It’s been fifteen months since I’ve updated this blog, and yet the tut-tutting discourse around so-called “trigger warnings” is still with us. And, like almost every other entry in this tedious genre, the latest iteration plays all the hits: willful misrepresentation of the concept, a determination to remain obtusely unaware of any larger pedagogical context, and cherry-picked anecdotes aimed at ginning up derision and scorn.
Yesterday, in The Review section of The Chronicle of Higher Education, we were greeted with the headline “The Data Is In: Trigger Warnings Don’t Work.” Lest we miss the point, the sub-head lets us know that “a decade ago, there was little research on their effectiveness. Now we know.” The article’s co-authors, Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (both of Carleton College), seem to be responding to a pro-content warning piece in a recent Inside Higher Ed from Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja. What’s behind this upper-Midwest-on-upper-Midwest crime? Khalid and Snyder seem particularly exercised by Bugeja’s assertion that, in our current pandemic moment where slow-motion societal collapse is an ongoing phenomenon, trigger warnings have acquired an urgent necessity. Moreover, Bugeja continues, the ways in which students are encountering material are different than a decade ago:
today’s multimedia classes differ significantly from those a decade ago when the issue of trigger warnings — the pros and cons — erupted on college campuses. Gone are clickers, overhead projectors and whiteboards; they’ve been replaced by YouTube videos, machine learning and virtual and augmented reality. In other words, we’re recreating a facsimile of reality with the potential to trigger flashbacks without warnings.
But Khalid and Snyder are particularly disturbed by the prescriptive nature of Bugeja’s argument, which they summarize as follows:
All faculty members should follow his lead, he [Bugeja] argues, and include detailed trigger warnings on their syllabi accompanied by the following note: “You don’t have to attend class if the content elicits an uncomfortable emotional response.”
And here’s the first problem with Khalid and Snyder’s article: this is a significant misrepresentation of what Bugeja actually says. If you look at his piece, there is indeed an example of a message he sends to his own students about a particular class session’s material with that wording about attending class. But nowhere in the essay does Bugeja tell his readers this is how they should do trigger warnings, nor does he ever prescribe a policy which allows students to miss a class based upon “triggers.” He offers the phrasing as an example only, introducing it by writing “before class I send out an email reminder about content of the day’s lecture. Here is one that contains a trigger warning.” Hoping you won’t click on the link to the original IHE article, Khalid and Snyder’s summary is a deliberate rhetorical move. It’s meant to get the reader outraged. He’s telling all of us that we have to give our students a get-out-of-class-free card if they feel “triggered?” What the fuck? For those already skeptical about what they believe “trigger warnings” are, this simply confirms their disdain. Khalid and Snyder want to set Bugeja up as a caricature, a PC-obsessed pushover who trades rigor and learning for coddling and emotional therapy. They cement their portrayal with an anecdote:
We were gobsmacked several years ago when a colleague informed us that a student had requested a trigger warning for a reading about the Holocaust. This same student also asked for an alternative text to read because the original reading was “too disturbing.”
Ah, yes. The mythical unnamed colleague—who, along with “published accounts as well as our conversations with colleagues across the country,” have convinced Khalid and Snyder that “books, articles, and films are quietly being dropped, along with lectures, discussion activities, and assignments.” See what’s happening here? One student, one time, asked for a trigger warning about the Holocaust, and that’s the same thing happening “across the country,” so now we’ve got a higher-education landscape where “trigger warnings” have run amok, and no one can handle learning about the Holocaust. IT’S A GODDAMN TRAVESTY. Khalid and Snyder have purposely shaped the implicit responses of their audience by misrepresenting the original piece which drew their ire, and then deploying anecdotes from unnamed sources (“many people are saying…”) to position Bugeja as somehow both a wacky outlier and the avatar of mainstream professorial practice. Few instructors I’m aware of would carry their praxis as far as Bugeja does, and his exceptionalism makes him an easy target for critics (though Khalid and Snyder are careful to say he is “obviously a thoughtful and dedicated teacher”). But even those whose praxis in this area isn’t nearly as comprehensive as Bugeja’s can still spot a straw-man argument.
Once they’ve equated trigger warnings in general with what is a very specific set of practices outlined by Bugeja, Khalid and Snyder can confidentally declaim on the research they consult; after all, the article’s central claim is that “research shows” that trigger warnings simply don’t work. But that claim, too, needs unpacking. The authors specifically cite several studies out of seventeen they consulted, all of which conclude that trigger warnings “do not significantly reduce negative affect or minimize intrusive thoughts, two hallmarks of PTSD. Notably, these findings hold for individuals with and without a history of trauma.” Moreover, Khalid and Snyder assert, one study they consulted (Jones, et al., 2020) found “that trigger warnings actually increased the anxiety of individuals with the most severe PTSD, prompting them to ‘view trauma as more central to their life narrative’.”
It should be pointed out, however, that this particular study began as a presentation at a FIRE Conference (The “Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,” which is funded in part by the Right-wing Koch Foundation and has consistently denigrated trigger/content warnings as an infringement of “academic freedom.”) Moreover, the study’s claim that trigger warnings serve to “reinforce trauma as a defining feature of identity” is a gratuitous ideological point based solely on the authors’ own interpretation of answers to participant survey questions that—and this is important—do not themselves assess centrality of trauma to respondents’ sense of self. Indeed, one of the sources the authors cite to support their assertions in this regard is Haidt and Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which should raise a number of red flags for anyone who’s concerned about actual educational research instead of ideological posturing masquerading as “science.”
Most importantly, though, the basis for the claim that trigger warnings simply “don’t work” rests on the conclusion articulated by Jones, et al., as well as several of the other studies Khalid and Snyder consulted, that the warnings did not eliminate, or even reduce, emotional distress or trauma-related anxieties.
But is that the question we should be asking?
It’s the question all the research seems to be asking, for sure, but I would suggest that it’s not the right one to ascertain whether or not trigger/content warnings “work” or not. As they’re used judiciously and skillfully by teachers, trigger warnings are designed to prepare students—particularly (though not exclusively) those who have experienced trauma—for the intense and anxious emotional response that can (and do) accompany material that can “trigger” the type of responses associated with that trauma. They are not meant to eliminate that response; such an outcome would be impossible. Trigger/content warnings prepare some of our students to do the hard work of learning despite the additional difficulties they will encounter via their emotional responses to the trauma-resonant material.
To say trigger warnings don’t work because the learner still experiences emotional distress is to use the same logic that declares fire extinguishers don’t work because there are still fires. They are a tool to facilitate, not interrupt, learning. They are a way to help some (perhaps more than we think) of our students be as fully present as possible when the cognitive and affective work of learning gets tough. To claim trigger/content warnings “don’t work” because students still feel distress is to ignore that they are meant to address the response to trauma, not magically eliminate the trauma itself. That type of claim for inefficacy, even if it’s based in research, simply answers the wrong question. It is certainly not the decisive refutation that Khalid and Snyder claim it is.
Finally, there’s one more way in which the authors of this article miss an important dimension of trigger/content warnings. While their primary use centers upon specific course material and activities, they also serve as an important pedagogical signifier. An instructor who takes the time and effort to include thoughtful trigger warnings in the service of all students’ opportunity to learn is showing their students the depth of care and intention they bring to the craft of teaching and learning. The inclusion of appropriately-used content/trigger warnings is a signpost for students that the instructor wants to earn their trust, and to create a climate in which learning at its most challenging can occur because all students feel seen and secure.
There is a cottage industry of performative hardassery that sneers at these efforts (of which the aforementioned Haidt and Lukianoff book is an avatar), but they are the ones who ignore the research on what constitutes effective teaching for deep and meaningful learning. We know, for example, about the affective dimensions of learning and the crucial role that students’ emotional responses and regulation play in their cognitive work. We understand that students’ cognitive bandwidth is often depleted by non-cognitive factors, and the ways in which this occurs tend to reinforce already-existing inequities. To ignore these profoundly important insights and play culture warrior instead is a mistake bordering on professional malpractice. Unfortunately, much of what’s being published on the subject does exactly that, and what we have from this recent Chronicle piece is more of the same, just with additional references.
We can do better.