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The Importance of Trigger Warnings in Classrooms

Photo courtesy of Meredith College

College campuses across the country are receiving increased requests for content warnings or trigger warnings on class syllabi, in classes and in required course materials due to a recent shift for more trauma aware classrooms. The recent implementation of these warnings has left many wondering the significance of them within classroom settings.

A trigger warning, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “A statement cautioning that content (as in a text, video, or class) may be disturbing or upsetting.” With COVID-19, trigger warnings have become even more necessary as several people are back in spaces where traumas may have occurred, such as at home or work. On Meredith’s campus, several professors have started to integrate trigger warnings into their syllabi and in their classes. The Meredith Herald recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Steven Benko and Professor Ashley Hogan about the importance of trigger warnings within their classrooms.

Trigger warnings are a relatively new modality in the classroom, evidenced by the fact that Dr. Benko believes that “99 percent of the faculty here went to college when there weren’t any trigger warnings.” As a result, faculty are having to become accustomed to this new expectation within the classroom. At Meredith, depending on the department, trigger warnings are left up to the discretion of instructors. Professor Hogan started using them about 7 or 8 years ago when she introduced a new theme for her ENG-200 class: coming of age stories. In her class they covered the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, which is about a freshman in high school who is experiencing severe PTSD from traumas that have occured in her life. During the discussion and analysis of this book, a student asked Professor Hogan for an alternate assignment due to an experience that they had. She said, “I started using trigger warnings because a student asked me to, and when a student tells me something that can make their learning experience better, or points out something that I could improve on, I take it seriously.”

Dr. Benko emphasized that he wishes more students would warn him ahead of time when they have a trigger so that he can strive to direct conversations in that class with students’ triggers in mind, instead of just having to guess. He said that “it takes a long time when you lose a student to get them back in the classroom” after a triggering event has occurred.

Both professors noted that they will check in with a student who leaves class due to a triggering incident. Professor Hogan explained, “I have only had this happen once, and that time I followed up with the student via email right after class, to check in on them and make sure they were feeling safe and had the support they needed. I also invited the student to meet with me and let them know I was open to making other arrangements for their assignment.” Dr. Benko expressed similar sentiments, saying, “If I know ahead of time, I will try to skirt around the topic or say things in a soft way. There was a time a student was upset and walked out. No one knew why because it could have been anything. No one knew what was going on with her. We later talked after the class; it would have been helpful if she had said this particular thing [is something we shouldn’t talk about].”

Professor Hogan continued to explain the importance of trigger warnings, saying, “I know that one of the prevailing arguments against trigger warnings in academic work is that they allow students to opt out of material that could have been important to their learning and the development of critical thinking [and] that we should be challenging students to read material that makes them uncomfortable, that makes them question themselves and the world.” This was not an argument she had heard at Meredith, but in greater discussions of trigger warnings with U.S. colleges and universities. Professor Hogan said that that she finds this argument to be lacking, because students often “appreciate the warning and engage with the challenging text anyway; very rarely does a trigger warning lead to a student opting out of a reading assignment, and when it does lead to that, it’s for a very good reason.” Additionally, when they know ahead of time that an assignment may include difficult material, students can go into the assignment more prepared to engage critically with it instead of being shocked.

Integrating trigger warnings into classrooms seems to be important for many professors at Meredith. The implementation of these warnings by faculty like Dr. Benko and Professor Hogan has demonstrated the desire by educators to have more trauma aware classrooms.

By Rachel Van Horne, News Editor, and Freya Dahlgren, Contributing Writer


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