What I Learned About ‘Trigger Warnings’ From Teaching College Students


I have a dream of walking into a classroom with a shirt that says “Trigger Warning: I’m the Prof” across the front.

Given the subject matter and space I teach in, I think it would be a valid critique the use of trigger warnings, but also a necessary intervention into the classroom space. There, I am designated to be the person who sits at the front of the room as a representation of knowledge and goals for the course.

I am not what students expect. I am a medium-tone, shortish black female with natural hair that isn’t quite kinky enough to go into an afro. I am hippy. I come across as sweet, and I push my students in ways that make them uncomfortable. Because I am me, students assume that my teaching about media and popular culture, or media and society at large, will take a very specific trajectory. To an extent, it has to. For many students, realizing that, as the professor, I am the person my students who has knowledge and power over them, is traumatic. For other students, though, it is liberating. This is what the recent article in the New York Times misses.

Trigger warnings, which originally started in online feminist and activist spaces as a way to warn community members that the topic being discussed might “trigger” unpleasant memories of sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, etc., have done that culture-jumping thing where they are no longer used in only those spaces. They are now somewhat ingrained in Internet culture as sort of the anti-troll, and they have become a standard that is used at times when the actual thing being discussed is not traumatic, but rather simply an uncomfortable encounter.

What I find fascinating, and a bit odd, is that rather than entering the realm of popular culture, a place where a trigger warning might make sense, they’ve entered the realm of the university, a space where people are supposed to be challenged, pushed, and learn to think and understand in new, different and more diverse ways.

University classrooms exist at very specific historical moments. While I find the term “Trigger Warning” problematic because of the very specific type of violence it alludes to, I understand the need for these types of warning in their initial context, where details of very traumatic experiences were being talked about seriously to a point that it would not be in the best interest of many to participate. However, the movement of “Trigger Warning” to a general University level classroom practice takes away the ability to have a genuine reaction, and this can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the context.

In learning, I think the general reaction is where we begin to shift or solidify our own perspectives. As a teacher, part of my job is to be prepared for anything and everything that might happen as a result of sharing the squirmy, the painful, and the entertaining. It is also my job to be cognizant of the reactions of the students in my classroom to what is being discussed, and intervene when necessary to ensure that my students are in a safe learning environment, even as I encourage them to think beyond their comfort levels.

I would never give my students a “Trigger Warning,” but I do tell them every semester that we will be going over things that they might find disturbing, uncomfortable, angering, or upsetting. If this is the case, they are free to leave the classroom. The rule is they have to engage respectfully and openly, but only in the classroom. They can think whatever they want outside of the space, but inside the space, they are vulnerable, and I work with that. If things are too much, they are free to step out of the classroom as well. I only require that they email me and let me know why so we can make sure that the course will be okay moving forward.

I have had approximately one class almost fail. I showed part of the mini-series, Black Mirror, from the UK. It is speculative fiction that examines our relationship with screened technologies. This series was too much for approximately two students who had documented mental health problems. We worked together to figure out how to get them through the course, and both of them in the end, said it was one of the most rewarding courses they’d been a part of.

To date, though, the biggest thing that needed a trigger warning in my courses is me. Perhaps if I were someone else, a different gender or ethnicity, the things the New York Times article would be the hurdles I have to get over with my students. Perhaps if some of my students were students of color or queer, they’d feel free to discuss things in class that they only feel comfortable sharing with me after class or during office hours. For professors like me, and students on the margins, the university classroom has always been a triggering space.

If you don’t believe me, I’d like to share a story.

There was a day in a course where we were discussing race, media, popular culture, and educational attainment. There were black students in the classroom. I was at the front of the class, and in the middle of class discussion, a student said, “Well, all the black students are here because of affirmative action.”

Never mind that we were at one of the best public universities in the country, a school that can pick and choose who they admit from a group of top candidates across ethnicities. The assumption was still that those students — and even I — did not belong in the classroom space. There was no warning. The trigger was pulled. This is the experience the New York Times piece missed.

There is still an experience of race, of poverty, of out of place-ness for so many students that come up in classes all the time without any warning. I could tell you stories about poor students, feminist students, or disabled students, who are put in this position constantly without anyone batting an eye. However, the second we start talking in the larger historical, we have to confront oppression to the point of erasure by putting those students and professors who are often the visible subject of oppression after a trigger warning.

Which in a way is saying, this is who we are firing shots at right now, not this is who we are protecting, trying to understand, and bring into the conversation in meaningful ways.

Jade E. Davis is a Doctoral Student and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she has been an instructor for three years. She is also a past PhD intern, Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. Her research is situated between Media/Technology & Performance Studies. She explores the relationship between history, memory, culture, and digital media. The views expressed in this piece are her own and do not reflect the views of her department or other professional affiliations. She can be found online at http://jadedid.com or on twitter @jadedid.

Photo: Zazzle / sillymonkeyboy