Instructor: Trigger warnings don't censor difficult discussions—they encourage them

Flagging sensitive material can prepare students to engage with it

Some in higher ed say trigger warnings limit conversation in the classroom—but Ika Willis, lecturer of literature at the University of Wollongong, argues in The Conversation that warnings have the opposite effect. 

The debate over using trigger warnings in the classroom has heated up since a University of Chicago dean sent a letter to incoming freshmen saying they would not be protected from arguments or ideas.

The big misconception about trigger warnings, Willis argues, is that they protect students from having their views challenged by censoring discussions and steering students away from touchy subjects. 

More than half of professors believe trigger warnings damage academic freedom

In fact, she writes, trigger warnings have the opposite effect.

"Trigger warnings can be one way we enable students to negotiate the risk of literary reading in an informed and critical way. They are designed to open up a discussion of difficult material—not suppress it," she writes. 

UChicago faculty defend students' right to trigger warnings

Willis supports her defense of trigger warnings with personal experience from a course she teaches on children in literature. Willis recounts what happened when she assigned Dennis Cooper's book My Loose Thread. The book includes graphic accounts of child rape and assault from the aggressor's lens, which Willis knew had the potential to stir up traumatic memories for certain students.

So she issued a trigger warning, giving her students advance notice of the sensitive material.

"I would have found it difficult, practically and ethically, to teach this material to students who had not consented to engage with it," says Willis. 

What resulted was, what Willis calls, "some of the best class discussion I have ever seen." During the discussion, all of the students managed to "articulate their intense responses to the novel and to negotiate their profound disagreements respectfully."

Without an initial trigger warning, Willis says her students would not have had a chance to manage their reactions and recognize that the book was actually intended to solicit intense reactions. 

Related: not all educators are opposed to trigger warnings

She argues that when students are surprised by distressing material, they are more likely to disengage. To illustrate, Willis includes a passage from an anonymous feminist blogger who had experienced trauma:

"The thing that makes me disengage is when I don't have any preparation and am blindsided by flashbacks (to the original traumatic experience) in the middle of class," writes the blogger.

Willis says students should have the option to opt out of a personally disruptive text, or select a different course altogether if they know the material will be too difficult to manage. Without a fair warning, she says, there is no such option (Willis, The Conversation, 10/9).

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