Respect, not censorship: Students weigh in on the trigger warning debate

Trigger warnings, or statements given to alert readers or listeners of content containing possibly distressing material, have been the subject of an escalating debate in higher education in recent years. Critics of these warnings often claim that they constitute a form of censorship, limiting a professor’s ability to confront students with uncomfortable material. Yet proponents of these warnings insist that students have a right to know ahead of time whether the material they encounter in class is potentially upsetting or even traumatizing. Canadian students, however, tend to occupy a moderate middle ground on the issue. While they do not support censorship in the classroom, they do believe that trigger warnings can be a useful tool to create safer, smarter classrooms where emotionally difficult material can be freely and respectfully discussed. 

In a recent StudentVu survey of 1,500 Canadian students, over two-thirds of respondents  agreed that trigger warnings should be issued in the classroom—within reason. When it came to deciding what type of material qualified for a warning, StudentVu respondents recommended limiting trigger warnings to any material that is commonly recognized as disturbing or related to traumatic events—war, abuse, graphic images and videos, etc. Topics outside of these, many commented, could be dealt with on a request-only basis or at the instructor’s discretion.

While they supported trigger warnings in principle, most respondents encouraged professors to be judicious with warnings. They also suggested that professors present these warnings with a casual “just so you know” tone instead of a formal one when announcing them to a class. 

Students were quick to note that while they generally supported trigger warnings, they did not believe that these warnings should be used to disqualify material from a course syllabus. In fact, while 55% agreed that it was reasonable for someone to be exempted from reading a text or attending a class that they found triggering, more felt that it was unreasonable to ask an instructor to remove a triggering topic or piece of material from their teaching. 85% agreed that discussing difficult material in class provided important learning opportunities, and many did not want their curriculum to be curtailed for the sake those who would rather step out. 

“I have experienced a traumatic event and would appreciate if I were not blindsided by encountering relevant material again. However, especially in a postsecondary context where academic freedom, challenging your thinking, and encountering uncomfortable ideas are critically important, they should not be used to avoid assignments/classes/ideas etc.” (StudentVu Panelist)

StudentVu respondents also felt that trigger warnings should provide an ‘alert’ for students rather than a free pass. Thus, the matter of having students whose triggers prevented them from completing assignments or exams created a new and separate issue for most respondents. Since this situation had a more direct impact on students’ grades, many recommended addressing these cases through the same channels as other accessibility or health issues. Other respondents left this issue to the case-by-case discretion of their instructors, or they suggested offering alternative topics of equal difficulty for assignments or exams. 

“It's not about exempting them from the material so much as it is giving them warnings and allowing them the time to prepare themselves to deal with the hard material. … [Trigger warnings] allow students to prepare themselves to deal with the tough material and everybody wins.” (StudentVu Panelist)

The findings of the StudentVu survey suggest that brief and respectful warnings about potentially triggering material can offer significant benefits to students who might feel a need to excuse themselves from class. Further, the proper use of these warnings can and should defuse any accusations regarding censorship or the “coddling” of students. Instead, students should be given control over their personal educational experience, as many would argue that this sense of autonomy and respect is a core requirement for any student to flourish in postsecondary education.

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