This Academic Year, I Won’t Be Using Trigger Warnings

Why the well-meaning practice doesn’t do our students any favors.

Preparing for the new school year, and a masked return to in-person education at Carleton College, I thought a lot about the trigger warnings that so many well-meaning professors provide — as a corollary to their class reading — and which I have long eschewed.

For the uninitiated, trigger warnings are a kind of caution, either written or spoken, that alerts students in advance of assigned material that may be upsetting or emotionally challenging. Their origins date to the 1970s, when the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged to describe symptoms that some Vietnam War vets were experiencing. PTSD was formally recognized as a disorder in the 1980 edition of the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and in the early 2000s feminist blogs began using such warnings to signal to survivors of sexual assault content pertaining to sexual violence. By around 2013, they had migrated to college campuses.

Intended as a way to help students suffering from trauma to cope with difficult material on potentially sensitive subjects — including, for example, race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism and torture — trigger warnings seemed like a good idea. After all, why subject, even if unintentionally, a traumatized student to material that could send them into a downward spiral of anxiety or outright panic?

But as recently as eight years ago, there wasn’t much research at all on the effectiveness of trigger warnings. Now there is.

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