Kate Manne (Cornell) has an opinion piece in today’s New York Times about professors’ use of “trigger warnings,” by which she means “notice in their syllabuses, or before certain reading assignments” that the course material may discuss or depict “common causes of trauma.” Such warnings have been criticized (here, for example) as a sign of the end times of higher education, but Manne makes some rather reasonable points about them, including:
- The point of warnings is not to prevent students from engaging with disturbing course content but to prepare them for it so they can engage with it productively.
- Content that is “merely offensive to certain people’s political or religious sensibilities” does not warrant a trigger warning.
- Though we are epistemically limited and thus cannot know exactly all of the content which might provoke reactions in students that interfere with their learning, we can provide warnings for some things.
- Warnings are easy to provide—it’s as easy as saying, e.g., “fyi, the next reading includes some graphic depictions of war.” (So even if they only help a small number of students, or none at all, they are virtually costless.)
- Despite what those who would have professors “help” previously traumatized students by surprising them with potentially triggering content say, the classroom is not the place for a therapy session.
- The warnings may do some good, but other things are important, too, such as academic freedom, so the use of triggers should be up to individual professors, and not mandated by university administration.
I would add: the term “trigger warning” appears to trigger a reaction in some who hear it, ranging from an increased proclivity for hyperbole, to feelings of victimhood and anger, to frothing at the mouth, right up to straight out apoplexy. Out of concern for these people, I suggest we warn them before we discuss trigger warnings.