NCAC Investigates the Prevalence and Impact of Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings have become one of the hottest topics in the media today, with most coverage painting a bleak picture of epidemic political correctness propagated by coddled millennials. Articles and blog posts declare that trigger warnings are devolving academia from a safe space for the discussion of difficult and challenging topics to one of sterile neutrality and limited speech built around the fear that what one person says might offend someone else.

But are these claims accurate? A recent survey by the National Coalition Against Censorship in collaboration with the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association paints a more complicated picture than the imminent Orwellian future depicted in many media stories.

Collecting responses from over 800 members of the MLA and CAA — two academic organizations dedicated to providing educators with resources and tools to strengthen academic teaching and culture — NCAC identified four key findings:

1. While very few institutions have formal trigger warning policies, educators report a significant number of requests and complaints from students.

Although fewer than 1% of survey participants reported that their institution had adopted a policy on trigger warnings, 7.5% reported that students had initiated efforts to require trigger warnings on campus, twice as many (15%) reported that students had requested warnings in their courses, and 12% reported that students had complained about the absence of trigger warnings. Despite a media narrative of “political correctness,” student requests concerned a diverse range of subjects from across the ideological spectrum.

2. Many—but not alleducators believe that trigger warnings have adverse effects on academic freedom and the learning environment.

While there were widespread expressions of concern and respect for students, nearly half of respondents (45%) think trigger warnings have or will have a negative effect on classroom dynamics and 62% think they have or will have a negative effect on academic freedom. A substantial minority (17%) view trigger warnings favorably. Others express concern that they are not professionally qualified to assist those students who suffering from panic disorders or other medical conditions.

3. Many educators distinguish trigger warnings from the practice of informing students about course content.

Over half of those surveyed said that they had provided “warnings about course content,” with 23% saying they had done so ‘several times’ or ‘regularly.’ However, many instructors draw a distinction between practice of flagging specific elements in any given assignment, which many respondents resist, and the practice of providing a detailed syllabus and course description, which many endorse.

4. Supporters and critics of trigger warnings alike are opposed to administrators requesting or requiring their use.

The survey revealed widespread agreement that the decision of whether or not to use warnings should be the exclusive prerogative of individual instructors and not influenced by department heads, deans, or administrators. Pressure from administrators is of particular concern to non-tenured and contingent faculty.

While very few institutions have formal trigger warning policies, discussions of trigger warnings on campuses exist and are driven by students themselves. But not all trigger warning requests pertain to the larger topics on which the media focuses, such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion. “Despite a media narrative of ‘political correctness,’ student requests concerned a diverse range of subjects from across the ideological spectrum,” writes NCAC. Survey respondents reported that trigger warning requests ranged from complaints about spiders to suicide in ballet to indigenous artifacts to “fatphobia.”

Evidence that the media depiction of left-leaning political correctness run amok is skewed can be found in the preponderance of survey respondents who indicated that many of their trigger warnings pertained to content that would offend highly religious and conservatively-raised students. NCAC writes:

In fact, many respondents commented about warnings to address religious sensitivities. A respondent who teaches and holds an administrative post reports receiving “many complaints, some with parental involvement. These have mostly been religious objections.” Others note specific “religious objections to nude models in studio courses” and to “homoerotic content in art history.” Another explained that “the trigger warnings that I place in my general education Humanities course syllabus have to do with religious and moral content that might be offensive to persons who are zealous about their particular faith.” Yet another observed that “the Bible … is a topic that can offend both fundamentalists and those who are not comfortable with religion.” There was even a “Rastafarian student [who] was very offended at my comparison of Akhenaten’s Great Hymn to Psalm 104.”

Another popular media narrative pertains to trauma, but the survey found that trigger warnings aren’t simply meant to protect individual students who ascribed to specific religious beliefs or suffer from a traumatic event. In some cases, students are using trigger warnings to avoid material that they “find merely discomfiting, challenging, or offensive to their beliefs.” Rather, as one professor noted, “Students who have NOT had significant traumatic experiences are using trigger warning requests to avoid engaging with uncomfortable course materials.”

If trigger warnings are less about PTSD and more about the avoidance of difficult or uncomfortable topics, what does this mean for the state of education? Are trigger warnings a new method by which students can exert control over materials they deem uncomfortable or difficult? “While it is very important to respect survivors of sexual violence, might other students refuse to read or engage with material because it is uncomfortable or challenging?” asked a respondent. “How can we teach such things as war, homophobia, racism, misogyny, and violence if we cannot expect students to read such texts or materials?”

Although the number of students calling for trigger warnings is low, nearly half of the participants in the survey say that they have much larger and dangerous implications.

The demand for warnings, even though pressed by only a minority of students, may nonetheless affect the educational environment for a great many more students if instructors — many understandably nervous about job security — change how or what they teach as a result, if students themselves feel constrained about discussing topics that might be “triggering” to others, or if warnings operate to “shut down dialogue and shame participants in such a way that those participants actually leave the conversation.”

From what one participant calls the fostering of a “contentious rather than cooperative” academic atmosphere, to the “infantilizing” of the student body, professors mostly agree that trigger warnings create an “opt-out” culture that could potentially stunt the academic and personal development of students attending schools that have active trigger warning policies:

This trend would have a chilling effect on the climate of inquiry, free speech, and intellectual exchange that should be the hallmark of college education. Real learning is hard and requires students to engage material that is difficult, new, or challenging — material that they may find discomforting for any number of reasons. ‘Trigger warnings’ bespeak a kind of intellectual in loco parentis that could limit a student’s opportunity for independent thinking and self-discovery.

We’ve already seen that chilling effect. When a student and her parents challenged the inclusion of four graphic novels in a course at Crafton Hills College, the institution upheld the books but debated adding a disclaimer to the course syllabus (not going so far as to call it a trigger warning, but ostensibly the same). The disclaimer would have been the only such administration-mandated warning to appear on syllabi in the system, and CBLDF joined NCAC in protesting the practice, which voids academic freedom (nevermind being unnecessary considering the content of the books attacked, most of which are used in secondary education as well). And we saw it again at Duke University, where students refused to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, claiming religious objections to sexual and LGBTQ content.

Many argue that capitulating to the demand for trigger warnings countermands the objectives of higher education. In a report put together by the American Association of University Professors:

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens. Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education. They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education. The effect is to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who fear to raise questions that might make others ‘uncomfortable.’

Surprisingly, though, about 17% of survey participants saw value in trigger warnings. Some see them as a way to create a “safe space for dialogue” and a kind of stepping stone towards engaging with difficult material “in a meaningful way.” They feel that with the appropriate trigger warnings students aren’t left “blindsided” by a course’s content and as such are able to develop a unique level of trust between themselves and their teachers. One respondent writes:

My use of trigger warnings has typically led to a positive outcome, meaning that it has resulted in a higher point of entry for students (and myself) into relevant debates — not only about the issues in question, but also about the appropriateness of the university classroom as a site of such debates. Such occasions have also enabled me effectively to “train” the students on how to engage in difficult debates with respect and sensitivity towards others.

Although feelings about trigger warnings vary, the one thing that is widely agreed upon by both supporters and critics of trigger warnings is that administrators have no place imposing or mandating trigger warning policies on their campuses. Rather “the decision of whether or not to use warnings should be the exclusive prerogative of individual instructors and not influenced by department heads, deans, or administrators.”

The NCAC survey likely will prove to be essential in future discussions of the topic of trigger warnings. The most paramount finding, though, is that the trigger warning trend isn’t as black-and-white an issue as the media presents — and likely not a crisis — but it is an area of deep concern. Discussion of the trend might actually be a means to open up further discussion on campuses and in classrooms about the social issues a new generation of students find important. “A meaningful education requires an open mind and an open dialogue,” concludes the NCAC, adding:

The debate over trigger warnings will serve a necessary and salutary purpose if it leads to greater self-awareness and opens up opportunities for deeper and more searching discussion about the many difficult issues that confront today’s students and the individual faculty members who hope to equip them to confront it.

Read the full report and survey results here.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!