Trigger Warnings or Transparency?

I started this post multiple times in the last couple of weeks. But after a couple of events, I am finally sitting down to write it.

Two weeks ago the author and academic, Roxanne Gay, came to my alma mater to do a reading and lecture. I live close enough where I was able to meet one of my closest friends there to hear her and meet Dr. Gay. Roxanne Gay is most known for her book, Bad Feminist. I had come across the book last year and read it quickly, with much of it speaking to me as a feminist and an academic. I had taken note of her essay on trigger warnings, but that was not the part that had stuck out to me initially. However, that essay was one Dr. Gay read the night I went. One thing she said when an audience member asked her about why she chooses to not use trigger warnings was that her pedagogical style is to have discussions with students throughout the semester about what they are reading and why. She is not shying away from topics that may be controversial or difficult for students, but openly discussing them and allowing for the challenging and brave spaces in the classroom.

This week the other GrATE fellows and I were chatting about different topics on pedagogy. We are getting ready to begin a brown bag series during the Wednesday office hours and one of the topics that we are discussing is trigger warnings. Some people are wondering what the right path is for using trigger warnings, whether they are necessary, and for which topics within their classes.

Finally, also this week I went to one of the theatre events on campus. I grew up around the theatre and theatre being provocative, including using the arts as a way of addressing social justice. The play I saw was a fairly new one (published in the last 6 years) and has won numerous awards. Yes, the topics begin to address race relations, gentrification, and social justice. That part was not what caught my attention. Rather, some of the other topics and items within the play that I was not prepared for caught my attention. There was a lot of language in this play, which on any given day wouldn’t be noticed, except for the fact that in my line of sight were two young girls under the age of 10 in the audience. Also, the storyline in the play is connected in part by an unseen character’s suicide and his family’s dealing with that. At intermission and after the show I started looking more intently in the playbill and the sign at the entrance to the theatre for any mention of the language or the content of the show and found nothing. I was shocked that this department, which normally is quite good about forewarning the language at least in a play, had said nothing about either item. I had read a bit about the play before going and have done even more reading since going, and there is no mention anywhere about the suicide topic within the play. So, if the department does not mention that this content, and the general write-ups about this play do not mention it, how are people who may have dealt with death, suicide, rape, etc. within their lives and want some warning or awareness of what is coming their way going to know?

I understand that a lot of the discussion around trigger warnings is that by using them and using safe spaces means people will opt out of hearing about tough things or having challenging conversations. I disagree. I think whether you use the phrase “trigger warning” or not, it is about being transparent in what is being discussed. It is giving a heads up to not be blindsided by something.

I am in a social science and human services discipline. We are always talking about people’s lives. And people’s lives include a variety of experiences, including traumatic experiences. So, for me, when teaching courses, especially when teaching Human Sexuality, I try to be cognizant of that. I rarely, if ever, use the exact phrase of “trigger warning”, however, every topic that will be discussed in a semester is covered in the syllabus. In multiple places and in multiple ways I try to link previous material to the current material and foreshadow where we are going next. I provide information about the resources on campus and in the community that may be of assistance or interest to anyone in the class who has had any number of lived experiences. Yet, I do not shy away from controversial topics or topics that may “trigger” someone.

So, for me, it is about transparency in what we are discussing and why we are discussing it. It has to be pertinent to the learning objectives and course material. I will always use some level of forewarning about what is coming up in lessons whether in an online course or in-person. It may look differently at different times, but on some level, I would rather have the open dialogue and preparation. With openness and transparency, hopefully students will feel that I and the classroom environment I create allow them to grapple with these topics.

One Response to Trigger Warnings or Transparency?

  • yesim says:

    Erin, what a nice coincidence that your blog popped up at google while I was looking for some stuff on being transparent in the classroom, especially while discussing taboo topics. I definitely agree with you in all these. I feel like especially in human sciences, it should even be a mission to talk about stuff openly, honestly, critically, and creatively.

    As I was nodding each and every sentence of yours while reading this post, I realized how much the Culture of the department we are trained to be educators at shaped how we perceive the concepts/actions. I feel like, especially with regard to the challenging issues like talking honestly on the tricky issues, the context has an extremely important role. In my experience, when the students receive continuous and stable and persistent encouragement in the academic context for transparency and honesty, it becomes a transformative experience — which is one of our hopes as educators 🙂

    I am glad to read your post, and happy to say that I am with you on this!

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