(#280) Trigger Warnings

If we keep our students in protective bubble wrap while in college,
what have we prepared them for as they move into the workforce
and the rest of their lives?

One challenge (and joy) of effective classroom teaching is to set the stage for meaningful discussion about meaningful issues. Topics can range from the relevance of historical events to current news stories to the impact of pop culture trends on personal and professional development. The vigilant teacher can find relevant topics most anywhere. The effective teacher can expertly weave pertinent topics into class conversations and assignments. It helps students see the broad connections between (dry) curriculum objectives and everyday life.

As I read an article in the September 2015 issue of The Atlantic I wondered, though, if the scope of topics will become (has become) dramatically limited for teaching and learning situations.

In the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt detail the steady and troubling march to sanitize college and university classroom discussions and readings with “trigger warnings.”  These are cautionary flags (red lights?) that professors at various institutions have been asked to post (or consider posting) in their syllabi if there might be words, texts, discussions or the like that might offend someone in the classroom.  In other words, if a discussion or reading might trigger a recollection of a past personal trauma in a student, the student should be given warning.  Discussions have to be safe.  Anything that could be considered a “microaggression” has to be avoided at all costs. It appears there is “a right not to be offended” by a topic, opinion or line of questioning in the teaching and learning environment.

Image: Keattikorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: Keattikorn/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A New York Times piece quoted one associate professor (in favor of trigger warnings) as saying, “We have students coming to us with serious issues, and we need to deal with that respectfully and seriously.”

Understood. As a classroom teacher I witnessed the burdens that so many of my students had to contend with on a daily basis.  And unless they chose to share those personal issues, they remained unknown to those in the classroom. Often students drew their own parallels and lessons between their personal issues and larger course objectives and discussions.

As I read the articles above, I wondered if instructors will be limited in their opportunities to engage their students about hot button issues.  Will a “rating” (similar to a movie) be needed on each syllabus? Each class? Every discussion topic? College in general?

Warning: While attending this college you may be exposed to views
you don’t agree with and/or that might make you feel uncomfortable
and/or that you would rather not discuss.
Feel free to opt-out as you see fit.

Is that what we want? Is that what our students need?

I remember one of my students (a Vietnam War veteran) breaking into sobs when he related what he saw in war.  When I assured him he did not have to share his experiences, he said he wanted to so that others would know about the realities of war.  He had his classmates’ attention in a way that I could never have had on that particular issue. He chose to do that–it was not a class requirement.  I wonder what the impact would have been (for him and his classmates) if he had opted out of the discussion or if he had even opted out of attending that particular class session?

And the same for other students who shared their life experiences (as they related to course material) with their classmates. These weren’t “group therapy” sessions. They were students engaged in meaningful class discussions to make meaning in their lives.



Should war be skirted as a classroom topic of deep conversation because it might offend or cause uneasiness? Would the following topics qualify for trigger warnings?

  • Binge drinking
  • Date rape
  • Domestic violence
  • Failure
  • Financial literacy and indebtedness
  • Gender issues
  • Goal achieving
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental illness
  • Obesity
  • Political disagreements
  • Pre-natal care
  • Race
  • Religious beliefs
  • Slavery
  • Smoking
  • Suicide
  • Tobacco use
  • The Confederate flag
  • The Holocaust
  • Vulnerability

If someone had a traumatic memory associated with any of those does the classroom discussion have to cease or be sanitized? A teacher might not know that she has triggered some trauma.  I guess, anything can be construed as potentially traumatic to someone in the room.

Will teachers be able to encourage students to critically think about controversial or sensitive issues?  If we allow students to “opt-out” of discussions will they be able to avoid confronting confounding information that might make them question their beliefs?

What does this do to the First Amendment and a teacher’s right (and professional duty) to construct and deliver meaningful lessons?  Is it the thought police? Is this censorship by another word? Is it an example of a litigation-averse preemptive counter attack?

Video recommendation for the week:

I am aware of the need for sensitivity. For instance, I will give you a warning that the “F-Bomb” is used in the following video.  You can choose to view it or not.

But where does good taste move into the realm of incomplete teaching and learning?

And, who makes the determination if something is a trigger? The teacher? The student? The college attorney?

Shouldn’t we equip students with cognitive tools to digest, analyze, evaluate and then respond? What do we want our students to learn? Beyond content—what skill sets? As with most debates, we could raise the usual “What ifs?” on both ends of the spectrum.

When it comes to trigger warnings we need to tread carefully and thoughtfully. Maybe there could be one warning on a student’s application and acceptance letter that the chances of encountering controversial and trigger material in class discussions, assignments, and student area (student center and residential halls) discussions are very real. Discuss this in first-year orientation programs along with how to contact appropriate counseling resources. And then let them enjoy, grapple with, and learn from the educational process alongside their instructors, classmates, and advisers.

If we keep our students in protective bubble wrap while in college, what have we prepared them for as they move into the workforce and the rest of their lives?

Make it a wonderful week—H.T.R.B. as needed.

You can find my podcast series at Growth and Resilience (http://stevepiscitelli.com/video-media/podcasts). 

Check out my website  (http://www.stevepiscitelli.com/programs.html) for programming information as well as details about upcoming webinars (http://www.stevepiscitelli.com/webinars).

My books Choices for College Success (3rd edition) and Study Skills: Do I Really Need This Stuff?  (3rd edition) are published by Pearson Education.

(c) 2015. Steve Piscitelli. All rights reserved.

About stevepiscitelli

Community Advocate-Author-Pet Therapy Team Member
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1 Response to (#280) Trigger Warnings

  1. Wall, John J. says:


    A thought-provoking post. When the TEDxFSCJ videos from this weekend are ultimately posted, I hope you’ll take a look at Nick Michaud’s talk. Not the same issue, but definitely a good talk about similar themes. -John

    John J. Wall, Ph.D.
    Dean of Arts and Sciences, Downtown Campus
    Florida State College At Jacksonville
    101 West State Street, Room A-1193
    Jacksonville, FL 32202
    Phone: (904) 632-3026

    From: Steve Piscitelli–Growth and Resilience
    Reply-To: Steve Piscitelli–Growth and Resilience
    Date: Sunday, October 4, 2015 at 9:34 AM
    To: “Wall, John J.”
    Subject: [New post] (#280) Trigger Warnings

    stevepiscitelli posted: “If we keep our students in protective bubble wrap while in college, what have we prepared them for as they move into the workforce and the rest of their lives? One challenge (and joy) of effective classroom teaching is to set the stage for meaningful d”

    Liked by 1 person

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