Provost declines to institute official trigger warnings policy

Updated: Sept. 8, 2016 at 8:13 a.m.

Provost Forrest Maltzman said Wednesday he would not enact a University-wide policy on trigger warnings.

A University policy in favor of or against trigger warnings would infringe on academic freedom, and individual professors can decide to use trigger warnings, Maltzman said. The decision to stay away from a set policy comes after an ongoing debate in higher education about whether or not faculty should use trigger warnings in courses.

“I’m not in favor of requiring them and I’m not in favor of prohibiting them. I think individual faculty need to make decisions that will vary based upon their course content and what they think is in the best interest of sort of engaging our students in critical thinking,” Maltzman said. “And that is what our mission is.”

Maltzman said he discussed setting a University policy on trigger warnings with Chris Bracey, the vice provost for faculty affairs, and Caroline Laguerre-Brown, the vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement.

The conversation about trigger warnings – verbal or written warnings alerting a student that material could be upsetting – on campuses is “healthy,” but faculty should be able to decide if or how they implement them in classes, Maltzman added.

Two weeks ago, incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago received a letter from the dean of undergraduate students saying that trigger warnings were not welcome at the institution.

Although GW does not have an institutional policy on trigger warnings, some students say they wish there was an official rule for or against them.

Brandon Whitehill, the co-president of the Young America’s Foundation at GW, said the University of Chicago’s letter demonstrates the “baseline” for open debate on the warnings.

Mandated trigger warnings should not be enforced and a vague definition of the warnings makes them controversial, Whitehill said. He added that verbal warnings to prepare students are “common sense,” but said exemptions for students who use the warnings as an excuse to avoid conflict and debate should not be tolerated.

“What I see a lot is trigger warnings are used as a pretense to kind of be warned about something and then kind of plug your ears and not hear what comes next just because it makes you uncomfortable,” he said. “Therefore, you remove yourself from the situation.”

Amber Singh, the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault and a former Hatchet reporter, said trigger warnings should be required on syllabi so that students feel prepared for certain readings or so they can drop classes that would trigger them.

Singh compared the warnings to telling a friend who is coming over for dinner that a meal was cooked with peanuts, in case he or she is allergic. In that scenario, a dish without peanuts would create a safe space, she said.

“It’s not to say that it’s ending all conversation about ever having peanuts in the kitchen,” she said. “It’s just saying that there are some people who might get really sick if there are peanuts in the kitchen.”

Some GW faculty members have used verbal trigger warnings in their courses or on syllabi to ensure that students are completely prepared to participate in classes with sensitive material.

Michele Kimball, a part-time faculty member in the School of Media and Public Affairs, said she begins her course on media law with a caution that emotional subjects will be discussed.

“My big concern is if you just launch into cross-burning or threats or a litany of profanity, and they don’t know that this was coming, they’re gonna be so mentally shocked that I don’t think they’re able to focus their thoughts and think critically about what we’re discussing,” she said.

Although she said she would not change the course curriculum, she would make special accommodations if a counselor suggests a student should not complete an assignment. She said triggered students should find a professional if they needed help dealing with past trauma because the triggering topic itself will never “go away.”

Melani McAlister, an associate professor of American studies, international affairs and media and public affairs, said when trigger warnings are administered correctly, they can benefit students’ education. Administrators and professors cannot list every concept that could upset a person because he or she may not understand how a topic could be upsetting.

She added that she has used verbal warnings for sensitive content in her class, but requiring trigger warnings won’t provide students with the help they need.

“When it moves from being a pedagogical conversation that professors have or a conversation between professors and their particular students into something that administrators or lawmakers or other people are trying to set down as a set of policies and rules, then it becomes formulaic and ultimately probably not very useful,” she said.

Elise Zaidi contributed reporting.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.