Faculty discuss trigger warnings and sensitive course material

by Amanda Zhou | 5/16/16 6:35pm

On the first day of a Jewish history course on the Holocaust she taught many years ago, Jewish studies professor Susannah Heschel showed the 30-minute film “Night and Fog” (1955), which includes footage of the Soviets liberating Auschwitz. When the film ended, Heschel said she was taken back when a student angrily demanded that she should have warned the class about the upsetting content of the movie.

“I wanted the class to discuss what it means to make a beautiful film about something horrible like the Holocaust,” Heschel said. “I was very startled because I assumed anyone who signed up would know [the class] was going to be upsetting.”

Since then, Heschel has always included a warning on her syllabus that some of the course material may be upsetting to students.

The tendency to verbally include trigger warnings in class or incorporate a warning about upsetting material on a syllabus has become a trend in higher education. However, there is a concern among academics that trigger warnings compromise academic standards and infantilize students. In 2015, The Atlantic published an article called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which citicized trigger warnings and advocated that students confront difficult material, even in the cases of personal history or trauma, as a means of cognitive behavioral and exposure therapy.

History professor Udi Greenberg acknowledged the balance between challenging students and using trigger warnings to respect their mental health. In an email, he wrote that students need to engage with material they find uncomfortable or disturbing in class, because the world is filled with uncomfortable issues and confronting them is part of being a thoughtful individual. At the same time, he said that it is crucial for professors to accommodate the mental health needs of their students by being clear about class materials.

At Dartmouth, professors have a variety of policies concerning difficult material covering in class.

Religion professor Randall Balmer teaches a course on religion and the civil rights movements. Because of some topics covered in his class, such as lynchings and the actions of Klu Klux Klan, he warns students at the beginning of the term and before specific parts of the lecture when he presents upsetting material. Psychology professor Janine Scheiner, who teachers classes on developmental psychology, similarly gives trigger warnings in her classses when she thinks students may want to opt out of certain films or parts of lectures.

Pyschological and brain sciences professor William Hudenko said he notices that this generation of college students is more outwardly concerned and sensitive to social issues and difficult material in school. Hudenko believes that increased sensitivtity to other people’s emotions in the classroom is a “generally positive trend.”

Lisa Baldez, government and Latin American, Latino and Carribean studies professor, said that if she were to give a trigger warning every time difficult emotional material was discussed and student took the opportunity to leave her classroom, there would be almost nothing left to learn in her course.

Baldez referenced a class she teaches on Latin American history and gender policies, which includes topics such as military dictatorship, violation of human rights and torture. However, before classes on especially difficult materials, Baldez said she tries to give the material context while acknowledging that these topics can and should very difficult and emotional to read about.

French professor Lucas Hollister, who teaches classes on French film, crime fiction and noir, intentionally does not give trigger warnings, as he is without any formal psychological training and therefore does not feel qualified to determine what will trigger students.

Hollister said he worries that trigger warnings could have a “chilling effect” on teachers who choose not to work with “safer canonical texts.” He said that while a teacher would never get in trouble for teaching a classic author like Albert Camus, he or she might not have the same sort of support for an “edgier text.” As a result, he said every time he puts together a syllabus with a difficult but valuable text he goes “around and around about where I put it on the syllabus.”

“When you’re teaching something that’s shocking or violent, you have to be careful with how you teach it and you have to do a lot more work with it yourself and you worry about treating it fairly,” he said. “Sometimes, I think, ‘I should just do a safer syllabus’ each time.”

Heschel made the distinction between a professor and a counselor in the classroom.

“I think we need to be really careful about expecting professors to also be counselors,” Heschel said. “We’re not and [for] most of us, we’re not trained in that. That’s not our job.”

However, Hollister said that at the beginning of the term he gives a “pseudo-trigger warning,” letting the class know that his syllabus tends to have “lot of material that might be difficult for people who don’t have an official medical condition.” For students who want to take the class and opt out of watching a particular film or reading novel that may be too intense, he is willing to work with them to choose a substitute movie or book, he said.

Mark Detzer, who teaches undergraduates psychology courses along with psychiatry courses at the Geisel School of Medicine, said that in cases of students with personal trauma who cannot discuss certain topics regardless of the circumstance, he allows them to “shift and approach it in a straight academic way” through a research paper or project, in order to prevent retraumatization. Detzer noted that students should be accountable and provide solid reasoning for making that request. Detzer does this to ensure students cannot completely opt out of a topic if it is included in the curriculum of a course.

Greenberg, who teaches courses on World War II and the history of Germany, said that he does not allow students to opt-out of class materials completely since he selects materials carefully that play an important role in class analysis and discussion. Once a student chooses to sign up for a class, he or she should expect to engage with all the assigned materials, he added.

Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Giavanna Munafo, who incorporates trigger warnings as a topic in her course, pointed out the term has become more vague.

“I don’t use the language of a trigger warning. For me it’s a problematic label if you don’t explain what we’re talking about and how complex it is,” she said. “A trigger is a psychological term and I’m talking about a more wider possible experiences people might have in relation to the text.”

The Health and Wellness center runs a first responder workshop for faculty through Dartmouth’s Center for Advance of Learning. Training happens on a regular basis so that faculty can learn what the impacts of trauma are and how they can respond to students who have been affected by sexual assault, Dartmouth Bystander Intervention manager Benjamin Bradley said.

Munafo said that professors who have taken it respect the program, but she is not sure the course is being offered regularly enough for people who would chose to complete it. She said one possibility would be if the chair of a department strongly suggested or required everyone within the department to take such a course.

Aside from using trigger warnings, professors emphasized the importance of creating a positive and safe classroom atmosphere.

The key is to set the tone where people can find a way to express their opinions in a respectful way and appreciate that part of the learning process is dealing with confrontational topics, Detzer said. Scheiner and Detzer agreed that in order for people to feel psychologically safe in the classroom, there needs to be ground rules that are enforced.

On the other hand, Heschel mentioned the fact that outside the classroom, safe atmospheres do not always exist and it is important for students to know how to handle difficult material practically and emotionally in the real world.

“I would like the world to be a safe space for everybody but it isn’t and we walk a fine line between eliminating anything upsetting that happens in college versus teaching students how to handle situations like that so that when they gradate they’ll know how to talk back and fix it,” she said.

English professor Christian Haines said that while some professors may consider trigger warnings as a threat to learning, faculty must recognize that, in part, trigger warnings can serve as a way for students to be more engaged in their education.

“I think we as faculty have to recognize that at least in part, trigger warnings are an attempt by students to participate in the governance of colleges and participate actively in their education,” Haines said. “I think that some professors see it as an affront to academia or learning. I think in most cases, it’s the opposite: it’s students saying, “Look, I’m really involved with my education and as such, I really want to have some input’ and I think we as faculty need to have some responsibility on how to negotiate or how to respond.”

Heschel similarly emphasized the personal and academic growth that can happen when students confront difficult issues, and Baldez also said that emotional reflection can enhance the learning process.

“I think [reflection] allows students to develop their own original take on the material that ultimately can lead to original research and insight,” Baldez said.