Why is the trigger warning debate important to me?
That’s a good question.
It is not because I have ever needed trigger warnings. Rather, it is because I feel that it is largely a conversation about students, without students.
I first became aware of the controversy when the University of Chicago (UC) released a letter to its incoming class of 2020 stating they do not support “safe spaces” or “so-called trigger warnings.” The letter was going viral on social media, and I was surprised by the number of people that were praising it.
This was during the peak times of the Trump campaign, when everyone was becoming very divided over several topics. However, instead of getting annoyed or angry at these people who were praising UC, I became very curious. Even though I had never really thought about the issue of trigger warnings, I found myself leaning toward the supporting side because, “Of course, I want students with trauma experience to be respected in the classroom.”
Nevertheless, as someone who wants to teach in the future, I found myself understanding many parts of the other side as well. It was during this time that I realized that the gap between supporters and opponents in the debate needed to be bridged. As I began to read more on this topic for the Emerging Scholars Fellowship, I started to realize that many supporters had concerns about implementing trigger warnings, and many opponents could see ways that warnings could be beneficial.
I found that the debate was not so “black and white.” However, I could not find a piece of writing that comprehensively considered the most important viewpoints and offered a way to start a conversation. That is what inspired my project.
I have spent the first two months of the fellowship drafting a paper to bridge the gap on the important questions in the trigger warning debate. The purpose is not to prove that one side is more right or wrong than the other. The purpose is to find a middle ground in the debate to create room for discussion. For example, offering a trigger warning may create a supportive environment for a student with a trauma. However, trigger warnings may also create a false sense of security for that student and instill fear in others.
The rhetoric of the debate right now is not based on facts; it is based on opinions. To bridge the gap, we have to respect each other’s opinions and consider the important issues, which is the education and mental health of all students—with and without trauma. Part of this is considering the stigma associated with seeking mental health services and the lack of access on many university campuses. If students do not have an active voice in the trigger warning debate, then these issues may not be realized.
Now that I have written my first draft of this paper, which largely revolves around opinions of professors and faculty, I want to focus on the active student voice. How can students start a conversation with their professors on the issue of trigger warnings? How can students who need trigger warnings discuss this topic with a professor who does not support them, or does not understand them? These are the conversations for which a self-exploration and discussion tool will come in handy.
For the next steps of my project, I plan to create a web page that will include:
- Important points on each side of the debate
- Reasons to start the conversation on trigger warnings (e.g. awareness, stigma, need for consistent policies)
- Self-exploration tools, or resources, that students can use to decide whether they would like to address the debate on trigger warnings in their school or classroom and what strategies they might take to do so (e.g. who can we talk to? who should be involved? how can we communicate our needs?)
- A pledge of commitment to bridge the gap by welcoming everyone’s needs and opinions into the conversation
For anyone who is skeptical about my project, please understand that this is not about proposing a case for mandatory trigger warning policies. This is about helping students who need trigger warnings, or groups of students who support them, to advocate for themselves on campus. It is also a way to respect the concerns of professors regarding academic freedom and job security.
As long as my project allows these students to have a voice, and makes it easier for faculty to listen and understand, I will consider it a success.