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University of Pittsburgh

November 10, 2016

Senate Matters

Content warnings in the classroom

Trigger warnings — the content warnings that individuals provide to alert people to potentially disturbing information — have received a tremendous amount of attention in recent years. These discussions are often controversial since some see content warnings as fundamentally restrictive while others regard such warnings as essential to any community that is dealing with challenging topics.

I developed a content and classroom climate statement to address a range of issues that teachers and students encounter in the classroom. The current version of the statement is available on the gender, sexuality, and women’s studies program webpage (www.wstudies.pitt.edu) under Resources.

My statement is a middle ground between no “trigger” warnings (or no “safe space” for students) and more complete content warnings identifying challenging topics in each class (for example, racial violence, sexual assault or suicide). With this statement, I hope to communicate a respect for embodied responses to challenging texts and to provide a bit of instruction on things students might do if or when they encounter a reading that deeply challenges their ability to be in the classroom. I see content warnings as pedagogical tools that give some guidance on how to engage with others on challenging topics.

We discuss this content and classroom climate statement in the first class. Here are some of the topics I raise:

• Historicizing trigger warnings: What do trigger warnings tell us about today’s campus?

Why are content warnings receiving attention now? Is it simply “progress,” as some might argue — something we’ve always needed but have only recently responded to? Is it millennial (a generational response), as others have argued, or does it represent new, politically correct restrictions on teachers? Does it represent more advanced thinking on trauma and, by extension, is it evidence that our students are informed enough about their own lives that they can make choices about their well being?

This conversation presents an opportunity to explore the debate and to see where your students stand on the issue. These questions also present an opportunity to explore what content warnings shouldn’t do — restrict teacher’s choices — and to explore how the debate frequently misrepresents what students are seeking when they request content warnings.

• Intent: “There are no safe spaces” vs. “I cannot create a safe space.”

I’m convinced that how you frame discomfort in the classroom will significantly impact student response and learning. There’s a tremendous difference between telling students, “There are no safe spaces” and telling them “Teachers cannot always create a safe space.” The first communicates that “safe spaces” are unreasonable; the second voices a more balanced and realistic approach. Certainly faculty have different positions on the value of “safe space” and for this reason we likely will respond to students’ requests for content warnings in different ways. The latter statement honors both our curriculum choices and our students’ need to voice their limits or boundaries.

• Knowing trauma/justifying trauma: When are “difficult” texts appropriate and why?

How we justify particularly challenging texts or media is key. Film directors regularly justify violence or sexual assault in film by claiming that people need to know the reality of violence in order to be drawn into the film narrative. Such claims speak volumes about the audience since they assume that viewers are not already acutely aware of the violence in question. Our identities also can play a key role in how students respond to our choices as faculty. Since we mostly are using others’ texts, this is a good opportunity to explore why specific authors may have included difficult material, whether they could have accomplished their goals without it, and how identity and privilege shape our reading of difficult content.

• Setting boundaries: Discomfort is different from a traumatic response.

I do not expect students to sit through a class during a traumatic response, which is why my statement invites students to step out of class for a few minutes if they need to do so. We discuss the difference between discomfort and a traumatic response; these are very different things and their conflation minimizes the very real needs of students living with and working through post-traumatic stress.

• Responses and responsibilities: Teachers have bodies, too.

Some teachers also have experienced trauma. More broadly, teachers will have different expertise in trauma. While the burden of class content and climate should fall unevenly on faculty, by introducing the teacher as someone who also might be impacted by content, I encourage students to consider their own role in shaping class climate, and I invite them to consider the limits of holding faculty accountable for student responses. For these reasons, our responses to students’ potential challenges should be recognized as highly variable.

If your course includes texts that deal with challenging topics, these questions can help to establish some shared ground rules for discussing potentially difficult texts.

Julie Beaulieu is a lecturer in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program.


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