Social Issues

should colleges use trigger warnings?


[content note: PTSD, sexual violence]

I walked into my graduate poetry writing class, energized and almost enthusiastic. The first few classes had been dedicating to giving us the basics about poetry for those of us, like me, who had only dabbled (or less) in poetry writing. Today was going to be the first day we would workshop a poem, and I was looking forward to seeing what the process would be like.

Our professor passed out a few stapled sheets, and a glance told me it was structured simply– short lines, short stanzas, free verse. He mentioned that this had become a favorite poem of his, that it was moving and powerful, and then spent some time explaining how he’d like us to read it — how we should be conscious of our reactions, how we should engage with it as we read it multiple times, absorbing it.

I didn’t make it to the bottom of the first page.

It felt like I’d been thrown head-first into liquid nitrogen, blood boiling and freezing all at once. I went numb, and my world started blacking out. I don’t know if I managed to even mumble something close to “excuse me” as I stumbled over messenger bags and backpacks, and I couldn’t hear anything, could barely process seeing anything, and it was a struggle to open the door. The hallway tilted, and I knew I was going to throw up– but I could barely remember where the bathroom was. Ultimately it didn’t matter because I vomited all over the stained-concrete hallway in front of a dozen students, then just sat there– too far gone to even be humiliated.

Eventually I pulled myself together enough to get some wet and dry paper towels, then walk back to class with tunnel vision and my ears ringing to collect my laptop and books. I concentrated on nothing but getting myself to my car in one piece; the second I was ensconced in its sun-drenched heat I broke. I screamed, sobbed.

Then I drove home to spend the next two days curled up in the fetal position on my bedroom floor, trying to drown out my memories with pounding music and booze.


At one point, I decided to take a course on William Faulkner– I had avoided studying American writers up until that point, and the class was taught by one of my favorite professors. Knowing absolutely nothing about Faulkner, I enrolled.

The Sound and the Fury was . . . difficult. Reading about Caddy Compson, but never hearing from Caddy herself, bothered me profoundly. As a literature student I understood what Faulkner was doing by bestowing all of his characters with absence in this way, but that everyone got to say who and what Caddy was without Caddy ever having a voice … I didn’t like it, although I didn’t really understand why.

A classmate gave a presentation on The Mosquitoes, and included a quote from the semi-autobiographical character– that the “ideal woman” was without a head so she could not speak, without arms so she could not touch, and without legs so she could not leave– merely a body possessing nothing except breasts and a vagina. When we discussed Sanctuary, I could not even speak. As the professor and my colleagues calmly discussed Temple being raped and sodomized with a dry corncob, it took everything I had to keep myself from falling apart. I lost participation points that day because I never managed to find my way out of the haze– and because I could not expose myself in a room where someone had “reasonably” suggested that being “fast and loose” and dating an alcoholic meant that Temple had contributed to her own fate.

When I had to choose a novel for a conference paper, I picked Absalom! Absalom! without being able to read it first, and struggled through all three hundred pages that made Faulkner’s utter callousness toward women absolutely clear. He did not care about us, did not care about whether or not we were people, whether or not we consented. In Faulkner’s world, it was clear that women were possessions to be fucked, and served no other purpose until we had been. I failed the paper because of my “lack of engagement with the text.”

At mid-terms I was failing the class– the first time I had ever found myself in that academic position. I went to my professor’s office multiple times, struggling to articulate why I was struggling– why my analysis papers were so weak, why I could barely make it through the books, why I could not participate in class when rape and violence were so often part of the discussion. It took multiple appointments and me devolving into tears before he seemed to understand that I was going to fail his class not because I wasn’t working, wasn’t willing to work, wasn’t willing to participate, but because I was a trauma victim and engaging in the way he expected other students to would destroy me.


There’s been a hearty discussion happening about “trigger warnings” on college courses and course material, and whether or not colleges should enact policies to include them. Karen Swallow Prior argued that this argument represents a new  “PC”– something she calls “empathic correctness.” Angus Johnson makes a case for trigger warnings, saying that including them in his college courses has only enriched the classes he’s taught. Alan Jacobs makes the reverse argument, saying that students should learn to “trust” their professors, that their education is in at least some way based on that trust. Jen Doll goes to an extreme and says it’s one step short of censorship, while Ponta Abadi points out that most of these writers haven’t even bothered including the perspective of trauma victims and what they might like to say. Greg Lukianoff openly dismisses the concerns, attributing our position to some narcissistic need not to be “offended.”

I’m not exactly sure what I think. All I know is that if two of my college professors had been required to think about trauma victims, and rape victims, and people with PTSD when they were constructing their syllabi and putting together their course materials, a lot of suffering in my life could have been easily avoided.

With one sentence, my poetry writing instructor could have given me the opportunity to mentally gird myself and decide if I wanted to read that particular poem completely open, with no emotional guard in place. Instead, he said nothing and I was left absolutely reeling, disoriented, sick and re-living some of the worst things I’ve ever experienced.

With an awareness of what it’s like to be a rape victim, with some education about how victim blaming can re-traumatize rape survivors, my professor could have made my Faulkner class a safe place to discuss the realities of sexual violence. He could have read my papers– with their emphases on summaries instead of direct quotes– and realized that I was doing that in order to survive, not because I was being lazy and a poor student.

As a reader, as a person, when I see the words “trigger warning” or “content note,” I don’t usually click away. When I read a jacket and realize the book I’m interested in is going to talk about difficult things for me, it doesn’t mean I automatically don’t buy it. What “content notes” and “trigger warnings” do for me is give me the opportunity to make a decision: am I mentally prepared enough to engage with this? Am I too stressed to engage with this in a healthy way right now? Most of the time, the simple fact that I’ve been warned is enough to say “yes,” and I read on, cautious and alert. I can save the article to read later, put a bookmark in the book when it gets to be too much.

In a college course, it is especially important for professors to be aware of people like me. Most of the time when something is triggering a PTSD episode, survivors can “walk away”– we can stop engaging with the material. The TV can be shut off, the book closed. In a college course, we don’t have that option. We have to keep reading, and then write something about what we’ve read, and then go to class to hear that triggering thing discussed by people who have no idea what it’s like to live through it.

It’s not that “trigger warnings” will automatically solve these issues. They won’t. My professor could have said “Content note: course textbooks will include discussions of sexual violence” and it would not have stopped students from talking about rape victims as though they were responsible for their rape.

What college professors need to do isn’t slap “trigger warning” on their course and then have done with it– they need to learn about trauma. They need to educate themselves– or be educated by their administrations– about what it’s like to be a rape victim and walk into a literary discussion about sexual violence that he or she is required to participate in.

Survivors of sexual violence, abuse, stigma, racism . . . we’re not demanding to never be challenged. We’re not asking to never be offended. We’re not asking to have every personal sensibility catered to. We’re not peevishly sitting in a corner asking our universities to be nicer like some petulant child.

We’re asking that our professors, our administrations, and our universities to have compassion. We’re asking the people who are responsible for our education to realize that when a student leaves your room in hurry, it might be nothing.

Or it could be because their world just came crashing down around their ears. Again.

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  • cm

    i dropped several literature classes after the first class day made it clear to me I couldn’t survive it. eventually i discovered how to CLEP out of the basic courses. But honestly the realizing how much of any basic lit. class was going to be unilaterally thrusting traumatic reading down my burning throat and then judging and condescending to me for not “liking” or engaging with it was probably the main reason I didn’t major in literature or English.

  • I think you’ve explored some of the significant challenges facing students and faculty who are trying to decide what works and doesn’t work in regards to managing triggers in the classroom.

    Did you see this exploration of the topic at Inside Higher Ed:

    It is by far the most nuanced article I’ve seen on the issue. It is written with great respect for students and faculty alike, and instead of just saying that TWs are too much work, or are dumbing down the academy (I mean, what), or make students into big ol’ babies (which are all things I have seen people say), the authors point out the real failures of TW’s to meet the needs of students who have experienced trauma. Then, they take it a step farther and, like you, suggest that there is work for everyone to be doing. One of those things is for faculty and administration to better understand trauma, anxiety, and other mental health issues affecting so many students.

    I teach freshman composition, and I often cover a wide variety of topics over the course of a semester. I don’t use trigger warnings, per se, but I do believe it’s my responsibility to give students a head’s up whenever possible. For example, if I’m going to show a video that I know could be hard for some students, I say something in class like, “We’re going to show a video on TOPIC X tomorrow. It’s in the syllabus–Google it to find out more about it, and if you have any questions, let me know. If you don’t think you can watch that video in class, e-mail me and we’ll come up with a plan for you.” That gives the students the chance to either psychologically prepare for the material, or even opt out if it’s really necessary.

    I think TWs have their drawbacks (as explained very well by the Inside Higher Ed article), but I hate seeing the discussion derailed by people who don’t understand what triggers or TWs are.

  • Don A in Pennsyltucky

    Every time I see this topic discussed, the personal experience is made paramount. What I wonder is just how many personal triggers exist and how anyone who does not have them could be expected to anticipate them all and provide appropriately worded warnings. My guess is that the “how many” value is at least 1 + everything I can think of. I can’t begin to think of appropriate wordings for all the ones that I can think of.

    The world is filled with sharp corners and edges and no one can pass them all for anyone else.

    • This is a point that has been brought it in several discussion about trigger warnings in the classroom. The simple response is, “You are right.” No one can anticipate all of a victim’s triggers. No one can warn me or protect me from the sound of a child screaming in the grocery store. But that fact that we cannot anticipate all of them doesn’t mean we cannot give students a heads up about the obvious ones. Detailed descriptions of rape, child abuse, or racially motivated violence are highly likely to be difficult for a victim of those things. One needn’t be a therapist or have personal experience with any of them to guess this much.

    • You’re right that there’s certainly an awful lot of things that can trigger someone, but I don’t think that makes the correct response “It’s too hard, let’s not do anything”. That approach belies a privilege; the privilege of likely not having any major emotional triggers. That doesn’t mean that your voice isn’t useful in the conversation. It does mean that you (and I, because I’m privileged enough to not have any major emotional triggers, too) need to be able to understand that our perspective is not the only one, nor the only valid one. In this case making some room to accommodate people who have experienced more traumatic things than we have is probably not going to be anything more than a minor inconvenience for us, and we should give it serious thought.

  • I don’t see why not. It’s one sentence that makes no difference to un traumatized people and means the world to those that are.

  • Jessie

    Sound and The Fury is a real beast, even without PTSD. I think your professor’s inability to see why these books would be triggering speaks to our unwillingness to discuss the difficult, earthy, emotional parts of literature. We still want to put books on a pedestal, acting as though we can critique them objectively without using our soul to read them. That’s not what books are for. They weren’t meant to be approved by the gods and coolly speculated over by people. They were meant to be cried over, laughed at, wrestled with, thrown down in frustration only to be picked up again in a moment of determined zeal. People get hurt in books because people get hurt in real life, and the literary world needs to open itself to the honest discussion of real people’s pain. Not to sound overly reactive, but anyone who thinks they can read some of these books objectively and without an emotional response has more to be concerned about than judging other people’s triggers.

  • This is kind of odd to me, since all upper-level theatre classes I took included a paragraph at the end of the syllabus warning us that the class could potentially deal with traumatizing material including but not limited to violence, sexuality, and racial issues. Maybe it was just the theatre department, though.

  • I never have been triggered, and as someone who’s recently started blogging herself, I wonder if I need to put trigger warnings on everything… or on anything, and if so what do I need to warn about?

    The fact that I discuss my history of being abused? That is, I suppose, the most-likely thing to be triggering. My abuse was not sexual, it was barely physical and mostly psychological torture, but it did not cause me PTSD or C-PTSD (although I guess I got a bit of hyper-vigilance?). I can’t fully imagine someone else reading the words I write about my mother’s abuse of me growing up and ending up being triggered into a PTSD-panic attack based on the words I have written. When I mention her abuse in passing, in only one paragraph of a blog post, is a TW still necessary? Or was it ever necessary, even when the entire blog post is about it? It is always tough for me to know. I empathize greatly with survivors. I have been reminded of painful events in my life, and it has felt a little jarring to me at times. But different things can be jarring to different people. Positive, seemingly harmless statements like “We all love sex” can feel slightly upsetting and invalidating to me as someone who identifies with asexuality and sex-aversion. Generalizations about suicide can be hurtful as I lost an uncle less than a year ago in that manner. But I have never experienced being triggered, and I don’t know what helps to prevent such an extreme reaction. I don’t want to cause people unnecessary torment, but I don’t know where to begin and where to end with my content warnings.

    This discussion is all fascinating, and I only wish some of the other people you linked to were not quite so insensitive about it.

  • This was really helpful to me in understanding one of my classmates. I knew she had experienced sexual assault, and one of the assigned works had incidences of sexual violence, so she asked for an extension. The paper that she turned in two weeks late wasn’t even really related to sexual violence (either in the text or in her own life), but it didn’t occur to me that she needed the extra time to wait for times when she felt emotionally ready to handle the text AT ALL, even when she wasn’t writing on an experience similar to her own.

  • Abby Normal

    I majored in biology and minored in chem, so all this is foreign to me. Is it normal for lit and writing classes to get into so much disturbing imagery? What’s the point of having to read about the stuff you mentioned?

    • Unfortunately, I think sexual violence is a common topic in literature, so yeah – it comes up a lot in English classes (this from a chem major and literature minor). A lot of this material has some good, even classic, qualities – for instance, J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” has a deeply moving, inspiring commentary on the nature of humanity that I cannot forget. But there’s also sexual abuse perpetrated by the main character, and honestly it’s sickening to read, even for someone who hasn’t been sexually assaulted.

    • Melody

      Sometimes rape is used as a metaphor, for instance, for abused minorities or colonized people and countries in literature. Some genres, such as gothic literature, may have many instances of disturbing imagery like rape and murder (like horror movies). Also what we consider rape nowadays could have been perceived different at the time with violence and extreme jealousy perceived as romantic rather than disturbing.

    • In college I took a Writing class designed to focus on “Modern Childhood” and how literature aimed at children has changed over the years, and what statements in various works of literature were being made about and toward kids. I believe one of the very first units of the class included analyzing the evolution of Fairy Tales, and we took a special interest in Little Red Riding Hood, which I had no idea, prior to the class, is a story heavy with themes of rape! We discussed how and why the wolf in most versions of the story was representing a rapist and how and why his actions of eating the grandmother and/or the girl were supposed to be equivalent to rape. I didn’t need to be a major in English in order to be forced to confront issues of rape in-depth – I merely was enrolled in a basic writing class of the type that all students at my college were required to take in order to graduated as a well-rounded student, similar to how we all were required to take some math and 1 lab science, etc, regardless of our major. Later in the class we discussed Alice in Wonderland, and as part of a paper I had to write on the book I was forced to come across a lot of research and analysis about the author of the book potentially being a pedophile obsessed with his real-life-niece, Alice. These things just came up, and if being raped had been a trigger for me, these experiences might have made me unable to function in class/complete my assignments.

      It’s not just Writing/Lit classes that might address topics such as these, though. I’ve taken anthropology, sociology, and philosophy classes, and any of them might end up discussing heavy topics. We discuss what is and isn’t illegal, and what should and shouldn’t be legal, and sometimes that leads to this kind of territory. In a Psychology class, specific trauma victims’ experiences might be brought up as an example with little regard for the idea that trauma victims may also be in class. In a History class, horrific events may be brought up with little regard for the idea that the events might parallel things still going on in the real world, things that still might be triggering for students who have PTSD in the class.

  • Including trigger warnings harms no one, but not including trigger warnings can hurt people. So…why not be compassionate human beings, and spare five seconds to write a warning.

    • Some people argue that including trigger warnings CAN be minorly harmful – spoiling the experience of reading a book/poem and being surprised by the theme as you are supposed to me, tricking students who may be triggered by other things into a false sense of security that nothing might trigger them in the book because they were given ample tirgger warnings… even just preventing students from reading things that they actually would be able to handle. 😛 I… tend to be on your side of the argument, though.

    • And this person (who I suspect has emetophobia although it may be any common but non-well-known phobia since she wasn’t specific) says that for her, and also for one specific rape survivor she has encountered, trigger warnings ARE harmful and she explains: That, I believe, is certainly worth reading.

  • Reblogged this on Panic Attack Diaries and commented:
    An excellent blog post describing very much of what I went through in my early days of college. Powerful speaking, ahead.

  • *low growl of an angered maternal bear* I should very much like to take those professors and do some very unprofessional things to them involving the cranium and their own orifices… to dock you of “participation points” because you’re TRAUMATIZED… that’s so unprofessional and inhuman and just…

    *growls again* Any professor or educator worth THE DAMN TITLE would have paused the classes and spoken to you in private about what was happening and then gone out of their way to avoid the problem in the future!!!

    I’m so completely with you that it’s enough to make me shake with rage, just sitting here. Words fail me and I feel so damned helpless. You are so incredibly brave and strong and you shouldn’t HAVE to be! I can’t even finish reading the post because I’m so angry over how you were treated… I will definitely try again, though, later, because your writing is worth reading and your bravery and courage is worth honoring.

    *phantom Internet hugs* I wish you all the healing in the world.

  • Alice

    Great post, especially the description of what it can feel like to be triggered and the last four paragraphs

    I lost a loved one to suicide several years ago and had to take a class in college where /everything/ we read and many of the discussions were centered around the topic of suicide. I didn’t know before starting the class, and I needed the class to graduate. It was triggering, and this was a few years afterwards. Any sooner and there’s no way I could have done it.

    I thought, “Yes, this is hard for me, but how much harder would it be for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts?”
    It seems almost irresponsible not to see the potential harm and try to do /something/.

    Even /if/ there isn’t much professors can do, trigger warnings are definitely better than being blindsided. I think it would also help if they gave the option to skip supplemental material.

    I think the option to write an alternate paper would also be great. Papers can be the most triggering with all the unstructured time and thought that has to go into them.

  • I think you are making sense. The thought that faculty ought to learn about PTSD, when we have so many people suffering from it, seems to me both compassionate and sensible, though it assumes that the faculty members are in fact compassionate.

    As for trigger warnings, there is a strong case for mandating them. And yet, and yet…does this not risk becoming another kind of imprimatur? And how far is it from there to “protecting” students not from literature that is genuinely triggering, but instead from literature that some group or other does not want to be read?

  • karenh1234567890

    Boy, am I glad that I never read Faulkner. Steinbeck was bad enough. I had to read The Red Pony in High School. It was awful, not the writing but the bleakness, especially how the pony dies at the end. I never read any more Steinbeck.

    There may be a personal reason that teachers who are allowed to pick the assignments pick things with triggers all over them.

    I had an English teacher in high school who had lost her husband and son in a boating accident the previous summer. Everything that we read was about death. It was the most depressing class I ever took.

    Then there was the Freshman English teacher that I had in college who was doing his PhD dissertation on a comparative study of Dostoyevsky and Dickens… We got to read Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment, and Little Dorrit.

  • Patrick Prescott

    Teachers need to know beforehand if they have a traumatized student, but it violates student rights. I had a student that discovered his girlfriend murdered the year before. When he freaked out in class then the counseling dept told me about it. I wasn’t happy about having a hand grenade in class without knowing about it. I was warned about a student who was anorexic, they could have mentioned something about him, but somehow that would have been an invasion of privacy.

  • Hmm…not sure how I feel about this either. However, it seems like more of a “middle ground” to use a trigger warning rather than outright banning the material. At least that gives readers the chance to judge for themselves?

  • Reblogged this on a loveliness of ladybirds and commented:
    A must-read for educators. Samantha Field offers a good summary of the current controversy around trigger warnings, as well as her personal experience.I am in favour of trigger warnings, personally, and since Greek & Roman myth contains sexual violence, I do try to warn my students in advance when we’re going to be dealing with a rape narrative in seminar. I would like to see professors give students a heads-up in lecture. It’s a simple kindness that shows respect for people’s experiences.

  • wbgl0

    I’ve passed this on to a former English professor and history professor of mine. I loved being an English major in college, but this is one reason I would hesitate to be an English professor. I’m going to go with professors should use trigger warnings or content notes.

  • YES! All this is so true and pertinent. I carry a personal, permanent ‘trigger detection system’ around with me in the form of PTSD, but sometimes even that isn’t enough to spot something like this. Trigger warnings are greatly appreciated and I agree wholeheartedly with you. I’m also terribly sorry for what you had to endure. x

  • I’m currently a professor, so with that perspective, FUCK YES. As a teacher, it is absolutely my responsibility to make sure my students are comfortable and secure in my classroom so they can learn. If the content of my class is going to make a student so uncomfortable that she is physically ill, it’s MY responsibility to do something about it, not the student’s responsibility to get over it. If my class is inherently going to cover topics that could cause triggers in students, it’s my responsibility to make sure my students are aware of that walking into the class so they can make an informed decision about whether or not they’ll be able to be successful in my class.
    I don’t want to judge your professor, but… at the very least, he seems pretty ignorant of and insensitive to his students’ emotional needs. This upsets me. I’m very sorry you had to go through that.
    I don’t know what kinds of resources were available at your college, but I know where I work, if one of my students was having this issue in one of her classes, I would direct her either to the dean of the department or the dean of student services (most colleges have them now). By direct, I would probably reach out for her if she preferred so she wouldn’t have to go over her story again (I’ve done that for homeless students who needed extra support).