Trigger Warnings: Why We Should Trust Instructors to Prepare Students for Literature

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Earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about proposed “trigger warnings” for literature taught in college classrooms. These warnings, requested by some students, would be “explicit alerts… that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or… cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.” This week, the American Association of University Professors announced their official opposition to trigger warnings in classrooms and on syllabi. In a statement, they explained:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and—as the Oberlin list demonstrates—it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students. Although all faculty are affected by potential charges of this kind, non-tenured and contingent faculty are particularly at risk. In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, “chilly climate” for critical thinking in the classroom.

In general, I agree. Slapping trigger warnings on classic literature is a way of narrowing our scope of vision, and of implicitly marking some subjects (colonialism!) as taboo or difficult. We need fewer taboos in our patterns of thinking, not more. And at the risk of sounding hysterical, I worry that trigger warnings could lead to “classroom” editions of books with “triggering” material left out.

Then there’s the basic fact that part of why we read literature, as studies remind us again and again, is to learn how to better live in the world. Literature increases empathy, flexibility of mind, breadth of comprehension of the experiences of others. And the world, let me tell you, is full of warning-less triggers. So should be our preparation for it.

But for me, it also comes down to this: instructors teaching at the college level should be trusted to present their students with both challenging literature and the tools to address it, as well as be flexible and respond to individual classes and personalities. Students at the college level should take the responsibility to speak to professors about possible triggers if they feel that’s a problem for them, but in no way should these warnings be a blanket treatment for literature.

I’m currently teaching a course in the reading and writing of short stories at a big university. My students are mostly freshmen and sophomores. When we read Stephen Millhauser’s “Dangerous Laughter” and Lorrie Moore’s “How to Be an Other Woman” on the same day, one student (perceptively) wanted to know if Millhauser’s might be, in some way, about teenage sex. Someone else, emboldened, pointed out to me that I had assigned two sexy stories on the same day, and both included the word “orgasm”! Well, that is true, I suppose — “Dangerous Laughter” might be the sexiest story not about sex ever written, and “How to Be an Other Woman,” though not sexy exactly, is about an affair.

But the response gave me pause: I had a planned to give them “A Romantic Weekend” by Mary Gaitskill later in the semester, a vividly, sometimes upsettingly sexual story that also does wild things with point of view. Were my students not the group for this story? I thought about it for a while and decided they were, that they could handle it, that this story is good enough and instructive enough and affecting enough to be worth any giggles and blushing it might invite. That said, I do plan to mention it to them ahead of time. “This is a story about, among other things, sadomasochism,” I will say. “There is sex,” I will say. “If anyone has any concerns, I am available to talk about them,” I will say.

I suspect that introduction will only make them run home and eagerly read their assignment — but if it allows one or two to steel themselves before reading something possibly upsetting, I have no trouble with that. I’m just glad to have had the opportunity to decide for myself, based on my own experience with this particular group of students, how best to prepare them for their assignments.