Over the past few years, incidents on college campuses around the nation have spurred discussions about trigger warning policies — these range from Oberlin College students triggered by content in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” to Rutgers University students triggered by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” The most recent conversation about trigger warnings was in response to the University of Chicago’s welcome letter to freshmen, in which officials said they do not support trigger warnings.
The University of Chicago’s welcome packet for incoming freshmen didn’t go unnoticed — people talked about it nationally. And last week, Provost Forrest Maltzman said the University would not institute an official trigger warnings policy. He said individual professors can decide to issue trigger warnings, but no one would be required to.
Maltzman’s statement is troubling, and he should have outrightly supported trigger warnings. It’s necessary to create an environment that supports open discussion and academic freedom, and to encourage that, students must feel safe on campus and in the classroom. GW officials can easily find a balance between promoting academic freedom and enforcing trigger warnings.
A trigger warning is defined as a statement alerting a reader or viewer that the context of a video or document contains potentially upsetting material, especially for people who have experienced trauma. It’s really just a heads-up to students about what they can expect throughout a course or in a particular lecture.
Trigger warnings do not mean professors have to change or restrict discussions in their classes. Rather, trigger warnings give students a choice of how much they want to engage in discussions. Warnings acknowledge that people have different reactions to class content and show respect for their views on a certain topic.
If GW officials have concerns about instituting trigger warnings, there are a variety of ways ways to enact trigger warnings while upholding academic freedom.
Professors can institute trigger warnings by stating the kind of content that will be discussed at the start of the semester or before each class and offer students campus support services.
Unlike the University of Chicago, GW officials can mention its support for trigger warnings in classes and in a welcome letter to freshmen. The letter could reassure incoming freshmen that the University is welcoming and considerate of students’ experiences. It could also clarify what a trigger warning policy would not do — restrict people from engaging in open discussions about controversial topics or undermine the value of different perspectives.
The “It’s On Us” campaign started by President Barack Obama in fall 2014 discussed campus sexual assault and the importance of community involvement in preventing campus sexual assault and helping sexual assault survivors. Multiple universities, including GW, signed on to the campaign. As a part of the “It’s On Us” campaign, GW pledged to create an environment in which sexual assault is not acceptable and where survivors are supported. That also includes providing support to survivors in classes. And even though not all those who need trigger warnings are sexual assault survivors, the basic premise still stands: Students need to be supported by their professors and peers. GW has demonstrated its commitment to making students feel comfortable, so instituting trigger warnings would continue that commitment.
Of course, there are some understandable criticisms of trigger warnings that shouldn’t be ignored. The American Association of University Professors put out a statement against trigger warnings. They said that by protecting students from controversial topics, students will be too coddled.
Opponents argue that studying, understanding and reflecting on potentially disturbing content is essential for intellectual growth. For example, law students must learn about the laws surrounding sexual assault, which could be upsetting to some students. Of course, students have to be exposed to a certain degree of discomfort to challenge their thinking and expand their horizons. But they could at least be warned that they will have to encounter upsetting material.
As a start, GW should enact a University-wide policy on trigger warnings. Regardless of the differences in opinions, the fact that students have genuine concerns regarding trigger warnings warrant the consideration of the University. GW needs to work with students and professors to find a middle ground that embodies its commitment to intellectual freedom and student safety.
Shwetha Srinivasan, a junior double-majoring in international affairs and economics, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.