all the time, but we are human and we persist. What is education if not the opportunity to practice resilience, encounter the diversity of the human condition, and develop the intellectual, if not practical, skills necessary to prevent future traumas for others?

    • Kate Manne

      For the record — this is unfortunately a misrepresentation of my views, presumably based on a misunderstanding of my NYT piece. I don’t think any topic which would otherwise be on the syllabus should be avoided for these reasons. I do think that it is simple enough and may be beneficial to give a brief heads-up to students about potentially triggering material, for those who might otherwise be less able to rationally engage with it due to panic attacks etc.

      Thanks to Stephanie Yan for an otherwise good piece on this fraught issue.

  • Batista

    I needed a trigger warning for this article.

    “They don’t have control over what might be triggering,” Zumba said. “You’re not coddling them [by providing trigger warnings], you’re preventing them from going through an ordeal.”

    HELLO that is the definition of coddling.

    When the going gets tough the people who need trigger warnings curl up and die, or go into academics and die a little more slowly.

    The rest of us get on with life and realize the point of living is not to go through life without adversity, but to learn to live with it.

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