Daily Archives: September 23, 2015

Trigger Warnings

Few topics have generated as much discussion and debate between faculty and students recently than the idea of trigger warnings.  Recently, the faculty at American University voted their opposition to trigger warnings. I wonder what HHD students and faculty are thinking.

My initial thoughts are similar to those of President Obama. I believe one of the basic purposes of a college education is to get students to think about things they have not considered and to challenge every thought students thought they knew.  If you haven’t started down the path of an examined life and questioned all those things you thought were true, the faculty and university have not really done their job.

So, to the extent that trigger warnings could create a climate that leads faculty and students to avoid discussing difficulty subjects, I have grave concerns that they undermine education’s fundamental role.  Subjects that are difficulty to discuss are often where the greatest need for dialogue exists. In health policy classes that I’ve taught, it’s not unusual to consider abortion policy and Planned Parenthood, whether organs and tissues should be for sale, or the ethical issues in end of life care.

On the other hand, a basic warning to students about courses that consider these issues or about classes that will raise issues known to cause trauma to people seems a small price to pay to allow a student to make an informed choices about participating. Some faculty have defended the practice and written about how it can be done effectively.

Yet, on the other hand (can you see why President LBJ always wished for a one-handed economist?), I also read articles on how trigger warnings may actually harm student mental health or see faculty outline some good reasons why they will not use trigger warnings. Since faculty can’t really predict what is triggering, do they have to be constantly thinking about every phrase? Is that really likely to lead to the best educational environment for all students?

When I have so many different thoughts in my mind, I generally think others do, too. And in HHD we often cover controversial subjects, so I am sure that students and faculty in HHD are thinking about these issues.  So, share your thoughts in the comments–do HHD faculty and students need to have a conversation about trigger warnings?