Vanessa Diaz was scribbling notes for her “African Diaspora” class last semester when her professor stopped and made an informal announcement to the room.
“If it’s too much,” he said, “you don’t have to look at it.”
The lecture that day was to be centered on the historical lynchings of African Americans in the United States, coupled with graphic images and detailed narratives of the individuals killed. The professor made it clear that if any students wanted to excuse themselves, they had the right to.
The professor’s precaution, though small, is indicative of a growing trend in the college classroom of implementing trigger warnings: verbal or written disclaimers meant to warn students of potentially distressing material preceding its dissemination.
While originating as a means to predominantly protect students who have previously experienced trauma, the practice’s effects are now causing a tug-of-war between the needs of a professor’s academic freedom and those of students’ well-being.
“Students have the right not to be traumatized in the classroom,” said Diaz, a junior majoring in American studies and executive co-director of USC’s Women’s Student Assembly. “The trigger warning in the syllabus from class that day had me prepared. I walked in knowing what I was getting into and knowing beforehand that I could deal with it.”
Diaz and other student advocates of trigger warnings encourage their utility at universities as a safe way to prevent mental health relapses in the classroom, and some members of the faculty agree.
Leslie Berntsen, a teaching assistant for introductory psychology classes and chair of the TA Fellows program at the Center for Excellence in Teaching, uses trigger warnings in her discussions. She said reaction is overwhelmingly positive, and that students have emailed her after class, thanking her for the “heads up” before particularly sensitive topics.
“I don’t think there’s anything particularly radical about [trigger warnings],” Berntsen said. “It’s not a huge deal, my academic freedom has never been threatened, my classroom has not combusted.”
Nevertheless, the fear among faculty is there, and not all share Bernsten’s enthusiasm. Anthony Sparks, now a professor at California State University, Fullerton, was Diaz’s African Diaspora professor. He said that his decision in class that day was more an exception to the rule than a common practice, and in general, he finds the idea of trigger warnings debilitating to the classroom.
“For me, a trigger warning is more wrapped up in comforting a student — making them comfortable at all times — versus providing context and giving the student a framework in order to view, encounter or discuss the material,” he said. “There’s a difference between the two.”
Similarly, Alison Trope, clinical professor of communication and director of undergraduate studies in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, thinks that students should have the right to excuse themselves if they are especially affected by course material, but doesn’t believe trigger warnings should be required on teacher’s syllabi. For her, the practice is treating a symptom of a larger problem: a need for greater cultural competency and sensitivity among faculty and students.
“A trigger warning should not be necessary if, as members of an academic community, we can be sensitive and empathetic partners in an ongoing dialogue,” she wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan.
Trope and Sparks aren’t alone on campus in their hesitations. Trope, who is also co-chair of the newly formed Academic Senate Committee on Campus Climate, said the topic has not been discussed explicitly within the committee but notes there are strong sentiments among faculty — both at USC and nationwide — concerning the cost of trigger warnings.
“The main hesitation faculty have (important caveat … this is not ALL faculty, nor is this limited to USC) is twofold,” Trope wrote. “Trigger warnings are seen as a potential threat to academic freedom. And, related, they are characterized (or mischaracterized in some cases) as ‘coddling’ students.”
These two points are the most frequently cited reasons against trigger warnings, most notably in the idea of the practice sheltering students from harmful discourse. An Atlantic cover story last September dubbed “The Coddling of the American Mind,” was an 8,000-word piece deriding the practice as counterintuitive to treating mental health and indicative of an increasingly sensitive generation, and the most notable example of public backlash.
For some students at USC, national outcry from older generations has them both frustrated and on the defensive.
“I was really disappointed [by it],” said Sophia Li, a junior majoring in law, history and culture and sociology, regarding media coverage maligning trigger warnings. “I usually love The Atlantic, [but] I think it completely missed the point and mischaracterized the point of trigger warnings and the people advocating for them.”
Diaz, too, was thrown off by what she sees as a blatant lack of empathy among critics, and an inability to view those in the classroom in a multidimensional fashion.
“People try to separate the student and the person,” she said. “Logic and emotion don’t exist in binary ways. The idea that we should remove our own experiences is impossible.”
This trend of confusion is common. Those advocating trigger warnings see them as beneficial for those who need them and inconsequential for those who don’t. Questions of academic freedom and student “coddling,” they say, are misinformed and misguided.
“I wish [critics] would take a step back and reflect why they think they’re qualified to determine what people are allowed to be offended by,” Berntsen said. “This entire debate about trigger warnings comes down to basic human empathy. These aren’t radical concepts, but somehow the entire discourse has evolved into something that I don’t understand.”
Here at USC, some of the practice’s most vocal critics have reached campus. At a speaking event hosted by the USC College Republicans in October, journalist Milo Yiannopoulos maligned trigger warnings as an egregious and intolerable offense against the academic culture of a university. Students requesting them, he said, shouldn’t be at college.
“My basic response to this is anyone who wants a trigger warning should be immediately expelled,” Yiannopoulos said. “They’ve demonstrated that they are incapable of completing requirements of their course. They’ve chosen to use slippery and unnecessary tactics based on dodgy cognitive science to suggest that people can’t be exposed to certain ideas because they’re so hurtful or traumatic. All of this is nonsense.”
While not nearly as hyperbolic in tone, there are some students who agree that trigger warnings don’t necessarily belong in an academic setting.
The leading campus student organization on mental health, the USC National Alliance on Mental Illness, or USC NAMI, came out with an official response against trigger warnings in response to this article. The organization cited the practice as harming students’ mental health rather than helping it and allowing for censorship in the classroom. While they said that professors should allow an alternative assignment or excused absence from class if a student specifically asks in advance, they stressed it is the student’s responsibility, not the professor’s, to address the issue.
“NAMI does not support trigger warnings,” the statement read. “Despite the good intentions behind trigger warnings, we believe they would be detrimental to the student population in more ways than one.”
In an interview, USC NAMI co-presidents Steve Navarrete and Rosemarie Wilson expanded that the diversity of mental health illnesses coupled with the professor’s necessity to teach freely makes trigger warnings both burdensome and predominantly unnecessary.
“You can’t possibly warn everyone for something,” Navarrete said. “Where do you draw that line? Where does it become appropriate? It really limits what you can do as a professor, and as a professor you don’t want to be limited. You want to be able to discuss what the world is. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do here as a university, which is to learn, not be censored. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
As of now, there is nothing in existence nor immediately planned at USC to mandate or even encourage professors to issue trigger warnings. But as the dialogue surrounding mental health increases on campuses nationwide, more eyes are shifting to the responsibility of campus educators.
“We’re clearly showing a shift toward mental health at USC, but there’s still more the University could do,” Wilson said. “Professors and faculty members need to be trained better on mental health because a lot don’t know how to respond to crisis.”