Rachel Lu is currently a sophomore in the Leventhal School of Accounting, with plans of graduating in May 2018. Skipping her senior year of high school, she entered the University of Southern California through the Resident Honors Program and is currently a presidential scholar. On campus, Rachel is an active member of Accounting Society and involved in Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. She also enjoys walking dogs, folding origami, and watching movies in her free time.
Counterproductive Warnings: College Students Benefit from Contact Over Circumvention
As trigger warning usage gains momentum on the internet, debates about the implementation of trigger warnings in academia rage on between students, professors and administrators alike. Typically applied to topics concerning violence, sexual abuse, and rape, trigger warnings serve as a thin, protective veil for students afflicted with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These warnings attempt to minimize—not extinguish—potential triggers as many triggers such as certain smells and sounds prove impossible to predict much less manage and vary from person to person. The individualization and volatile nature of triggers then brings into question the use of trigger warnings in a learning environment as well as the effects it has on trauma survivors. While advocates of mandating trigger warnings in universities underscore students’ right to emotional well-being, trigger warnings hinder free speech and as a result, higher education. Requiring trigger warnings in the academy creates a dilemma in that a balance between students’ welfare and the first amendment right to freedom of speech will need to be defined. Countless professors view the proliferation of trigger warnings as a threat to academic integrity and as a sign of a growing generation of hypersensitive students who cannot deal with discomfort. Instructors pinpoint that exposure to various ideas and material, provocative or not, is essential in a learning environment. Although trauma survivors may need or desire some form of accommodation in colleges, obligatory blanket trigger warnings serve only as a reactive solution and conflict with the academic engagement of undergraduates—trauma survivors or not.
University-wide trigger warnings fail to acknowledge and treat the root cause of the issue, PTSD. Colleges—instead of holding professors accountable for assisting trauma survivors—should provide student disability services that grant trauma survivors access to medical professionals in order to actively treat PTSD, getting to the core of the problem. Rather than holding professors liable for handling students with PTSD at the surface level, universities should offer a systemic solution to a systemic problem. For example, the College of William and Mary offers extensive disability services for students diagnosed with PTSD including access to a PTSD treatment center on therapy as well as medication to ease symptoms. Moreover, depending on personal circumstances, students with PTSD can enroll in smaller classes, take classes online, and have classes recorded when practicable (College of William and Mary). Accommodations like the ones provided by the College of William and Mary directly address the anxiety disorder instead of dumping the responsibility of managing PTSD’s aftermath on faculty. Trigger warnings only act as additional assistance for trauma survivors rather than an actual solution. Student disability services, on the other hand, allow students suffering from PTSD to maximize and enhance their educational experience while curing the heart of the problem.
Furthermore, functioning as a tool that encourages and permits avoidance, trigger warnings threaten to exacerbate PTSD and the feelings of vulnerability and defenselessness associated with trauma. For trauma survivors “avoidance of pain oftentimes encysts and calcifies trauma” and therefore, “working with pain rather than against it becomes crucial. Wrestling with that which one cannot manage is how growth happens” (Saketopoulou). If avoidance delays recovery, then trigger warnings actually work against its original purpose of aiding trauma survivors. The PTSD healing process benefits from contact rather than circumvention. Treatment for an individual afflicted with PTSD often involves candidly talking about traumatic event as well as exposure-based cognitive behavioral therapy in which the patient verbally or mentally recalls the traumatic experience while using learned coping mechanisms (Dryden-Edwards). Hence, enforcing blanket trigger warnings as a policy in academia is a fruitless effort to assist PTSD-diagnosed students and even goes on to clash with the intellectual engagement of undergraduates in general.
University-wide trigger warnings not only counter-intuitively hurt PTSD-diagnosed students but also obstruct exposure and prohibit intellectual growth for the student body as a whole. As noted in the article “Trigger Happy” by Jenny Jarvie, “engaging with ideas involves risk” and “slapping warnings on them undermines the principle of intellectual exploration.” Trigger warnings bring about an exaggerated and superfluous fixation on students’ feelings. Certain subjects that give rise to discomfort need to be taught in order to keep students from becoming victims themselves and allow for mobilization. For example, in junior high school, students take a mandatory health class that incorporates sexual education. Despite being an awkward and even uncomfortable topic for pre-teens going through puberty, learning the subject matter proves crucial in preventing teenage pregnancies and promoting safe sex. Students—conflating trauma to uneasiness—mistakenly believe that they need college-wide trigger warnings to safeguard them from feelings of disturbance. As a result, they prioritize their personal welfare over academic exploration that facilitates worldly thinking and allows them to break free from an insular mentality.
The mandatory employment of trigger warnings in universities also infantilizes students, reducing undergraduates to a child-like status. Trigger warnings prohibiting students’ growth to adulthood, by diminishing the amount of material deemed appropriate for the classroom. As legal undergraduates should expect to encounter disturbing subject matter in university classrooms and be ready to handle provocative material and feelings of discomfort. Academics accentuate that trigger warnings “suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace” (Medina). Indeed, students with PTSD do have a “fragility of mind” as they are enduring a psychiatric disorder and require a range of psychological treatments. Likewise, students without PTSD also have their share of topics that although not trauma-inducing, may cause feelings of disturbance and discomfort. Yet, that does not mean trauma survivors and non-trauma survivors cannot embrace provoking material. Trigger warnings cause the sidestepping of displeasing discussions for the sake of “protecting” students. However, in order to protect students, awareness is better than avoidance. Students need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and observe the world from diverse perspectives—not blocked from learning course content that is subjectively judged traumatizing.
Moreover, professors, not properly equipped to deal with or treat PTSD, should not be expected to judge what class content may trigger trauma survivors and merits a warning. As Lisa Duggan notes, “realist representations of trauma are not the reliable triggers people think they are,” and it is impossible to “predict what will induce a PTSD reaction to past trauma.” The ability of trigger warnings to reduce the probability of sparking a PTSD reaction is dubious at best and instructors are not fit to handle this medical problem. The unpredictability of triggers render nearly everything a potential trigger be it a certain sound, smell, color, person, or a particular date. Subsequently, professors cannot identify what warrants a warning and instilling trigger warnings does not solve a trauma survivor’s PTSD but merely postpones dealing with the medical issue. Students afflicted with PTSD will sooner or later graduate from college and enter a world containing triggers unprotected. Asking and requiring professors to implement trigger warnings is a procrastinator’s insufficient solution to a clinical condition.
In addition, obligatory trigger warnings impede on the academic freedom of faculty and endanger the crucial widespread awareness of disturbing realities. When universities become “preoccupied with students’ feelings of harm,” they “risk open[ing] the door to a never-ending litany of requests” (Jarvie). Students may abuse blanket trigger warnings, exploiting them as a means of avoiding certain class content they do not want to study. They can almost always make a case for why a particular topic “upsets” them. Likewise, instructors fearing complaints from students about offending them or inducing discomfort, may circumvent important but controversial topics altogether. With restrictive trigger warnings in place in colleges, students are not capitalizing on their education and professors are bounded by an administrative policy that guards individualized sensitivities and harms free speech. Mandatory trigger warnings also discredit educators who have likely carefully considered what they are going to present in the first place. Many professors already deliver some type of warning— orally or on the class syllabi—for potentially upsetting issues and need not be constrained by administrative regulations. Although a classroom should be a physically secure space, it is not a mentally sheltered location but a setting in which instructors and students can openly discuss and engage with taboo topics. Since most educators voluntarily provide warnings before polemic discussions, an administrative policy that makes content warnings mandatory proves pointless and is subject to misuse.
At the most, trigger warnings should be voluntary for professors and not a university-wide policy. With no evidence that trigger warnings can decrease the probability of PTSD reactions in the academy, the efficacy of trigger warnings cannot be assumed or proven. Furthermore, as trigger warnings serve as a reactive solution, they neither help heal the underlying medical condition nor can be implemented effectively due to the unpredictability and uniqueness of triggers. Student disability services that provide access to medical professionals as well as medication remain a better solution. These services clinically treat PTSD and prepare patients to lead normal lives upon graduation from college. For the trauma survivors who do not file with student disability services colleges should employ a hotline—much like the national suicide prevention lifeline and PTSD hotline that already exists—that would allow for students to anonymously contact their college’s student disability services and hopefully be convinced of getting diagnosed and receiving treatment. Despite the widespread use of trigger warnings online and their rising popularity in universities, trigger warnings do not foster any explicit advantage and advocates should beware of succumbing to the bandwagon effect. Mandatory trigger warnings prove counterproductive in both healing students suffering from PTSD and maintaining the academic freedom and exploration of universities.
“Dean of Students Disability Services.” William & Mary – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder & the College Student Web. 01 Mar. 2015. http://www.wm.edu/offices/deanofstudents/services/resources/ptsd/index.
Dryden-Edwards, Roxanne. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms, Causes, Treatment – What Is the Treatment for PTSD? – MedicineNet.” MedicineNet. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2015. http://www.medicinenet.com/posttraumatic_stress_disorder/page6.htm
Duggan, Lisa. “On Trauma and Trigger Warnings, in Three Parts.” Bullybloggers. 3 Nov. 2014.
Jarvie, Jenny. “Trigger Happy.” New Republic. 3 Mar. 2014.
Johnston, Angus. “Why I’ll Add a Trigger Warnings.” Inside Higher Ed. 29 May 2014.
Loverin, Bailey. “Trigger warnings avert trauma: Opposing view.” USA Today. 21 Apr. 2014.
Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 May 2014. Web. 01 Mar. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/us/warning-the-literary-canon-could-make-students-squirm.html?smid=fb-share&_r=3
Saketopoulou, Avgi. “Trauma Lives Us: Affective Excess, Safe Spaces and the Erasure of Subjectivity.” Bully Bloggers. N.p., 06 Dec. 2014. Web. 01 Mar. 2015. https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/trauma-lives-us-affective-excess-safe-spaces-and-the-erasure-of-subjectivity/