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Trigger Warning: History Ahead

This New Republic article on universities adopting policies that professors adopt “trigger warning” policies before material that may be potentially upsetting started a really interesting discussion among some of my friends on Facebook, and as I struggled with exactly what makes me so uncomfortable with this sort of policy, I realized that this might deserve a little more long-form discussion than Facebook really allows for.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a professor warning before students encounter material that may be upsetting. I’d certainly argue that it could well be considered common courtesy, and could easily be included in a list of best practices. Giving people an opportunity to brace themselves before encountering distressing material can be helpful. But there is a wide gap between a recommended practice and an institutional policy.  By endorsing “trigger warned syllabi” as a matter of policy, universities open themselves up to attacks for making people uncomfortable– which I would argue is inherently part of what higher education is supposed to do.

Tressie McMillan Cottom has written an (unsurprisingly) brilliant piece about this problematic situation: as she puts it,

…the ‘student-customer’ movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I think this is a very astute observation, and accurate. I think that “trigger warnings” on syllabi are likely to suppress resistance to dominant/oppressive discourses. But I’d like to push into the issue a bit more, specifically from the point of view of a historian.

I would argue that the things that are deemed worthy of trigger warnings are the very stuff of history. Rape, genocide, racism, oppression, enslavement, violence, terrorism, death, destruction… Without the ability to discuss these issues, and to do so openly and honestly, the work of history, and especially of a history professor, is essentially pointless. And adopting a policy that opens one up to reprimand or worse if one should forget to give a “trigger warning” each time you touch on these issues will do nothing but stifle and suppress professors from the important work of teaching their students about history.

When I, as a graduate student, consider a list of dream courses that I would love to teach: a historical survey through the lens of whiteness studies, a course on racial images in early 20th century American media, a class dealing with the lives of Black Americans in the North between 1880 and 1930… any of these classes would need a trigger warning over pretty much the entire syllabus. You might as well just write “Trigger Warning: History Ahead” at the top of the syllabus and be done with it. I literally cannot imagine a single session of these classes going on without a trigger warning proceeding the class, as the very material being discussed throughout is by nature inherently upsetting and problematic.

This goes beyond simple concerns about teaching controversial topics, however. Part of what I find most problematic about such policies is that they would make instructors nervous about using some of the most powerful teaching tools they have.

A lot of the language around what needs a trigger warning deal with issues of verisimilitude. The Geek Girl Wiki advises to give trigger warnings especially when descriptions are “graphic” or “extensive,” as well as “depictions, especially lengthy or psychologically realistic ones” of upsetting events or the psychological effects thereof. Likewise, a student statement opposing a piece of public sculpture at Wellesley made a point of singling out verisimilitude as part of what makes the sculpture objectionable: “The highly lifelike sculpture has become a source of apprehension, fear, and triggering thoughts regarding sexual assault for some members of our campus community.” (Emphasis mine.)

It is precisely this correlation between what is most similar to reality and what is most triggering that makes me supremely leery of institutional trigger warning requirements. Because if you talk to people who are not historians but have really been affected by a history class or a history teacher, it is often that class or instructor exposed them to primary sources and accounts that are among the most triggering things possible: lynching photos, accounts of holocaust survivors, slave narratives, etc…

Alison Landsberg, in Prosthetic Memory, discusses how in public history, exhibits can be designed in such a way to help create “prosthetic memories,”  to “produce empathy and social responsibility as well as political alliances that transcend race, class, and gender.” These primary sources, properly contextualized in a classroom environment, can have the same effect: exposure to others’ traumas can encourage empathy and social responsibility, can make us see things beyond the limitations of our own identities, ideologies, and subject positions.

I would like to reiterate, again, that there is never anything wrong with warning people that class material might get a little difficult, that you might be exposed to problematic, upsetting, or triggering materials. But a policy that requires such disclosure in advance of every potentially triggering situation could have a chilling effect on the History classroom, and  in such an environment, the materials that would be most likely to be avoided would be precisely the stuff that serves to create these empathetic connections.

Of course, empathy is the very reason we issue a trigger warning in the first place. And that’s why verisimilitude is so problematic. But– I almost hate to say it– I am much more worried about a whole classroom not being exposed to the object, to them not having the opportunity for that moment of empathy, than one student’s legitimate pain at that moment of empathetic self-identification.

Not because that student’s pain is not important, not because we shouldn’t be sensitive to it, but because if we create rules and policies around it, if we start standardizing how we handle these things, instructors will be less comfortable using them as teaching tools. And frankly, I feel that students are helped more at the end of the day by an environment where more people are likely to be empathetic and understanding of their experiences than they are by a school that never unsettles their feelings.

So yes, feel free to give trigger warnings to your classes if the upcoming material might be difficult. It may well mean the world to someone, and it’s not difficult to do. Continue to be empathetic to your students, to encourage them to talk to you one on one or in class, and to work with them if they have issues regarding materials in the course. But please, let’s not make policy out of it. It just doesn’t seem the tactic for building a more empathetic, better tomorrow.