Trigger Warnings

“Trigger warnings,” also referred to as “content warnings” or “classroom warnings,” are a practice whereby a warning is given in advance of reading or viewing content that includes graphic descriptions or depictions of violence. These warnings may appear in the syllabus and may be announced in or prior to class. The function of the warning is twofold: first, to help students prepare for encounters with violent content, especially in the event that such encounters trigger post-traumatic stress responses (PTSD) or distress that may interfere with learning, and second, to give students autonomy to determine whether or not, and in what context, they choose to view or engage with content that depicts violence.

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality programs have engaged in various practices of warning for many years, particularly coming out of work on gender and sexual violence prevention and responses. In recent years, however, trigger warnings have gained popularity across disciplines and have come under political debate on higher education, with critics arguing that trigger warnings are a form of censorship or are infantilizing. Some research on trigger warnings has shown they are ineffective (Boysen 2017; Bryce et al. 2022). However, other research suggests that trigger warnings are more about the politics they signal to students, than the effect of the warning itself; for instance, by illustrating consideration over student wellbeing and the effects of learnings about violence (Bedera 2021; Carter 2015; Dyer et al 2024; Kouri-Towe 2023).

Faculty who are not already using trigger warnings in their classes may encounter students who request warnings in a class in advance of engagement with violent material, or they may react to violent material with demands for instituting warnings in the future. Further, some have advocated for using trigger warnings beyond depictions of violence to also include warnings before engaging with a text or content that is invalidating the lives and experiences of oppressed groups (e.g. transphobic content or texts written by “TERFs” – Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), or depictions of oppression more broadly.

Regardless of your own views on trigger warnings, faculty across disciplines are now in a position where we must reflect on what strategies we use in our teaching when grappling with content that may be difficult. Rather than arguing for a universal model of giving or refusing trigger warnings, consider how potentially difficult material is incorporated into your courses and identify strategies you can use to help your classes navigate these challenges. Reflect on what strategies you’ll use early on; talk with colleagues to determine disciplinary norms, common strategies, and areas for change; talk with students about their needs and requests; and share how and why you might be experimenting with different models and approaches to solicit feedback on how effective they are. Sharing that you are trying to learn how to deal with difficult material in the classroom can invite students to collaborate in that process.


Challenges in Applying Warnings

The use of warnings may appear to be a best practice in some contexts; however, there are contexts where warnings may not be appropriate or where warnings bypass more effective pedagogical approaches, such as:

  • Cases where warnings about encountering material discussing systemic violence and oppression cause privileged students to avoid learning from those materials
    • e.g. white students leaving a class that discusses racism; non-Indigenous students choosing not to read at text on residential schools; people dismissive of sexual violence;
  • Where offering warning functions to exclude people who have been traumatized from learning
    • e.g. victims of violence are told to leave the classroom rather than creating an environment where their experiences of violence are taken into consideration in the classroom;
  • Where calls for warnings are used to censor or silence discussion of systemic violence and oppression
    • e.g. under the pretense of religious freedom, a student says they should not be required to learn about homosexuality;
  • Situations where giving a warning serves as a justification for using or showing material that is explicitly violent with little pedagogical purpose
    • i.e. another text, material, example, or object would help with learning just as easily; and
  • Contexts where the university has failed to address and change publicly known conditions of systemic violence within the institution and where warnings are likely to be interpreted as complicity with institutional betrayal
    • e.g. the university has failed in its commitment to sexual violence prevention on campus.

While psychology research on trigger warnings has found that they are ineffective at preventing post-traumatic responses in students because triggers are highly specific to each individual or may be unpredictable (e.g. a smell or sound can trigger a post-traumatic response) (Boysen 2017), psychoanalytic approaches may provide helpful insights into the use of warnings.

In the area of psychoanalysis, the idea that one can avoid a traumatic response by preparing for it fails to understand how trauma functions (Saketopoulou 2023). Instead of expecting people to master their emotions in the classroom, psychoanalytic approaches to education scholars, such as Deborah Britzman (1998), propose an approach to education that recognizes the role of discomfort in learning. Rather than working to prevent difficult feelings from arising in education, this kind of approach acknowledges the potential for difficult emotions and trauma that can arise in spaces like the classroom and welcomes them as part of the learning environment. Although managing and facilitating charged emotional dynamics is not easily incorporated into most teaching approaches, acknowledging something difficult in a learning environment can go a long way in helping those in the classroom work through challenging classroom dynamics.

Other scholars argue that more than just giving students an option for accommodation calls for warnings (trigger warnings) signal a need for trauma-informed (Bedera 2021) and disability-justice-based (Carter 2015) approaches to education.

Survivors who experience institutional betrayal are at greater risk of anxiety, depression, sleep problems, sexual problems, and dissociation… The risk of institutional betrayal is especially pronounced among people of colour (e.g., Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour…) and queer people (e.g., lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, or queer people…). Institutional betrayal primarily takes place in organizations that a survivor trusted, making a classroom with a beloved professor a place where institutional betrayal is particularly likely and especially harmful.

Nicole Bedera

Rather than focusing on the warning itself, Bedera argues that faculty and educational institutions should work to prevent institutional betrayal, which includes the “refusal to take proactive steps in preventing or addressing victimization, responding inadequately to claims of trauma, minimizing the severity of a victim’s experience, making it difficult to report traumatic experiences, punishing victims in some way for coming forward, and creating an environment in which similar traumatic events seem more likely” (Bedera, 268). This suggests that rather than focusing exclusively on warnings in individual classrooms, faculty can contribute to institutional change by helping to address the pervasive forms of violence that shape post-secondary educational contexts and advocate for institutional accountability beyond the classroom itself.


Strategies for Warnings or Navigating Difficult Content

Take these frameworks and apply them to your course planning:

Plan
Provide
Prepare
Be clear
Make an agreement

Take these frameworks and apply them to your course planning:

Plan

Plan in advance how you’ll address, intervene, support, and facilitate discussion that engages with difficult material, violent content, disclosure from students, or other challenges in the course. Even though you cannot predict these scenarios, having a plan can better prepare you if and when circumstances arise. This should also involve familiarizing yourself with resources available to support students and a plan for yourself in case a disclosure affects your own well-being (sometimes called vicarious or secondary trauma).

Provide

Check in with yourself before class. Are you feeling emotionally regulated, agitated, or dissociated? This can help you reflect on what your own capacity is as you enter the class and help you identify whether you need to adjust your plan for class based on your capacity that day.

Prepare

Prepare a list of resources on and off campus, with descriptions of how these resources can be used. Remind students of these resources throughout the semester, and perhaps even invite someone from one of these organizations to come speak in the class about the services they provide.

Be Clear

Be clear early in the course about what kind of difficult or violent content you may be engaging within the course and why this material is being included.If including material that uses violent language or ideas as part of learning about the ideologies of violence and oppression (e.g. reading a historic text on eugenics), explain beforehand how that text is being used and emphasize that reading the text is not an endorsement of those texts, authors, or ideas.

Make an Agreement

Invite students to set out a model for how they’d like difficult material to be introduced, such as:

  1. what processes would they like you to follow,
  2. what conditions of engagement would they like from their peers,
  3. what support would they like,
  4. what kinds of alternatives would be helpful to have available, and
  5. what should be done when someone makes a mistake.
If someone does share their experience of trauma in class, follow Nicole Bedera’s suggestion to “model a respectful response to the disclosure, such as thanking the survivor for sharing their story and allowing the survivor to choose when to engage with the class after making their original comment. Treat the survivor as an expert on their own trauma… but avoid requiring survivors to continue to educate” (Bedera 2021, 5).

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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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