Warning: This class could disturb you

Trigger warnings are a student-led movement gaining steam on college campuses across the country.
Trigger warnings are a student-led movement gaining steam on college campuses across the country.

Maya Weinstein, 20, doesn’t understand the controversy about campus trigger warnings, even though the George Washington University student is just the sort of person they are designed to protect.

Trigger warnings are a student-led movement gaining steam on college campuses across the country, from Berkeley to Brandeis, that encourage professors to provide a disclaimer on the syllabi or at the beginning of classes and lectures so that students who have been exposed to significant adversity – especially rape victims, veterans and others who may be prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – can avoid reliving their trauma.

“I think it’s really important to have trigger warnings in the classroom,” said Weinstein, a sexual assault survivor majoring in criminal justice and human services. “There are some topics that you can’t just throw on people. You can’t just put on a movie with graphic scenes and not warn people that that is coming.”

But others see trigger warnings as infringing upon academic freedom. Jonathan Margulis, a 23-year-old senior majoring in architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that “people get way too worked up by political correctness and [are] afraid to offend people. Part of free speech is that people can say what they want. If you are offended … stop listening to that person.”


While still a new phenomenon on campuses, trigger warnings started more than a decade ago on feminist websites and forums to alert sexual abuse victims of potentially traumatic articles and pictures online. Much of the more recent controversy surrounds trigger warnings used in classroom discussions about topics unrelated to sexual assault, including racism, sexism and classism (discrimination against people based on social class).

“I’ve heard professors are being accused of insensitivity for not warning about potentially traumatic scenes in classic works. Obviously there is something absurd about this, and not just absurd, even insidious,” said Daniel Schwartz, associate professor of history at George Washington University.

“Part of my vision of a university is of opening people’s minds. College is not supposed to be an entirely safe experience intellectually. You’re supposed to be challenged.”

However, Schwartz does believe that, in a moderate form, trigger warnings make sense when introducing certain material. He cited a course he taught on the Holocaust as an example of when an advanced warning would be appropriate.

A recent column in The Jerusalem Post decried campus speech codes such as trigger warnings as a threat to free expression and cautioned that they could have the chilling effect of silencing the pro-Israel community. “The problem for Jewish students is that showing support for Israel on campus can be very offensive to anti-Israel students,” the article stated.

Schwartz teaches a course on the history of Israel, and he attempts to provide both narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given heightened sensitivities and that Israel has become a highly politicized issue, Schwartz gives what he describes as a few words of caution before the semester starts, but he is quick to point out that he doesn’t consider it a trigger warning.

“I start up the semester by acknowledging that students — whatever their background may be, whatever side they are coming from — that they might find some of the things they are reading shocking, disturbing and infuriating,” said Schwartz. “And we do hold debates in the class on some major questions in Israeli historiography, Zionist historiography, about Zionism and colonialism, 1948, Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. And I even tell people that you might be assigned to argue a position that you find personally abhorrent. So there is that kind of warning. But no one gets protected from anything.”

Maxine Grossman, an associate professor at University of Maryland’s Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies, isn’t threatened by the advent of trigger warnings and is open to using them. “Academic discourse is constantly changing. There are standards of sensitivity that are quite different from when I was in college. There’s always going to be tension in the classroom between thoroughly addressing difficult topics and making sure that students survive the class session. It’s extraordinarily important to maintain a critical, intense intellectual atmosphere in class.

“That’s the first priority of a class. But there are obvious things that we can do as a community to make sure that we don’t make difficult conversations harder.”

It is important for faculty to listen to the students who are leading the trigger-warning movement, agreed clinical psychologist and Columbia University adjunct professor Susan Bodnar. She said that during a recent course on child psychopathology, she showed a YouTube video with disturbing scenes of kids doing drugs and told the class they had permission to leave. But Bodnar made sure to tell students they could leave for any reason such as a bathroom break, so as not to single anyone out.

“Personally I probably would never be a professor who said ‘OK, this video, it contains a trigger warning, anyone who is going to be uncomfortable should leave the room,’ because that would be an incredible violation of their privacy and everyone would look at who left the room and say ‘OK, it’s an issue for you.’ ”

Said Weinstein, the GWU student and assault survivor: “You don’t know what your students are going through and you don’t know what your classmates are going through. It really doesn’t hurt anyone to just give a little bit of a heads-up, and it definitely helps and saves a lot of grief.”

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