OPINION | Trigger warnings are a necessary practice in academic settings

Editor’s Note: This article contains references to trauma and PTSD. 

     Throughout my academic career, I have heard my fair share of viewpoints about our “sensitive generation,” and how young people today are overdramatic for reacting negatively to content that triggers them, especially in classroom settings. 

     While trigger warnings are by no means a normalized concept in academia, it is baffling to me that in the wake of our growing social awareness of PTSD and other trauma-related disabilities, we are still questioning the debilitating consequences of mental health triggers to academic performance and success. 

     According to the University of Waterloo, “Proponents of trigger warnings contend that certain course content can impact the wellbeing and academic performance of students who have experienced corresponding traumas in their own lives.” 

     Often, people are critical of trigger warnings and coursework exemptions in the classroom because they are concerned it will reduce a student’s exposure to materials that might contribute to their understanding of important and relevant topics such as sexual assault, suicide, racism, homophobia, police brutality, ableism, addiction and mental illness. To an extent, I can understand where this concern is coming from.  

     I understand, for instance, that most students will never require trigger warnings to the degree that students who have experienced trauma do, and will in turn never require coursework exemptions based on disturbing and triggering subject matter. Exemption for the sake of discomfort or disinterest, however, is not the same as exemption for the sake of accommodation. 

     For example, if a student needs to avoid classroom discussions or readings that graphically depict subject matter that they find triggering due to personal trauma, they should be given the option to do so without it affecting their grade or overall understanding of the course. 

     Educators are more than capable of accommodating their students without excluding them entirely. If a professor cannot teach students who have experienced trauma the importance and relevance of a text without requiring them to read scenes that could potentially trigger them, then the framework of the course is flawed and should be made more accessible. 

     According to the National Coalition Against Censorship(NCAC), “While very few institutions have formal trigger warning policies, educators report a significant number of requests and complaints from students.” This proves that the excuse of “coddling” is hardly applicable when it comes to accommodating students who have experienced trauma and need to avoid reading or discussing graphic subject matter that may trigger them. 

     Allowing students the opportunity to take a different approach to learning as a result of mental health factors outside of their control is more about promoting inclusivity than it is about promoting academic censorship.  

     In addition, the distinctions between trigger warnings and coursework exemptions are rarely identified when it comes to debating the importance of trigger warnings in academia. 

     If a student could benefit from trigger warnings, then professors should be willing to adjust their coursework accordingly. The argument that trigger warnings uphold a particularly sinister case of “political correctness” is becoming more tired and wearisome with every passing year, especially since students are now beginning to request formal trigger warning policies in universities across the country. 

     The NCAC finds that the majority of professors agree that establishing communication between students about potentially triggering course content can be as simple as listing trigger warnings as an available accommodation on the course syllabus, with reading and other coursework exemptions being a secondary accommodation based on individual student needs.  

     While the inclusion of “trigger warnings” in the classroom is still a very new concept, it is important that educators understand the student’s perspective, especially when considering the effects that triggers can have on students who have experienced trauma.  

     Watering down the normalization of trigger warnings in academia to a “leftist ploy” to limit free speech in the classroom is not only counterproductive, but ableist.  

     When educators adopt the mindset that by offering trigger warnings they must offer coursework exemptions to any student who asks for them, they are entering a dangerous field of misinformation that may end up ceasing the progression of awareness and acceptance in academia altogether.