Justin Peligri: Why we need trigger warnings on syllabi

If you’ve ever read a controversial article online, you’ve likely stumbled across a “trigger warning.” These precautionary disclaimers typically explain that the article’s content contains a traumatic subject, such as sexual violence.

This liberal-minded attempt to promote sensitivity and respect in an online world with a great deal of harmful content is refreshing. And in recent months, this empathetic trend has gained traction beyond the Internet, as trigger warnings are now popping up in syllabi at major universities across the country.

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Justin Peligri

Oberlin College – a liberal arts institution in Ohio – is one such school that included a policy on trigger warnings. The school’s Sexual Offense Resource Guide, accessible online, explained that triggers exist and encouraged professors to be mindful of them when building syllabi.

The shocking part of this story, however, is that this seemingly harmless policy caused an uproar earlier this academic year from faculty at Oberlin, who complained that it infringed on their academic freedom. The college's policy is now up for review.

On its face, adding language into sexual assault policies encouraging faculty to be mindful of their students’ sensitivities sounds wise.

Given that one in five college-aged women experience sexual assault, according to federal studies, pushing for heightened sensitivity toward these survivors’ hardships on college campuses is the responsible thing to do.

It’s not just about survivors, though. It’s also about students like me who prefer an opportunity to mentally prepare before classroom conversations on tough subjects like rape.

Certainly, there’s a need for this preventative measure to be put in place at GW, which offers many politically-charged classes that explore controversial social issues. Many of my classmates have shared instances of professors’ unintentional but nonetheless emotionally overwhelming use of commentary and course materials – especially video – that could be described as triggering.

Given that the Faculty Senate has plans to vote on the academic freedom section of University's faculty code next month, now might be a good time to revisit our own policy.

Unfortunately, GW might be hesitant to make any such additions to our rulebooks after the controversy at Oberlin.

But let’s be logical here and take a look at the Oberlin policy’s actual wording. Simply put, the document encourages faculty to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, albeism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” It also suggests that faculty consider making potentially triggering course material optional.

Of course, what exactly constitutes a trigger is difficult, because these words and themes are defined by an individual’s personal experiences. As a result, the policy encourages professors entering potentially dangerous territory to mitigate potential stress by providing students with a “hint about what might be triggering.”

Nowhere in this policy is controversial content banned outright. That would be an egregious breach of professors’ classroom freedom and that’s not what we see here. Such an innocuous suggestion – tread lightly when it comes to sensitive topics like sexual violence – should elicit no outrage from professors.

In fact, the committee that came up with language about triggers was clear to acknowledge that it “values both academic freedom and support for survivors of sexualized violence. We do not see these as contradictory projects,” Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and co-chair of the Sexual Offense Policy Task Force, told the news website Inside Higher Ed.

Nobody is arguing that controversial topics should be omitted from discourse in college classrooms. Faculty are right to be concerned when they sense that their ability to speak candidly and fearlessly about heart-wrenching topics could be blockaded.

But a friendly reminder to keep students’ potential triggers included in lesson plans wouldn’t hurt, even if that means sending out a short email a few hours prior to class telling students about a particularly evocative lecture. In fact, it’s something that a lot of professors need to hear.

Justin Peligri, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

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