Trigger Warnings & Safe Spaces, Pt. 2: Reframing warnings for the classroom

Since I wrote my last blog post on trigger warnings and safe spaces, the terms have lost much of their original meaning. Now, they’re mostly used as insults, usually when speaking about liberals, leftists, progressives, “sjws”, feminists and the like. And, more recently, they are being used by some in response to any reaction from anyone that may be at odds with the user’s opinion. Others believe that trigger warnings are an example of victim culture, an excuse to opt-out of doing work, a symptom of PC culture and of weak, effete millenials.

In short, for some people they are a slippery slope to the death of freedom.

The degeneration of the dialogue around trigger warnings doesn’t eliminate the need for acknowledging and continuing to understand them. After much reading, and within the context of higher education, the term “content warning” is a better alternative to account for the many incarnations of warnings for and reactions to potentially disturbing content. Reframing “trigger warnings” leads to the realization that they are very common when they are considered to be a mere content warning and not a part of the supposed “tumblr sjw feminazi agenda”.

Please note that from here on in, unless used in the original source, I will not be using the term “triggers” and similar language associated with PTSD and trauma to avoid psychologizing and medicalizing a whole plethora of experiences and reactions that may result from consuming disturbing content.  This is another reason why I want to frame content warnings as a utilitarian and potentially useful addition in higher education: to remove the medical and psychologizing/diagnostic connotations from the idea of warnings. While some of the examples below use this language, I do not agree with their use in all instances because they potentially pathologize common reactions to disturbing or shocking material.

I also wanted to reconsider warnings and reframe them for myself to depathologize their usage because professors are not trained counsellors or psychologists. While it is important for educators to be sensitive and empathetic to the individuals they teach, it is also important to maintain a professional distance and refer students to the appropriate professionals when necessary.

Furthermore, the use of psychological terminology with regard to disturbing content is not necessary in order to be considerate of one’s students’ experiences. In fact, using diagnostic and medicalizing language is potentially counter-intuitive as it erases students who may not have the means, and therefore the legitimacy, to receive diagnosis, or students who may be limited for whatever reason from personal knowledge of psychological disorders. And, as mentioned earlier, they potentially pathologize common reactions to disturbing materials, such as grief and discomfort.

I wanted to write this piece to look at the practicalities of content warnings. In some cases they are nothing more than a considerate gesture that we all perform, like telling our friends that a movie is really disturbing or repulsive. At other times, warnings can be a way to discuss a respectful work and learning environment that welcomes a plurality of views and experiences from all backgrounds and sociopolitical spectra.

It bears repeating that content warnings are not an attempt to coddle individuals but to present content as transparently as possible. To help understand this concept, consider the following example: television shows and movies sometimes show a content warning at the beginning, which may look something like this:

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Typically, these are used to warn viewers of the nature of the content. Many often contain warnings of violence, coarse language, nudity, and sexuality, among others. Consider this personal example: I was in an anthropology class and we were about to watch a movie that depicted the effects of the ritualistic practices of male and female genital mutilation/cutting. The professor warned us of the graphic content beforehand. While the content was, indeed, disturbing, the warning prepared most students and some chose to look down or look away during the particularly harrowing scenes.

My use of this anecdotal example is not intended to minimize the fact that disturbing content can generate reactions far worse than just unpleasant experiences for individuals who have experienced trauma or PTSD and related disorders, but to illustrate the fact that being aware of the content that one is about to interact with helps one be prepared. It’s about being well-informed before consuming content.

While originally trigger warnings were borne of “PTSD psychology and popularized in feminist spaces on the Internet”, in academic settings I consider warnings to be far more general, and more akin to the disclaimers at the beginning of movies and music ratings. When framed this way, the issue of warnings becomes much less controversial and more utilitarian. In fact, I began to notice that almost every professor provided some sort of verbal warning or explanation before presenting material that may be sensitive. It’s just a considerate thing to do.

So, the whole issue is less about political rhetoric and more about courtesy.


In thinking about the development of my own lecturing skills, I had to consider: would I use content warnings? In which instances would these be necessary? How would I carry this out, exactly? What should be a simple decision and task is now fraught with the possibility of inciting controversy. To wade through the noise, I looked at a number of sources to find information and examples of content warnings.

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Expectation of my future self as wise, old professor

NPR collected survey data from professors on trigger warnings and found that of the 800 responses “half of professors said they’ve used a trigger warning in advance of introducing potentially difficult material.” Tellingly, most stated that they chose to do so themselves and were not asked to provide warnings by university administration or students.

Perhaps, the most interesting finding from their survey was that none of the professors reported a student skipping a lecture or getting out of doing an assignment – one of the many oft-cited, potential dangers of warnings.

I read many articles on/by professors who have implemented warnings and they are as
varied as the people who use them. The choice and type of warning to use depends on a number of factors including: personal choice, class content, class size, and intention. Intention refers to the aims of the educator in using the warning. Is it to inform on the content of the material? To consider the mental and physical safety of students? To provide resources? To have a discussion on engaging with uncomfortable material? All of the above?

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Reality

The first question to ask, of course, is whether a course contains the type of content that students may find disturbing, or that may be potentially disturbing to trauma survivors. In the case of PTSD and similar conditions, a wide range, including the most seemingly trivial references, can be distressing. The point, then, isn’t to account for every possible reference, but to indicate to students that this is a reality for many individuals, and that everyone reacts to content of a disturbing nature differently. The purpose, in my opinion, isn’t to coddle individuals but to provide information while being mindful of this reality and letting students take ownership of how they will engage with the material and prepare themselves.


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After looking at many examples, I’ve compiled the following list of major considerations. If you are considering including a content warning in your class syllabus or lectures, I hope you find the following list helpful. I will likely add more items and examples in the future. The questions to consider when using content warnings are:

  • Should the warning be verbal or written? Both?
  • In case of distress, will students be permitted to leave the class? Will this be disruptive? If so, what are alternatives or possible solutions for this?
  • Does it only need to be presented before specific lectures or multimedia?
  • How specific should it be? Is a general statement like a disclaimer preferred, or a more detailed note/discussion on the nature of the material and what students can do?
  • If verbal, is it also desirable to discuss confronting discomfort and challenging ideas with regard to academic freedom and discourse?
  • If the content is potentially disturbing, are there resources that the university offers that you can provide in the syllabus/in class?
  • Do you prefer to provide alternatives or an option of readings (depending on the task, of course)?
  • Are there alternative ways students can participate (for example, listening during an interactive activity)?
  • If students do leave the class, include a note that they must make up for missed work/notes
  • Do you prefer individual students approach you or a blanket statement/policy for all students?

Examples of Written Content Warnings/Disclaimers on Syllabi

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I have collected the following examples on written warnings which provide a range of ideas for composition and formatting; I have arranged them from the relatively general/short to more specific/long (emphasis mine in all of the following examples).

Colleen Lutz Clemens at Kutztown University:

“My trigger warning tells the class that we’ll be focusing on texts that revolve around violence, and I want you to feel safe at all times. If you need to step out, you can. I’m asking them to read challenging material.”

She also adds that: “I think a blanket statement is enough. Note that my warning implies that one should leave if one feels unsafe, not if one feels uncomfortable. I am not infantilizing my students; I think it is a basic right of a student to feel mentally and physically safe.”

Another article by Clemens provides the following phrasing:

“If at any point you must leave the class, please do so quietly. Several of the readings could be triggers, and I want you to feel safe in the class at all times.”

The warning is bolded and italicized on her syllabus.

Dr. Mo Pareles at Northwestern University:

“I will not give trigger warnings, except to say here that the literature in this course contains a good deal of nontrivial sexism, racism, violence, and so forth…However, although shock value is certainly a legitimate pedagogical tool, nothing is included in the syllabus for that purpose.”

David R. Andersen-Rodgers at California State University:

“…began putting what he calls a ‘word of caution’ in the syllabus, which he points out on the first day. He talks about the powerful emotions some topics evoke, as well as telling students where on the campus they can seek help if the feelings overwhelm them”

Caroline Heldman at Occidental University:

“Over the course of the semester, we will be examining topics that may be emotionally triggering for trauma survivors…If you are a trauma survivor, please develop a self-care plan for the semester so that you can effectively engage the course material and participate in class.”

This warning puts the onus on the student to come up with an appropriate plan.

From Dr. Kyla Bender-Baird at CUNY (from an article by Sarah Seltzer):

“It is my goal in this class to create a safe environment in which we examine our assumptions… Discomfort can be part of the learning process as we are challenged to shift our paradigms. I invite you to sit with this discomfort. However, if the discomfort starts to turn to distress, I want you to take care of yourself. You can withdraw from an activity or even leave the classroom.”

Angus Johnston at Hostos Community College

“Course Content Note

At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.”

Verbal warnings:

Martha J. Reineke at the University of Northern Iowa:speaker_green_icon-svg

“…delivers a short speech to students about how difficult it can be to read some of the case studies, and she points out the places students can go on the campus to get mental-health support.”

Patrick J. Keenan, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Mr. Keenan teaches international-law courses in which he often discusses crimes of sexual violence committed during war. On the first day of class, he mentions how hard it is to learn the horrific details of those crimes. He tells students that if there is a day when the material is especially troubling to them, they can sit quietly and just listen.

Dr. Josh Lambert at University of Massachusetts-Amherst (for a course on the Holocaust)

“We’ll be dealing with some harsh images and subjects. These are topics about which many people are understandably sensitive, and yet in this class I specifically want to deal with some texts that are excessive, or strange, or humorous, or difficult to take, or offensive…We should be respectful of everyone in the room, and keep in mind that some people in the room lost relatives in the Holocaust.

Julie A. Winterich at Guilford College.

“’I can’t predict what material may trigger someone suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or what will upset people for other reasons. If you are concerned or uncertain about this course, please closely review the course materials and decide whether you want to continue taking it.’ I tell students that I’m available to meet with them to discuss any questions they may have about any aspect of the course. Typically, the week before we engage content that explicitly depicts violence or trauma, I remind students about the upcoming material.

Other Alternatives:

Working with the University’s Accessibility/Disability Services Office

I worked for years for my university’s Accessibility office which arranged accommodations for students with documented disabilities and injuries. Students would often use the office to liaise with professors on their behalf to arrange for appropriate means to participate in the class as fully as possible. For example, a student with panic disorder or a musculoskeletal injury may need to leave the classroom frequently and take short breaks, in which case a notetaker may be assigned to the classroom to ensure that the student does not miss any material. Similarly, a student with documented PTSD may be able to arrange appropriate accommodations (when possible).

In keeping with this, a note on the syllabus or in class that states: “Please arrange for academic accommodations through campus Disability Services to assist with documented issues that may prevent active participation in this course” should suffice.

Introductory Notes from Students

Another alternative is to ask all students to introduce themselves (or write a note anonymously) and list their faculty, major, future plan, interest in the course, along with their expectations for the professor. They can also use this space to inform of any potential difficulties with their learning environment a la Dr. Erika Price’s introductory lecture handout.

Personal Meeting

Alternatively, students who are unable to use campus accessibility services for whatever reason (no diagnosis, bureaucratic/ineffective process etc.) can approach a professor personally to discuss the issue. In this article by Sarah Seltzer, a student with PTSD states that they approach professors for specific accommodations in each class, and periodically check-in regarding potentially harmful content.

Final Thoughts

At this point, I favour using the short and sweet disclaimer on a syllabus with resource information. I would also likely provide verbal notification when necessary, like before showing clips that may be distressing (i.e. “this clip contains acts of extreme violence”). That may change in the future. Content warnings should not be mandatory, nor should they be prohibited. The key is agency and academic freedom for both faculty and students. I prefer the idea of using the present controversy on warnings to have a dialogue, particularly in a small class, about engaging with challenging, contrasting ideas and the importance of discomfort for learning and growth when appropriate. My experience with students thus far has shown me how engaged, curious and knowledgeable most tend to be. They want to participate in discussing intellectually challenging material. Therefore, providing them with all the information about the material they will work with is just common sense.

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