Trigger Warnings in Art and Academia

Last week, on the Facebook group for the literary citizenship class I took with the amazing Cathy Day, a conversation started about trigger warnings in writing and in a college setting. It quickly became clear that while many students were familiar with trigger warnings and would appreciate them, professors had, in many cases, never heard of triggers, much less trigger warnings.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to come at this topic, because there’s so much to talk about. Ultimately I’ve decided to come at it the way I do most things – rooted in my personal experience.

A couple of current students in Cathy’s literary citizenship class, Haley Muench and Rianne Hall, have already posted about this topic, and you should go read what they have to say. I will not be responding to what they have said so much as expanding on it. Rianne doesn’t specify, but Haley at least is coming at this from the perspective of someone who has no triggers but is raising her awareness of them (which is awesome), and I would like to come from the perspective of someone who does have triggers.

First off: What is a trigger? First, let me tell you what it isn’t. It is not:

  • Something that causes someone to feel kinda uncomfortable
  • The results of weakness or immaturity
Actually not an exaggeration

Actually not an exaggeration

Triggers cause panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, hyperventilating. They cause full changes in mood and can make someone irritable or anxious for days. And not just kind-of-nervous anxious – the kind of anxiety with physical symptoms. Racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea. Triggers can even cause vivid flashbacks, like the kind experienced by soldiers with PTSD.

People who are triggered are not weak. They are people who have experienced trauma and who are still in recovery. There is nothing weak or immature about people who have triggers.

Trigger warnings are here to help people prevent being triggered. Trigger warnings do not say, “Don’t write about this topic.” They are saying, “Give people a warning.” Give people a chance to make an informed choice. Give them a chance to consent to handling sensitive material.

I’ve seen people saying that this kind of “coddling” won’t help people with trauma, that they need to face it head on. So, here’s my question: Are you my therapist?

No, really. Are you? What gives you the authority to decide what anyone – much less strangers – needs to overcome their trauma? Where does your magical expertise come from? Are you a therapist who has spent hours and hours in sessions with all of these people? Did you use that information to carefully determine what they needed for a healthy recovery?

I’m gonna bet no. And even if you are a therapist, you’re not everyone’s therapist. You cannot make a broad, sweeping statement about what everyone who has experience trauma needs.

If you’re a trauma victim who doesn’t get triggered or need warnings, great! But there are plenty who do, and you can’t discount them just because you experience trauma differently. Everyone does. It was two years after being raped that I suddenly stopped being able to take the bus or go to class without severe anxiety (both involved confined environments with men that were difficult to escape). For many others, that sort of anxiety/paranoia sets in immediately or not at all.

“But wait!” some people say. “There are too many things that upset people! How can we possibly predict everything?”

Well, you can’t. But is that a reason not to try? I don’t think it is. If you’re not sure what to warn for, here are some good ones to start with: Sexual assault and rape, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and self harm, and graphic violence.

“Shouldn’t we be talking about things that make us uncomfortable?”

Absolutely! We should write and talk about the hard topics (though there are discussions to be had on like seriously do we need anymore graphic rape scenes?). We should be free to write about what we want, and people should be free to choose what they want to read or watch.

“The world comes without trigger warnings, so why should anything else?”

Precisely because the world comes without them. Out in the world, I have men yelling at me from cars telling me to join Weight Watchers. I have people calling me a slut, whore, bitch. I have strange men at bus stations touching my tattoos and harassing me. So what’s wrong with making classrooms safer spaces than the rest of the world?

There seems to be this attitude that people who ask for trigger warnings don’t understand that the world is a hard place. I’m pretty sure that the people who need those warnings actually understand that better than most. I understand that, statistically and in my personal experience, I can’t trust men to listen to me saying “no”. I can’t trust them to let me have control over what happens to my body. So what’s wrong with wanting control over what I read and watch? Of wanting to make informed decisions over whether or not I can handle the content in a class?

I don’t think it’s difficult to add a simple statement or warning to a book about what to expect. You can even just include it in the synopsis on the back. Haley Muench’s post uses the book Towelhead by Alicia Erian as an example. It doesn’t explicitly say “this contains rape” but you can tell from the synopsis that something bad is going to happen. And at a reading, you can just say the story you’re about to read contains suicide or extreme violence – then people can choose to walk away for a little bit.

When it comes to how to accommodate students with triggers, I have far, far fewer answers, so I talked to former and current students to ask about their experiences and opinions. Most students said that they’d never been warned for anything, and several described situations in which they were triggered in class and didn’t feel that they could escape the situation. They didn’t want to draw attention to how uncomfortable they were or to ‘out’ themselves as a victim to the entire class.

One MFA student said: “I don’t personally have triggers, but I am a huge supporter of warnings in an academic environment — to me it’s incredibly basic necessity, given that you’re there to learn, you’re in a situation that has no easy escape, and you can’t learn if you’re trapped in a triggered situation.”

Because that’s what it feels like: Being trapped. “Just leave the class” is easier said than done. It’s better to be pre-warned so that you can either prepare yourself for the material or so that you can talk to your professor about accommodation. Ultimately, the student consensus was that trigger warnings would be greatly appreciated.

Of course, it can easily become very complicated. Where do you draw the line on what to warn about? What happens if a student can’t handle most of the material in the class? How, as a teacher, do you balance giving warnings with giving accommodations? I don’t have a lot of answers, but I don’t think that complexity is a reason not to help people.

Trigger warnings in classes are not about censorship, being weak, or asking to be treated like a precious snowflake. They’re about providing a safe learning environment. What’s wrong with that?

21 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings in Art and Academia

  1. Marina G says:

    “There seems to be this attitude that people who ask for trigger warnings don’t understand that the world is a hard place. I’m pretty sure that the people who need those warnings actually understand that better than most.” SO MUCH THIS

    The other nice thing about trigger warnings is that they give you a space to opt out in which you WON’T look weird for it. Although it’s annoying to have people know you’re avoiding a trigger, in my experience it’s way less fun to wonder how bad you must look for leaving in the middle of something when nobody has any indication of why you might be doing it.

  2. Josh Winn says:

    When is the appropriate time to give a trigger warning?

    I don’t have any triggers, but I feel like, if I did and a professor gave a trigger warning right before reading something or playing something with a trigger in it, I would be too afraid of “outing” myself (as you say) to move or say anything about it or do anything at all.

    Maybe I wouldn’t be too afraid; I don’t know, not having any triggers. At any rate, I feel like giving the warning with sufficient lead time is important as well.

    I certainly don’t see any reason not to give trigger warnings. There’s nothing to gain by omitting a trigger warning.

    My first thought on a reason for not giving a warning was, “What if they’re going for shock value?”

    But how horrible would it be to value shocking your students one time–which might fail anyway, given how desensitized many without triggers are these days–at the cost of terrorizing someone who has a trigger? What a horribly askew set of priorities.

    Thank you for the post; it was very insightful and informative. If I hear of anyone grappling with trigger warnings and whether or not to give them, I will point them here.

    • smhollowell says:

      In a classroom setting, I think warnings should be given at least a day in advance of the material so that the student has a chance to talk to the professor. Ideally, if any books were being read or movies watched that could be triggering, it should be mentioned in the syllabus. Because I totally agree, if it was like, “Hey right now we are going to watch a movie about rape,” I wouldn’t be able to stand up and say, “Can I leave?” I would freeze up, stare at my desk, and end up trying not to have a breakdown.

      I wouldn’t surprised it there are definitely people who are more concerned with shock value than triggers, and I agree those people seriously need to think about their priorities.

    • smhollowell says:

      As I said in my post, people who are triggered already know that. We’re victims of trauma. We know the world sucks, and we know the world will trigger us. Maybe we’ll see someone who looks like our abuser or rapist on the bus. Maybe someone in our neighborhood will set off fireworks. Maybe we’ll get stuck in a conversation with someone insensitive.

      These are triggers that we can’t predict, control, or prepare for. There are no warnings for these, and we know it, because this is our life.

      So why not make classrooms into safer spaces than the world outside them?

  3. Haley Morgan says:

    Insightful post Sarah, I agree that the complexity of this issue should not make professors shy away. In fact, it should challenge them to listen to their students who are advocating this. Other than this conversation with Cathy Day I can’t recall the last time a professor truly asked for their students’ opinions on such a topic, especially one that would challenge the way they teach and present material. I have seen the conversations that the professors are having and they’re not very pretty at times. There seems to be a lot of miscommunication about them that could be cleared away by having a straightforward and kind-hearted conversation about triggers and what they mean for academia.
    Thank you for sharing your experiences, I know it can be hard but I hope that this conversation we’re starting gets moving. I’m thinking about talking to my Womens Studies prof about this subject as she is also the director for the Disability Services and accommodations. I wonder if she can tell me how students have asked for accommodations in these situations.
    Also, Cotty (above comment) I hesitate to believe you read Sarah’s post closely at all to have less than ten words to say.

  4. riannehall88 says:

    I love all of this post. It speaks so much truth. Thank you for putting your opinion out into the world, it is needed.

    As for the “Just leave the classroom” thing, I don’t think people realize exactly how difficult that can be. This is important for Professors to think about when considering if they should include trigger warnings in their lessons and how far in advance these trigger warning needs to be stated. If a student walks into a classroom and the Professor says, “Oh, we are watching a documentary which contains (insert trauma here). Feel free to leave if you need to”, this puts the student in the dilemma of outing him/herself as a “victim” by leaving the classroom or possibly putting themselves into a dangerous mental state by watching the thing. There’s no winning.

  5. Cathy Day says:

    I would be willing to make accommodations for a student *if* their therapist is involved and they have documentation through Disability Services. I need that letter. That process allows for the student to get individual attention as well. I can’t allow students to opt out via personal request with no documentation. What do you think about that?

    • smhollowell says:

      I think that makes a lot of sense, actually, and it’s not an unreasonable request. I think students don’t often realize how much documentation like that helps professors help us. I would also say that’s a good argument for an early warning in the syllabus, and then students would have time to get that letter.

      Because the thing is, I heard that “come to me if you have a disability” part of the standard syllabus dozens of times every semester and it didn’t even occur to me to get a letter for my depression until a teacher told me Disability Services would help me with that. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of students are in the same boat – “Oh, I’m not in a wheel chair, I don’t have special learning needs, they wouldn’t help with that” – when in fact, Ball State at least is awesome about helping out students with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

      I’d be curious to talk to Disability Services and find out if they writer letters specifically for triggers. I’m guessing that if the student’s therapist suggests it then, yes, they would, but I’ve never asked.

      • Marina G says:

        I think most people don’t think of Disability Services as something that will help them with psychological problems. On my campus, at least, the only services published on their website have to do with physical or learning disabilities. I literally have no idea if they would accommodate triggers and trauma, because it has never been mentioned–not even when I was at the campus counseling center or the Office of Victim Assistance, talking to people, trying to cope with the burden of classwork plus PTSD. It never occurred to me until just now, and I always rather assumed that they would just send me back to Victim Assistance.

        Which could be a failure of communication by Disability Services or the Office of Victim Assistance or both, but either way, I think it might be nice for professors putting trigger warnings in their syllabus to also mention to students that Disability Services can help them there.

    • smhollowell says:

      Thank you for the links! I am seriously always interested in hearing what Roxane has to say on something, and I find her writing on this especially valuable considering that she’s been on so many sides of this – as someone with triggers, as a writer, blogger, teacher.

      I ultimately still come down on the side of, “Just because you don’t need it, just because it’s complicated, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.” I agree that there’s no way to know every single thing that will trigger a person. I can’t even know every single thing that will trigger me, and I don’t expect my teachers or people on the internet to know. Roxane talks about how trigger warnings often just make her want to read something more, and I’ve had that same experience. They can backfire. It’s so, so far from a perfect system, because everyone is so different and reacts to the world uniquely.

      But again – complexity doesn’t seem like a reason to me to just not do anything to help someone if you can. There are some basic warnings you can give out and you don’t even have to put “trigger warning” in big red letters on the syllabus or in a book. In a class you can just say, “We’re going to deal with some difficult topics. This book contains some heavy abuse scenes. Come talk to me if you need help.” I think it was Haley that pointed out that we do that with Holocaust videos in school. In multiple classes we have watched videos on the Holocaust and we have always been warned beforehand about the material and given the opportunity not to watch it. At the very least, it seems like we can warn about some other big things like rape, especially when you’re unlikely to have Holocaust survivors in your class but almost guaranteed to have people who have been sexually assaulted.

      Roxane also talks about how maybe trigger warnings stop people from dealing with the source of their triggers, and I understand where she’s coming from and why people want to talk about that, but I’m still going to say that’s not up to us to decide for someone.

      I find her comments about it feeling like censorship really interesting, particularly the part about how it makes her want to “temper the intensity” of what she has to say. That actually makes a lot of sense to me and I hadn’t really thought about it. It’s easy to say that’s it’s not censorship (I still don’t think it is, at least when it’s handled as a warning, it’s about giving people a chance to make an informed choice on what they consume), but this stuff can get into your head. It can make you go, “Oh, wait, maybe I shouldn’t say that so harshly,” and that can absolutely hurt your art.

      I am so, so not about censoring yourself or others, and reading her posts does complicate my feelings on trigger warnings in art. I’m going to have to think more about that.

      On trigger warnings in colleges, though – I don’t think they should be mandatory (the topic of that second link). I’m not a big fan of forcing people to do something. I *am* a big fan of educating people and convincing them that something is worthwhile, and I think that making classrooms safe(r) spaces is important and worthwhile.

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