A student calls for teachers to warn students before showing potentially distressing content in class, prompting debate over whether this is sensitive to students’ needs or simply coddling.
LOS ANGELES — When Bailey Loverin showed up for one of her classes at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in February, the material wasn’t exactly what the second-year literature major was expecting.
The instructor screened an independent film that, Loverin says, included several scenes of sexual assault and one “graphic” rape scene. No warning was given to any of the students that they would be exposed to such harrowing material.
“Luckily, no one [in the class] had too much of a reaction that was visible,” Loverin told MintPress News in an interview. But the film “had the potential to be traumatizing for someone.”
A couple of weeks later, Loverin, a survivor of sexual abuse herself, appeared before the governing body of the undergraduate student union, Associated Students, to present a resolution inspired by her experience in that class.
Much to her surprise, this resolution has sparked a nationwide debate over how far colleges and universities can go to protect students’ sensitivities without compromising academic freedom.
Loverin’s “Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings” proposed that “the Associated Students of UC Santa Barbara urge the instructor of any course that includes triggering content to list trigger warnings on the syllabus.”
Triggers are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, the resolution noted, and having memories or flashbacks triggered can cause a person suffering from the condition “severe emotional, mental, and even physical distress.”
“This is not meant to censor … but it really just asks that professors and other people on campus acknowledge the effects of triggering content on students with PTSD,” Loverin assured the Associated Students Senate at its Feb. 26 meeting.
To become campus policy, the resolution still has to be approved by the faculty’s governing body, the Academic Senate. But a Feb. 27 story about Loverin’s initiative in the student newspaper, the Daily Nexus, triggered a firestorm in the blogosphere, with one commentator calling trigger warnings a “ludicrous step toward censorship” and bemoaning a politically correct trend toward being overly sensitive toward sensitive students.
In September, the Sexual Violence Task Force at Oberlin College in Ohio advised faculty to “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals,” explaining that triggers “are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma,” including racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and “other issues of privilege and oppression.”
“[T]he institutionalization of such warnings clearly promotes the idea that student sensitivities must be coddled and protected — even at the cost of letting students skip uncomfortable material — and that the classroom should be an intellectual and emotional ‘safe space,’” Newsday columnist Cathy Young wrote in an essay for the website Minding the Campus.
Loverin has been firing back at critics, saying in a letter to the Daily Nexus that she was not encouraging UCSB to act like Oberlin “by censoring any and all triggering material.” She told MintPress she has received “a lot of positive feedback” and was hoping that other UC campuses adopt similar resolutions.
“We think it’s a very strong statement in support of people with PTSD,” she said.
Making classrooms safer
If USCB adopts the trigger warning policy, it will apply to a prestigious school that is the fifth-largest in the UC system, with 18,977 undergraduate and 2,950 graduate students.
“The liberal arts have been at the heart of the school since its inception,” the UCSB website says, and the College of Letters and Science “still reflects the expectations of the ancient Greeks and Romans that citizens should be trained in philosophy, history, and rhetoric.”
At least one faculty member, sociology professor Lisa Hajjar, has already expressed some uneasiness with the student resolution, saying it could impinge on academic freedom by dictating what an instructor can and cannot teach. Hajjar teaches courses relating to war and conflict, a subject that could conceivably generate a veritable blitzkrieg of trigger warnings.
The American Association of University Professors describes academic freedom as “the indispensable quality of institutions of higher education” and says in its core policy statement that “[t]he common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
The problem of sexual violence on college campuses, however, has prompted some students to consider whether survivors of sexual abuse and other trauma should be protected from graphic material in some way that does not amount to censorship.
“Reaching a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties is imperative to fulfilling the educational potential of our University’s undergraduates,” Philip Wythe, a sophomore at Rutgers University in New Jersey, wrote recently in the school newspaper, adding that trigger warnings are a “safety system that allows full artistic expression, as well as psychological protection for those who need it.”
According to the New Republic, such warnings were first used in self-help and feminist online forums to “help readers who might have post-traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks.” Even in that context they were controversial, with one critic saying feminists were applying warnings “like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan.”
At Oberlin, a private liberal arts college in northern Ohio, the Sexual Violence Task Force was formed in 2012 to revise the school’s sexual offense policy. Citing statistics showing that “issues of sexualized violence affect a significant percentage of our population,” it produced a resource guide in September that it suggested faculty could use to make classrooms safer.
A trigger warning “warns people of a potential trigger, so that they can prepare for or choose to avoid the trigger,” the guide said. “Issuing a trigger warning will also show students that you care about their safety.”
The guide praised Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” as a “triumph of literature” but cautioned that “it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.”
“We’re not saying people can’t be uncomfortable in the classroom,” Alison Williams, associate dean for academic diversity at Oberlin, told MintPress in an interview. “We just want to give them a chance to be prepared instead of being shocked.”
A “compassionate” way to address PTSD
Bailey Loverin wasn’t aware of Oberlin’s trigger warnings when she decided to do something to help trauma survivors.
“Imagine a lecture hall with up to 800 students,” she said. “Somebody [with PTSD] suddenly collapses onto the floor. That’s what we want to stop. It would be completely disruptive of the classroom. If that student had been warned … they would have had the opportunity to make sure they were in the right state of mind” before attending the class.
After consulting with the student counseling center and teachers, Loverin crafted her resolution, in which she wrote that one in four college women “will be sexually assaulted during her academic career” and that “[b]eing informed well in advance of triggering content allows students to avoid a potentially triggering situation without public attention.”
According to the resolution, a teacher will not dock points from a student’s grade for non-attendance if the reason for the absence was triggering content.
At the Associated Students Senate meeting in February, senators voted in favor of the resolution. “I’ve been in this kind of situation before,” one of the senators, Beatrice Contreras, said. “It sucks. We should pass it.”
But then the firestorm broke. In the New Republic, writer Jenny Jarvie said there was “scant research” demonstrating that trigger warnings might help people with PTSD — triggers “can be complex and unpredictable, appearing in many forms,” she noted — and concluded, “Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.”
Trigger warnings “are rooted in the assumption that our colleges are full of walking wounded” and “[t]he trigger-warning mindset cultivates entitlement and self-righteous outrage,” wrote Newsday’s Young.
Michelle Issadore, a consultant with the NCHERM Group, which advises colleges on risk management, told MintPress that she sees trigger warnings as a way “of further including and involving faculty in students’ lives outside the classroom. However, these warnings may lose efficacy if they are ubiquitous across all courses, even those where such topics are unlikely to arise.”
At USCB, the issue now awaits a vote by the Academic Senate. Judging by what happened at Oberlin, things may get testy. According to Williams, the resource guide generated “a lot of controversy” among faculty members and is now being revised. There is no reference to trigger warnings in the version of the guide that is currently posted on the school’s website.
Loverin says the negative reaction has been “very surprising” and much of the commentary has misinterpreted or distorted what she proposed. Trigger warnings, she argued, give the trauma survivor “control of the situation” and “it’s not up to anyone but the survivor to decide when they face the trauma. It’s not fair to survivors to say, ‘You need to confront this head on.’”
“This is a compassionate, humane way” to address PTSD, she insisted.
Loverin is sanguine about the possibility that the faculty will vote against her proposal. “It’s made enough of a positive change already that it was well worth it,” she said.