While it is important to push college students out of their comfort zones, provoking negative responses in students who have had traumatizing experiences is not constructive to their education or their development as people. While trigger warnings should never censor valuable course material, or provide an excuse for students to ignore difficult content, they do have a legitimate place in college classrooms.
Media that we expose ourselves to is usually rated for content by some governing body. Movies have the MPAA, video games have the ESRB, music has explicit ratings, yet books never warn readers of potentially explicit content.
This is why we need trigger warnings for class materials. These are not meant to, and should not, deter people from reading the content. Rather, they are designed to give readers advance notice of any particularly sensitive material that could conceivably elicit emotional reactions.
This concession to feelings is not unreasonable; students have a right to know if they should expect anything extreme when they open a book for class. They should know if violence is described in graphic detail or if sexual assault is discussed, because the unfortunate reality is that for some students, these subjects do pose a significant concern. Disputing that fact is unconstructive. And because there is no other source for these warnings, the responsibility falls to the professor.
Far from detracting from academic enrichment, trigger warnings actually have the potential to improve the learning process for many students. Instead of dealing with the emotional consequences of a panic attack or traumatic flashback after the fact, a trigger warning has the power to prevent that negative experience completely, therefore allowing students to focus more fully on the valuable aspects of their classwork.
As a Jesuit university, it is important to ensure that all students feel welcomed in their classes, not threatened. If a simple trigger warning in a syllabus can allow a student to study without the fear of having a panic attack, it is a worthwhile motion.
That is not to say that the warnings do not come without inherent risks. As many professors have complained, the proliferation of trigger warnings on course material has come alongside a rise in formal complaints against professors who employ controversial material in their courses. And this has had the negative side effect that professors become afraid of retribution that could threaten their jobs, and so forgo challenging material for milder options.
What there should be is balance, both from students and from faculty and administration.
Students should be mindful of the distinction between being traumatized and merely offended. Good course material should force students to question their beliefs and confront uncomfortable ideas and yes, on occasion, offend. While students have a right to concessions for their mental health, they do not have any immutable right to constant comfort.
And administrators, in turn, should recognize this difference as well — they should see that trigger warnings have an appropriate, even harmless, place in college. It is only when they are misused or taken advantage of, that censorship becomes a concern.
The mission of all universities, regardless of religious affiliation, is to educate and develop students into contributing members of society.
By enabling all students to have fair access to course materials, universities that offer trigger warnings for course content are supporting their students’ abilities to reach their full potential.