Interpreting trigger warnings at Penn.
She won’t sleep tonight, but she doesn’t know it yet. It’s Labor Day Weekend, and Kailey Zitaner (C '17) sits on her couch watching The Immigrant for class. A young boy enters the screen to see Marion Cotillard curled up on the bed, far too drunk to give consent. He reaches out his hand to touch her, casting a shadow over her face. That’s when Kailey’s vision goes black. Overproduction of cortisol in her adrenal gland raises her blood pressure and insulin levels. Adrenaline builds. There’s a sensation of paralysis, hands holding her down. The tears come and somehow her hand breaks free to slam her laptop shut. And suddenly, once again, Kailey is safe in her apartment. But just as her laptop and class syllabus still contain the triggering material, her memory still contains the trauma of her past sexual abuse. When Kailey told her teacher she was triggered, she didn’t just mean she was offended—she meant she had a visceral, physical response.
Hao Jun Tam, Kailey’s teacher for her junior research seminar, “Immigrant Narratives,” was surprised by her reaction and her subsequent inability to sleep or complete other schoolwork in response to the film. “There’s no explicit depiction of gender violence or misogyny,” he said. But he respected her experience and held a class discussion about it. He highlighted materials on the syllabus of a similar nature. “I saw my job as opening up the space so students could take ownership of their own learning and of the class. That’s my rationale behind adding trigger warnings,” he said.
Trigger warnings pose a fascinating grey area in academics: Does the protection of students from potentially disturbing material inhibit a more enriching learning environment?
The phrase “trigger warning” is largely a blanket term. Although most agree that a trigger warning is a statement alerting someone to disturbing material, there is widespread disagreement about when one should be used, and in what context. While some see them as a protective measure for students who might be disturbed by graphic content due to past traumas, others view them as a threat to free expression and an open, challenging learning environment.
“It could range from anything from putting a warning before—or not showing—very graphic depictions of violence, brutality, sex,” said Stephanos Bibas, a Penn Law professor of Criminology and former chair of the University Committee on OpenExpression.
“[It could mean] putting a warning in front of vivid word descriptions in works of literature that use sexist or racist words, that talk about situations that either students themselves may have suffered or more generally things that a lot of students will find objectionable,” he said.
While trigger warnings are often placed in the category of intellectual and ideological coddling on college campuses, many Penn students and faculty see them as a facilitator for confronting uncomfortable topics that students might otherwise find unnecessarily traumatizing.
Trigger warnings have, in recent years, become a loaded term on college campuses nationwide. The University of Chicago issued a statement in August informing the class of 2020 that they should not expect trigger warnings or safe spaces. Oberlin College introduced a policy requiring trigger warnings, only to repeal it in the face of widespread faculty opposition. The University of California Santa Barbara introduced mandatory trigger warnings at the request of the student government.
And while the University of Chicago letter drew both praise and criticism, Penn has taken a similar approach to intellectual freedom for almost half a decade, albeit not as publicly. The Faculty Handbook’s Guidelines on Open Expression affirms Penn’s commitment to “the freedom to experiment, to present and examine alternative data and theories; the freedom to hear, express, and debate various views; and the freedom to voice criticism of existing practices and values.” Essentially, Penn explicitly states its commitment to an open academic dialogue—however, it’s unclear how trigger warnings fit into or threaten this commitment.
Citing this, Bibas views the requirement of trigger warnings as “in serious tension with Penn’s commitment to abiding by the first amendment.”
Aaron Rips, a junior in the College, feels as though trigger warnings diminish the freedom to have the balanced, difficult conversations necessary for learning. “I’m against [trigger warnings] because I think they come at the cost of knowledge and academia… it’s really hard to have any sort of meaningful conversation with people who want to avoid hard topics.”
The phrase “trigger warning” has itself come to yield from many critics a knee–jerk reaction of derision for inhibiting open and intellectual discourse in classrooms. Professors—even those open to including trigger warnings for certain material—are only willing to go so far to protect their students.
However, trigger warnings do not necessarily have to mean censorship. They are also a means of simply reducing shock in regards to disturbing material—the material is still taught, but without the surprise.
“If you read something and you’re upset for 24 hours and don’t want to read it again, I’m okay with that,” said Deborah Burnham, Associate Undergraduate Chair of the English Department. “I’m not willing to go to great lengths to avoid that.”
“While I think all of us should not be afraid of texts and ideas that might dislodge our prejudices or our ignorance, there are some instances where disturbance goes over a line and becomes injury,” said Burnham. “That’s not an easy line to draw, and it requires tough communication and honesty on both sides.”
Kenneth Goldsmith, an English professor who teaches a class called “Wasting Time on the Internet” in which students participate in internet social experiments, views trigger warnings as an enabling agent to covering certain topics in the classroom. “Those of us who deal with the humanities often encounter difficult material,” he said. “It is difficult, but then the Internet is difficult and courses at Penn are difficult. We may run into disturbing things but I don’t want to use filters and I don’t want to limit what we can do.”
He gives his students the freedom to leave the room if the content causes distress. “We don’t want people to be uncomfortable for the sake of being uncomfortable,” he said. “I just want them to learn.”
Jamie–Lee Josselyn, another English professor, also reached this same understanding long before the term “trigger warnings” became controversial.
“I don’t think [trigger warnings] need to be institutionalized. I think this is much more about conversations between people than conversations within a large organization or institution and a large body of anonymous individuals,” she said.
Topics covered in her memoir writing class include death, suicide and sexual assault.
“If you’re going to have a problem engaging with difficult material, you might want to ask yourself if it’s a good idea for you to take this class right now,” she says at the beginning of each semester. She does not, however, require her students to warn one another about potentially difficult the content within these essays.
“We can’t anticipate every difficult moment. It’s just impossible. We just need to take a generally humane approach in how we interact with each other,” said Josselyn.
Some professors see the warnings as a potential step on a slippery slope towards classroom censorship, which would interfere with the open intellectual space that a classroom is supposed to be.
“Generally, it’s a good thing to be unsettled, disturbed, even frightened by what we learn. We can recover from being upset or scared, and may be better thinkers as a result,” said Burnham.
Bibas worries that the culture surrounding trigger warnings might come at the risk of the learning environment.
“I do worry that there are pressures in the academy to make professors walk on eggshells around that and deprive a lot of students of what they need to learn here,” said Bibas. “Trying to sensitize it and formalize it risks accommodating certain student sensitivities at the expense of discussing things that need to be addressed.”
Bibas continues, “The fact that [subject matter] is troubling and the fact that it’s affecting are part of the educational value.”
Tam agrees. “This is what literature does. It exposes you to the daily dramas of life that people have to go through. It’s a lot of things that people don’t talk about in real life. And literature brings those silences into the open so that we can talk about them and think about them.”
It seems that students and faculty with opinions that at first seem contradictory are actually able to reach a consensus on the issue. While trigger warnings should not be institutionally required, they do have the potential—when used properly—to protect both the mental wellbeing of students and the open exchange of ideas in the classroom. To this end, professors must recognize the value of trigger warnings as enabling agents for students who might otherwise be unable to participate and contribute.
“[Trigger warnings exist] to foster a space where, regardless of your mental health status or trauma you might have experienced, everyone can participate in the discussion,” said Navya Dasari, a College sophomore who has been in several Penn classes with trigger warnings.
“The discussion and the debate around trigger warnings has been distanced from the actual purpose of them… and how they benefit people who are neurodivergent and people who have experienced trauma—and, actually, every student,” said Navya. “They promote intellectual growth and enable important discussions.”
“For example, I don’t think anyone is saying that we shouldn’t have discussions about homophobia in our classrooms. The very people who have been harmed by it are the people who want to have those conversations,” she said.
Aaron believes that trigger warnings as a form of censorship are damaging, but useful in the form of a pre–emptive alert. “If we just whitewash everything, nothing can be learned or gained. We can’t progress without some sort of meaningful conversation, and that requires people confronting hard topics.”
He continues, “If it’s something as simple as, ‘The imagery you’re about to see is graphic, but you’re expected to interact with it anyway,’ then that’s fine. As long as it doesn’t detract from engagement with the material and the class.”
Victoria Brown, a sophomore in Wharton, often experiences intense anxiety when seeing graphic visuals of racialized violence, and feels the purpose of trigger warnings can be misconstrued. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t acknowledge slavery or that we shouldn’t talk about the atrocities that happened in slavery, just like I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about the fact that police brutality affects a large segment of my cultural group,” she notes. “What I’m saying is that there’s a way to talk about it that’s more sensitive than others. The question is about whether or not we should have trigger warnings, and whether or not you should get a choice in whether or not you’re exposed to a certain visual.”
“It’s ableist not to include trigger warnings,” Kailey argues. “It’s like allergen warnings: ‘May contain traces of trauma.’ You can’t just be like, ‘It’s getting in the way of other people eating peanut butter.’”
She continues, “Not including trigger warnings is a kind of erasure. It invalidates the fact that I exist, my PTSD exists, my trauma exists. It’s erasing my identity as someone who is a sexual assault survivor who does suffer from PTSD. To erase those students and their experiences is really an injustice.”
While many college students respond to such injustices with anger towards their professors or classmates, Kailey sees this as counterproductive. She does not feel that she is demanding protection from her past traumas. Rather, she sees trigger warnings as a necessary step on her road to healing. “If you feel like you need trigger warnings and you’re not actively learning to deal with your triggers, that’s a bigger problem than anything else,” she said. “Trigger warnings are there for people whose trauma is a work in progress.”