Reality doesn’t come with trigger warnings: Should our classes?

Our generation is lucky. We live in a time in which, at least in intellectual environments such as Lawrence, people work to be as considerate and accepting of others as possible. Not that there is always agreement on what it means to be “considerate” and “accepting,” but Lawrentians and others make a solid effort to keep having that conversation.

It is because discussions like these are so important that there is a problem with one of the fastest growing trends within universities: the trigger warning.

In the college setting, a trigger warning can be defined as a warning—by faculty or staff to students—about potentially upsetting or offensive material in readings, films or other media used in classes. The upsetting part could include physical, emotional or sexual violence, drug abuse, intense psychological trauma and more.

But trigger warnings are becoming much more than warnings—they’re evolving into the complete evasion of distressing material. We can see examples of this at Oberlin College and the University of California-Santa Barbara, where recently institutionalized policies not only ask faculty to warn students about this material, but to go so far as to remove it from their syllabi or excuse students from assignments based on their comfort levels with difficult subject matter. This has yet to come about at Lawrence, but it certainly could in the future.

With the amount of influence trigger warnings are having in educational environments, it’s important to ask: what is it that we don’t want to “trigger?” I would assume that we are afraid of upsetting others or—at the worst—causing flashbacks of traumatic personal experiences. Trigger warnings must originate from the benevolent impulse to protect our peers or students from unnecessary stress.

It is here that we encounter a problem: why should we have to engage in such “protective” practices when we’re already living in the bubble of a university, which is supposed to be a safe and open environment? In the college experience, students are meant to grow and voice their opinions in a safe space without fear of retribution. We have the freedom to discuss these difficult topics and to express our beliefs in a way that many people in the workforce do not. Universities certainly aren’t perfect, and even Lawrence has had its fair share of difficulties regarding race, gender and other important topics. That’s the point, though. Students, faculty and staff are encountering topics that, yes, can be uncomfortable to talk about, but they’re important to discuss openly so that we can grow.

Of course, students’ traumatic experiences can be very different from the issues discussed campus-wide and may be more specifically found in a reading in an English class. However, the same argument stands: if there is material in a class that causes discomfort and offends people, is that not the exact reason it should be confronted? When did our culture of consideration and openness become a culture of avoidance?

Certainly, students shouldn’t be expected to share their personal experiences in class. We should however expect to study and discuss media that make us uncomfortable or that we disagree with. If students are able to take a pass on assignments, it will be much harder to face and discuss difficult topics later on. This includes topics closely related to our personal lives, which we will no doubt encounter again and again long after we graduate. If we avoid these discussions, how are communities, like ours at Lawrence, going to grow?