More than half of professors believe trigger warnings damage academic freedom

Students shouldn't avoid uncomfortable content, report says

Most professors are worried about trigger warnings—even though less than 15% had ever been asked to use them, Colleen Flaherty reports for Inside Higher Ed.

Trigger warnings are a way for professors to warn students that course content may be offensive or upsetting, such as assigned readings with depictions of violence or sexual assault. Advocates say it's important for students to be able to prepare themselves for these "potentially traumatic" lessons, while critics believe the warnings can have a chilling effect on professors, who may avoid important academic content because of student sensitivities.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) collaborated with the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association to survey their members' attitudes regarding trigger warnings. The report contains data from more than 800 respondents, but cautions it is "not a scientific survey."

 According to the report, about 60% of professors believe trigger warnings are "damaging to academic freedom" and many professors are changing how they teach to avoid offending students. NCAC quotes one professor who calls the trigger warnings "kind of stifling."

"A significant number of respondents worry that warnings essentially invite students to 'avoid engaging with uncomfortable course materials,'" the report concludes, adding that some respondents had students that used the trigger warning as an "excuse not to attend the class."  

How to be sensitive to students without compromising academic freedom

Many professors were in favor of general course descriptions, but were more reluctant to mark a work as triggering—and potentially signal to students the work should produce a specific reaction.

"We saw a strong sentiment in favor of complete course descriptions," says NCAC executive director Joan Bertin. "But where the dividing line is, is picking out an element of a larger work and flagging it."

Seventeen percent of respondents felt trigger warnings "have or could have a positive effect on education and classroom dynamics." One respondent implemented trigger warnings in the classroom "at the request of very thoughtful students, and was "delighted ... to do something that would create a positive classroom environment." However, the majority of respondents—both those in favor and those against trigger warnings—felt that they should not be mandatory.

Some sexual assault survivors say AAU survey caused flashbacks

Despite the number of respondents concerned that trigger warnings could infringe on academic freedom, 93% said they were unaware of any student-initiated efforts to require the warnings at their school, and less than 15% had ever been asked by a student to provide trigger warnings (National Coalition Against Censorship report, December 2015; Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed, 12/2).

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