Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received an email from a student, who noted that the graphic nature of the reading might have been traumatic to those in my class who might have been affected by similar trauma. She asked me to provide a ‘trigger warning’ for the readings in future.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.
We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.
Addendum: Thanks to all for your comments. I’ve deleted the email text I had originally reproduced here and replaced it with a paraphrase.

4 comments on “Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

  1. patricksodonnell says:

    I think your response was perfectly appropriate. My goodness, there’s plenty of violence, brutality, and ugliness in the world and people are experiencing such things on a daily basis. Obviously one brings to bear one’s own experiences (or lack) of same to any such discussions. I see no need for a “warning” outside of the one you cited at the start of the course. I find accusations of “indifference” and the like to be in the eye of the beholder and based on assumptions and inferences that are extravagantly subjective in the worst sense. “Trigger warnings” are, from this reader’s perspective, nonsense and thus unnecessary. I think Jennie Jarvie in this New Republic piece got it right: “Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.”

  2. S says:

    I have sexual violence – caused PTSD. You should be aware that it is worth _explicitly stating_ that graphic sexual violence is involved in a text. I am willing to be challenged by violent, distressing, unsettling texts, but if I stumble upon a depiction of rape unawares, it can “trigger” an irrational fear-response that essentially douses my brain in stress-chemicals and could potentially lead to days-long difficulties with basic functioning.

    It takes you five seconds to preemptively warn students about depictions of sexual violence and considering that it could spare me days of mental health difficulties, is it so hard to just give students a head’s up? Many college-aged women will have experienced some form of sexual violence already in their lives and sadly a high number of them will have developed PTSD.

    The issue has nothing to do with hurt feelings or being unwilling to face the ugliness of the world. PTSD is a legitimate medical condition that, sadly, I suffer from because other people have done violence to me. Since it is a legitimate medical problem, I do think that it is worthy of accommodation. Finally, I have seen some commentators argue that if I want to be accommodated for PTSD, I must go to the disability services office and inform the professor ahead of time about my issue. I think this is a really unreasonable thing to ask me to do: this would essentially require me to reveal that I was a victim of sexual assault, while, again, _you_ could just add a brief note on your syllabus that a book “contains graphic sexual violence” and obviate the entire problem.

  3. TW FOR POTENTIAL PERCEIVED INSENSITIVITY: I don’t know exactly when this “trigger warning” trend took hold, but I’m sure glad it wasn’t in place during my first couple of years at university. To be honest I find the whole thing quite ridiculous. If you’re capable read college-level texts, then you should also be capable of processing, analyzing, and drawing meaning from complex, violent, and upsetting situations in those texts. You cannot possibly be expected to pre-emptively apologize for everything, all of the time.

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