Trigger warnings: A threat to academic freedom?

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trigger warning 1
The Post Secret display in the Silo where some of the secrets were regarded as having triggering content.

On the Silo, Novocollegians’ “Post-Secrets” are prefaced by a trigger warning: “self-harm, disordered eating, suicide.”

Trigger warnings (TWs) are also used on the Forum, printed in the Catalyst and referenced in class discussions. But while some consider the trigger warning to be a marker of political and emotional sensitivity, others fear they threaten academic freedom.

The term “trigger warning” was originally conceived as a way to help people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. A trigger is something that “triggers” a flashback, bringing the individual face-to-face with his or her trauma, rekindling a similar emotional intensity experienced during the original distress.

Triggers can be brought on by sight, smell, taste, sound and touch. They are intensely personal and difficult to predict. They can be a piece of furniture at the scene of an attack or an article of clothing resembling one worn by the attacker.

Trigger warnings have spread to feminist blogs to forewarn people with histories of eating disorders, self-harm, sexual abuse or child abuse of upsetting material. Some feminists advocate that the use of TWs makes online feminist spaces more inclusive. With the TW in mind, readers can shy away from reading upsetting material.

Second-year Stefan “Vinushka” Schalk was one of three students campaigning to become the next Forum moderator. In an email sent out to the Forum, he advertised his familiarity with TWs as an attribute that will make him well poised to be a good moderator. He stated, “I will stay up till 3 AM almost every night checking Forum posts for untagged triggers.”

Many acknowledge that there is a danger that the wording of a TW can actually be a trigger in itself. The term “trigger” triggers some survivors. Some feminists oppose TWs: Jessica Valenti, who started and writes for The Nation, argues that there is no trigger warning for life.

TWs have also emerged in college classrooms across the country. In this setting, they warn of war, genocide, rape and mental illness.

A recent New Republic article begged the question: “The trigger warning has spread from internet blogs to college campuses. Can it be stopped?” The article was sparked by a University of California Santa Barbara resolution that mandated trigger warnings be included in syllabi for all classes.

Oberlin College published an official document on triggers, encouraging professors to be conscious of cisexism, racism, sexism, classism, ableism – among other issues of oppression. It encouraged professors to remove triggering content that does not “directly contribute to classroom goals” and to “strongly consider” making triggering material optional.

“I think it is important to use them in academic contexts,” said second-year Janie Hepler, who also ran for the Forum Moderator position. “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. It is kind of shocking like sometimes when professors won’t say anything before we see a movie … if we don’t use trigger warnings that makes academia just like even more ivory tower than it already is.” Like Schalk, Hepler advertised her familiarity with Trigger Warnings when running for the position.

Yet, some believe these warnings do not belong in academic settings.

“Trigger warnings are meant to help people suffering from PTSD and who experience panic attacks related to specific situations,” Professor of English and Director of the Gender Studies Program Miriam Wallace said. “Trigger warnings are a tool to help them cope with their grief. And the problem is that these trigger warnings got picked up without this very specific use and have been used on some campuses to shut down conversations about various sorts and to shut down conversations that might be very important for us to have.”

“There is no way that you can anticipate everyone’s possible trigger,” Dean of Studies and Associate Professor of English Robert Zamsky said. “We certainly do not want faculty to worry more about triggers than the content of the class.”

Though students are not campaigning for a shift in New College academic policy, requests for TWs in course material have increased. The minutes from the most recent Academic Administrative Council (AAC) meeting read:
“Requests for trigger warnings are increasing and can snowball and curtail academic freedom. A course topic can make a student uncomfortable, but that is not the same as a trigger. Discomfort opens an opportunity to teach about historical or cultural context. There is a dividing line between a documented ADA condition that requires accommodation and issues of individual sensitivity. The Faculty Handbook addresses academic freedom and responsibility but is silent on the specific topic of trigger warnings. SA thorough syllbabus can be very helpful in alerting students to course content. AAC suggested a thorough faculty discussion of Trigger Warning requests”

The term trigger warning has become more common in the past three years according to Assistant Professor of Sociology Emily Fairchild.

“[Students] are using the word ‘trigger warning’ a lot more than I have ever seen,” Fairchild said. “ … But they are also using it not necessarily in the way that I would use it or in the way that it traditionally was employed. So the difference that I see is that students are using it in a much more widespread way.”

“It becomes a notation of things that are objectionable or things that make people uncomfortable, which is not the same thing as things that make people traumatized. And it is problematic because it can take some emphasis off of the actual trauma that people can experience because they are retraumatized and it is problematic from an academic context because we want to present things that are objectionable to students,” Fairchild continued.

At Rutgers University, a student suggested that “The Great Gatsby” be assigned a TW for suicide, domestic abuse and graphic content.

“I teach modern and contemporary experimental writing,” Zamsky said. “Last semester, for instance, I was teaching a class on the New York School and Black Mountain Poets. I was teaching a poem by Robert Creeley, but the poem begins with, ‘For love I would/ split open your head and put a candle in/ behind the eye.’ Anyone could say, well, this is a horrible thing because it is advocating domestic violence and it should have a trigger warning. First of all, it is artwork. Second of all, it is involved in a whole exploration of life in emotional extremists and all of his poems – and lots of them are disturbing in a lot of ways – but all of them talk about how emotional and psychological states get stretched to the limits and how language struggles to convey these states.

“This intense attachment to somebody – where does this attachment turn into an almost violent attachment? To preface that work with a trigger warning would really badly detract from the worth of it because he wants to make you feel uncomfortable. He feels uncomfortable and part of the experience of the artwork is to explore that discomfort. … In my field teaching in modern and contemporary writing it is inconceivable not to be shocked. And sometimes badly so.”

“I think students are trying to signal something but I think we are a little unclear about what we are signaling,” Wallace said. “They are asking for sensitivity to issues that people feel viscerally. That we need to structure those conversations in careful and safe ways and then they are saying we can’t talk about this because we don’t think this community can talk about these things or we don’t want to hear about them which is the one I’m worried the most about. What happens to a rape survivor who can’t talk about it? And how are we then prepared for traumas later in our life because, you know, things happen to people. This seems like the place to begin to learn how to name what happens and how to learn how to understand it. Making it off limits really diminishes the tools that you have for survival and for me survival is really the most important thing. Survival and self-care.”

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