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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2016

The trouble with trigger warnings

Rani Neutill, a feminist scholar and sexual assault survivor advocate, says trigger warnings are useful in support work and in online discussion groups, but they have no place in the academic setting.

As a contract instructor, Neutill used trigger warnings for her course materials, but she says they eventually drove her to stop teaching.

“I believe in protecting our students from violence and discrimination in the classroom,” said Neutill. “But they also need to learn. The classroom cannot be an intellectually risk-free space.”

Already feeling vulnerable as a feminist scholar and a contract instructor, Neutill feared losing her job when some students complained about how she used trigger warnings to introduce content for a course she taught on sex and film.

Trigger warnings are customary practice on feminist blogs and other social media. They are used to help mitigate traumatic reactions to sensitive topics, but such responses can be difficult to predict or control in the academic setting.

Over the past few years, the trigger warning debate has erupted on U.S. campuses. The American Association of University Professors asserts that trigger warnings are “infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” singling out “politically contro­versial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism and colonialism for attention.”

Annette Burfoot, a CAUT executive committee member agrees. She worries about how the trigger warning debate in the U.S. is influencing classrooms in Canada. While there is no known push to mandate trigger warnings, Burfoot sees a chill among academic staff teaching in contentious disciplines.

“It’s more subtle and particularly affecting contract academic staff,” Burfoot said. “In a form of self-censorship, contract academic staff are less willing to take on more controversial materials because they are more open to criticism and risk losing their job.”

This creates the conditions for the erosion of academic freedom through the rise of a “culture of clientism,” according to Burfoot.

“I worry that a contract faculty member would feel disinclined to teach controversial materials because of a student response,” she added. “How does that change what students are exposed to?”

Neutill also situates the trigger warning problem within a climate of insecure academic work, compounded by growing consumerism in education.

Inevitably, Neutill’s class on sex and film incorporated disturbing video content that she found pedagogically necessary to provide historical context. She originally adopted the same protocol with trigger warnings as she had in her work in sexual assault prevention.

But she later realized that the expectations for trigger warnings raised problems. “Students started coming with specific instructions about how to deliver my material and when and where to use trigger warnings,” Neutill said.

After being accused of intentionally using content to traumatize students, she became nervous about losing her job.

“I ended up having to cater to each student’s assessment of what they thought was necessary in the class as opposed to teaching what I thought was relevant,” she said.

“I realized that the trigger warning culture created an atmosphere where students believe they can be protected from discussing sensitive topics.” But given the nature of the course, she could not guarantee that.

Burfoot says that students should not dictate curriculum. “Students can complain about the delivery of the content, and there are ways to address that, but academics can’t stop teaching difficult materials because it compromises academic freedom,” she argues.

Even when Neutill provided trigger warnings, students would still get upset. “It seemed to be more about not wanting to learn and resistance to feeling uncomfortable,” she said.

Adding to her vulnerability as a casual academic worker, Neutill also worried about a Title IX complaint.

Title IX is federal law in the U.S. prohibiting sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs. It was intended to promote equity in sports programs and to address sexual violence. But lately, some academics claim they have been targeted by the legislation for different reasons.

In 2015, Laura Kipnis, a prominent cultural critic who writes on sexual politics, faced a student complaint under Title IX for publishing an article on sexual paranoia in academia in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“On top of trigger warnings, the threat of getting a Title IX complaint is making feminist professors scared,” Neutill said.

Burfoot compares the Title IX fears in the U.S. to the rise of respectful workplace policies in Canada, which are having a similar impact on academic freedom, especially for academics who teach controversial material.

Despite her negative experience, Neutill still supports trigger warnings outside of academia.

“Outside of the classroom, such as social media, if you think material might be traumatizing and you want to add a trigger warning, that’s ok because it’s not an edu­cational space,” she said. “In aca­demia, however, you have chosen to take a course, aware of the themes. It is an educational space where academic freedom supersedes.”