Universal Mentors Association

Should Teachers Provide Trigger Warnings for ‘Traumatic Content’?


Last month, a Cornell University sophomore, Claire Ting, was studying with friends when one of them became visibly upset and was unable to continue her work.

For a Korean American literature class, the woman was reading “The Surrendered,” a novel by Chang-rae Lee about a Korean girl orphaned by the Korean War that includes a graphic rape scene. Ms. Ting’s friend had recently testified at a campus hearing against a student who she said sexually assaulted her, the woman said in an interview. Reading the passage so soon afterward left her feeling unmoored.

Ms. Ting, a member of Cornell’s undergraduate student assembly, believed her friend deserved a heads-up about the upsetting material. That day, she drafted a resolution urging instructors to provide warnings on the syllabus about “traumatic content” that might be discussed in class, including sexual assault, self-harm and transphobic violence.

The resolution was unanimously approved by the assembly late last month. Less than a week after it was submitted to the administration for approval, Martha E. Pollack, the university president, vetoed it.

“We cannot accept this resolution as the actions it recommends would infringe on our core commitment to academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, and are at odds with the goals of a Cornell education,” Ms. Pollack wrote in a letter with the university provost, Michael I. Kotlikoff.

To some, the conflict illustrates a stark divide in how different generations define free speech and how much value they place on its absolute protection, especially at a time of increased sensitivity toward mental health concerns.

  • Do trigger warnings have a place in schools? Should teachers and professors alert students to “traumatic content,” such as sexual assault, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, child abuse, and racial hate crime? Why, or why not?

  • Have any of your teachers provided trigger warnings in advance of presenting sensitive material to you in class? If so, do you think it was beneficial or detrimental to students’ learning? If not, do you wish you had received such a warning?

  • Connor Strobel, a professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago, says, “When used correctly, trigger warnings can open up a conversation.” Have you found that to be true in your own experience? Are trigger warnings helpful in protecting the mental health and well-being of students? Which arguments in favor of trigger warnings discussed in the article do you find most persuasive?

  • However, Amna Khalid, a professor of history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., counters: “Life happens to you while you are driving, while you are walking, while you are in the supermarket. The most challenging moments in life rarely come with warning.” Do you agree? Do trigger warnings “infantilize” students and stifle free inquiry? Which arguments against trigger warnings did you find most convincing?

  • What is your reaction to the dispute at Cornell over a resolution to require faculty to alert students to upsetting educational materials? Do you agree with the administration’s decision to veto the proposal?

  • What do you think about the use of trigger or content warnings outside of school settings — such as for films or television shows like the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”? When, if ever, do you think such warnings are appropriate?

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