Books are incredibly powerful. They have the ability to, with a limited number of letters, make a person cry, scream, laugh, or do all three at once. Not to mention teachers. The right teacher can set someone on a path for life, and can really change a person for the better. These are influential tools that should be used wisely. But a new question has arisen that may change the fate of these two almighty utensils, at least in a collegiate respect, forever.
The question is whether or not to add mandatory trigger warnings to university syllabi. Born out of the feminist blogosphere, these warnings have made their way from small message boards to large websites. The time has come for this idea to be debated as to how far its power should go.
The largest opponents of these suggested mandates have turned out to be college professors themselves. They believe that college is a place for people to be intellectually challenged, and that these warnings coddle students. Sociology professor Lisa Hajjar at UC Santa Barbara agrees, saying that “…to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.” An online survey found that out of over eight-hundred college professors that answered, eighty-five percent of them had never been asked to include a trigger warning in class. Professors also find themselves unsure of what to warn about, since minute details such as smells and certain times of year can be triggering for people. As a matter of fact, a mandate was attempted at Oberlin College that told professors to stay away from using material that contained “heterosexism, cissexism, [and] ableism” in their classes, but it did not last for very long after various faculty members held informal meetings with deans. Discussions, they feared, would not be as stimulating since students would worry about hurting the feelings of other students. Columbia State removed trigger warnings entirely from their campus, concerned that they infringed upon censorship. This caused some people to believe that warnings were steps in the wrong direction for students entirely.
Supporters, though they may be small in number according to that survey, are out there and angry. With calls for change at Oberlin College, Columbia State College, Bryn Mawr University, Rutgers University, Scripps University, Wellesley College, and UC Santa Barbara, they demand to be heard. These proponents, mostly students organizing campus petitions, see the opponents’ views about intellectual challenge. However, as nineteen-year-old Bailey Loverin, creator of a petition at UC Santa Barbara that asked for professors to warn about triggering content used in class, put it, “‘But a girl just raped a month ago and sitting in a classroom for the first time again isn’t ready to face that head-on.’” A common analogy that trigger-warning supporters use is comparing the mandates they desire to the FDA mandates that tell whether a food product has nuts or wheat inside of it. This plan, they say, is that simple, and it costs nothing–monetarily speaking. They also argue that the student should always be aware of what may come so that that student can always have a choice in the matter. With almost eight percent of Americans expected to experience PTSD in their lifetimes, advocates for trigger warnings find it a need in this new day and age where people are beginning to put themselves first. So, supporters believe it to be the step that must happen next for there to be a truly safe place for students.
This debate is extremely passionate on both sides of the spectrum, and I confess that my article does not tell every last pro and con that there is about this issue. Finding a source without some form of an opinion or a slant is nearly impossible. The Huffington Post largely seems to support trigger warnings, while Inside Higher Ed is largely against it, if you want to do more research. Draw your own conclusions about mandates. I am going to get a bit personal now to try to help make a point.
My own opinion on all of this is a more individualized approach. To choose sides, to decide something so personal for a large number of people is not the right way, I think, to look at this issue. Sure, have a side, but when it comes to personal mental health, everyone else’s opinions should not matter. If you find yourself in a classroom environment and you are uncomfortable, use the resources available to you. Talk to your teacher to ask about a private reading or a different material to read. Talk to the campus counselor if something really upset you and you can just tell that it is going to be a long night because of it.
Pain is one of the most personal things in the world. Yes, people will say that they understand, but no one has faced your demons like you have. Your friends may never understand why you simply can’t see To Kill a Mockingbird the way that they can because you feel like Mayella Ewell, because you’ve faced your father like she had to face hers. Your dearest and nearest friends may judge you, and it is so hard to hear. When in short supply of understanding ears, reach for those campus counselors. Or maybe try this anonymous online chat where you can talk to a stranger for free. Seven Cups of Tea is also a widely trusted place to turn to if you want someone to listen that maybe you can later go back to. You do not have to be strong all the time. If you need calm, seek calm. Respect your own limits. Draw your own conclusions about this debate, but when you look at the big picture, never forget little details, either.