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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