An advocate from Crisis Intervention Services and Student Violence Intervention Partners and staff met at a roundtable called “Feminist Perspectives on Trigger Warnings and Academic Freedom.” The event, on Friday, was in Howard Hall and allowed for students and faculty to discuss how to handle trigger warnings.
“This is something that just came onto my conscious last semester, I’d say,” said Nancy Reincke, English professor in women and gender studies. “Students in my women and gender studies intro course were starting to say different things about ‘Well we shouldn’t be talking about this.’”
This is something that Reincke said she is not used to.
“I’ve now realized that this is a different context we’re operating in these days,” Reincke added later.
Trigger warnings are used to caution students that the content they may be about to encounter could possibly set off a negative reaction stemming from past traumatic experiences.
The Feminist Perspectives roundtable gathered to address the growing issue of whether college campuses should give trigger warnings in the academic setting, and how they may harm or help students.
The discussion also included how to encourage students in opening up about sensitive topics, especially if they have had a difficult experience in the past.
“I’ve been trying not to be defensive about these requests and I have to say it’s been pretty helpful for me to be forced on the spot and to really reflect on my beliefs and values when it comes to pedagogy in the classroom because I haven’t had to do that for awhile,” said Reincke.
Melissa Ulrickson, from Crisis Intervention Services, gave a presentation on how trigger warnings affect individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms include re-experiencing, avoidance, numbing and hyper-arousal.
Certain types of content or real life situations that remind them of past experiences can prompt these reactions.
According to Ulrickson’s presentation, there can be confusion between what an actual trigger is.
“People are confusing ‘I’m uncomfortable’ with ‘I’m triggered,’” Ulrickson said. “There’s also this place where a faculty member could be over-identifying with someone’s pain and thinking that ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t want to be responsible for triggering someone’ and then they trigger someone and it’s not something you can necessarily prevent.”
She suggested finding alternative methods to accomplishing certain learning objectives in the classroom to avoid having students become triggered or to help them feel more comfortable talking about delicate topics.
“This is difficult because some of your learning objectives include things you need to talk about,” Ulrickson said. “And if you’re triggered every time you talk about them, you’re not really accomplishing the course goals.”
The issue of how to support students who can be triggered and how to encourage students to talk about things that they may not be comfortable with was a challenge they discussed at the roundtable.
Craig Owens, an English professor, was the only male at the roundtable.
He discussed the two types of students he has in his classes. Some suffer from anxiety attacks and / or some sort of PTSD.
“Given the nature of that disorder, is it fair to ask those students to disclose their disability in advance in the same way that a student who needs wheelchair access to a class or who needs a distraction-free testing environment because of ADHD,” Owens said. “Or who has any other disability that would need to go through Student Disability Services and request accommodations so that we could know in advance which students are in fact likely to suffer triggers instead of feeling discomfort.”
Another topic of discussion was the division of responsibility between the student and the professor.
“Maybe it’s the responsibility, first of all, of our society to do a better job with people who have this (PTSD), but also the individual to look at something and say something about it,” said Beth Younger, an English professor who teaches women and gender studies. “I don’t know, I’m really torn with how much responsibility they are supposed to have and how much responsibility we are supposed to have.”
English professor Jennifer Harvey suggests students inform professors if they’re getting counseling and ask if there is something upcoming in the class that could possibly trigger them so professors can work with that student as best as they can.