Ethics and Trigger Warnings

Empathy is the core of Parker Palmer’s “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited.” Empathy is a difficult thing to teach. It is far easier to model. But it is difficult to be explicit about how we approach our students and their emotions, which are as complex as any other human’s. Parker writes, “We must take out students’ emotions as seriously as we take their intellects.” This begins before classes even start.
When we compose our syllabus, we consider our students intelligent enough to wade through and understand the document, giving them an overview of what their intellects will encounter in the course. What we don’t consider, though, is how they’ll feel about the material. This. Is why some professors are including a trigger warning in a syllabus.
The “trigger warning” alerts students to potentially troubling topics the course approaches. It gives the students opportunity to prepare themselves for those situations. The students thus have responsibility to follow the syllabus and prepare themselves in advance.
The author of the above (linked) essay says that the trigger warning does not change the way he teaches the class. I argue that, though he may be right, it certainly changes the ways students receive the class. They now see a professor who is concerned for his students, who cares for the links between intellect and emotion, and who values both.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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3 Responses to Ethics and Trigger Warnings

  1. A says:

    I really like this post and the idea of a “trigger warning” as a way to take emotions seriously. I experienced something similar to this in a grad class here at VT called “Social Determinants of Health”. The professor didn’t include this in the syllabus, but stated on the first day: We will talk about very sensitive subjects in this class such as gender, race, socioeconomic status….etc. I think for me it was great to know and understand that going into the class, so you weren’t caught unaware when topics arose and emotions were expressed. I like the idea of including it on the syllabus however. Thanks!

  2. Childpsychprof says:

    I actually disagree – consider reading this “Inside Higher Ed” article written by seven humanities professors, against the use of trigger warnings (https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/05/29/essay-faculty-members-about-why-they-will-not-use-trigger-warnings). Summary of the main points: PTSD can be triggered by tiny things like smells, colors, etc., and can’t always be prevented even in the best case scenario. Professors are not trained in supporting or treating students PTSD, and should not have to take on that responsibility (refer out to those that are, like SSD/Cook). If your trigger warning is not broad enough, and something unexpectedly stirs emotion in a student, did you break your contract to warn them about triggers? This may lead to a culture of expecting to be warned about triggers. Teachers without tenure would be less willing to teach controversial subjects, and those in fields like queer or race studies, are more at-risk for complaints about triggering due to their subject matter. Including trigger warnings is not the same as university-wide social change programs.
    Basically, teaching controversial issues (especially in the humanities) will be hampered by trigger warnings and threatens to become “sanitized” and PC, even in the bounds of trying to do what’s in the students’ best interest. Recommendations for other options instead are included at the bottom of the article.

  3. Miko says:

    Thanks for sharing. Definitely something worth considering when preparing our syllabi and teaching complex/difficult topics.

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