March 16, 2016

UGARTE | Trigger Warnings: Wrong place, Wrong Time

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Arbitrarily, the entire premise of college is to expand one’s knowledge of the world and gain new perspective, both of which can be inhibited without open, uncensored dialogue about controversial topics. While such topics can be difficult to digest for many individuals, certain provoking topics such as sexual assault, cancer and war are the brutal realities of the world in which we live. Although it is not innately effortless to immerse oneself in discussion related to such matters, it is vital that students participate to broaden their educations and perspectives. Thus, while professors should be mindful of the ways they expose students to controversial materials (and perhaps caution students of universally graphic material), they should not be required to administer trigger warnings or options to “opt out” of “triggering” topics.

College is not the time nor the place to evade disconcerting topics; allowing students to disengage with materials on the basis that they are not rationally capable of handling such discussions is inimical. Moreover, given the choice to “opt out” of exploring these materials, students lose the opportunity to gain perspective and experience (especially given that unaffected students can take advantage of “opting out” in order to avoid classwork altogether). Although assistant professor Kate Manne of Cornell University argues that “triggering” topics can “temporarily render people unable to focus, regardless of their desire or determination to do so” and that “it’s not about coddling anyone. It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement,” moving reactions are what can enlighten and broaden open debate in the first place. Personal experience is what spreads awareness, new viewpoints and conversation, given that those who are affected are willing to share. This is not, in any way, to say that a college student should be responsible for enlightening the class by sharing personal trauma, but we should emphasize cases in which personal experience contributes to experiential education and expands perspectives stimulating both academic growth and engagement with the “triggering” topic overall.

Furthermore, if there exists any environment in which to be “triggered,” college would best fit that role, providing a safe place with support systems and health and wellness centers readily available to assist students. There is no equivalent to college in terms of exterior professional and social spheres, and it would be constructive for students to realize their discomforts or stress reactions in  response to certain topics in college rather than in the outside world, where support is more difficult (and expensive) to find. Professors should  advise students to seek the help they may need using the resources provided on campus. As a matter of fact, that should be the extent of professors’ involvement in scenarios involving emotional triggering. While it is the responsibility of the professor to be mindful of the ways in which he or she presents material, by showing respect for all students and basic human decency, professors should not be required to tailor their teaching methods or content to account for the possible needs of each student. A professor is meant to teach, mentor and advise, not to protect, coddle or give students the option to refrain from learning by “opting out.” This, in junction with the inhibition of critical and expansive discussions make trigger warnings counterproductive to the educationally broadening experience of college, and a potential disservice to students who are then unequipped to handle such realities outside of their respective universities.

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