Trigger warnings could divide or unite this college classroom seen from the back row capturing the the backs of students' heads and an out-of-focus female professor standing at a podium.

Trigger warnings in college classrooms are under assault as an attack on academic freedom. Photo: Photo: Matej Kastelic | Shutterstock

The use of trigger warnings in college classrooms has sparked serious debate about academic freedom. This issue has pitted student activists against college professors.

In an editorial published in the college newspaper 4 students articulated their concerns over required reading in a Literature Humanities class. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background,” they wrote.

The concept may seem a strange at first, but you’re already familiar with trigger warnings. Movie ratings are designed to function in a similar way. They alert viewers that a movie may include content disturbing to certain viewers.

The Evolution of Trigger Warnings

Content warnings evolved organically on social media platforms like LiveJournal and Tumblr that are home to diverse communities of fan fiction authors. It was there in 2001 where writer Gaby Dunn observed the use of the term to describe explicit content. The practice has been codified into actual code. LiveJournal offers writers the option to hide distressing content behind a link.

Trigger warnings are incorporated into college syllabi or shared at the beginning of a lecture. They are designed to alert students to the presence of “triggering” content, such as assault, racism, sexual violence, or suicide.

The Center for Disease Control reports that, “almost 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have experienced rape. One in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of intimate partner violence.” These warnings are not unreasonable. They’re an attempt to acknowledge that every college classroom may include survivors of a violent experience.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings are designed to prevent painful reactions to disturbing content. These reactions have much in common with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was recognized as a diagnosis in 1980.

PTSD is rarely discussed along with the topic of trigger warnings. Sufferers may be troubled by nightmares and experience flashbacks from a previous experience. Episodes of PTSD can be triggered by a variety of stimuli including sight, sound, and even smell. Should literature be included in that list?

Educators assume their students are a blank slate passively waiting to be informed by the professor’s knowledge. Trigger warnings challenges this metaphor and promote the validity of students’ experience prior to and outside of the classroom.