Trigger Warnings Are About Violence: An Open Letter to James Turk (and the Montreal Gazette)

Dear James Turk:

Faculty can either take a stand against sexual violence and intimidation on campus, or we can passively promote such a climate, but there is no neutral position to occupy.

That is why I was surprised to read your very dismissive-sounding remarks in this morning’s Montreal Gazette article on the subject of trigger warnings in university classrooms.  It is possible you were misquoted, in which case I would welcome a clarification. But here is the quote that most concerns me:

Professors never want to gratuitously make life difficult for people, but this takes it to a silly extreme. You will end up with a situation where the only thing you could read in a literature course is (akin to) My Little Pony.

Let’s get a few things clear: trigger warnings are not about changing what you teach.  Even the controversial Oberlin motion simply asks professors to exercise good judgment. A trigger warning are not (as you later suggest) about restrictions on academic freedom, except the freedom to shock students.  It is also not about coddling or sheltering students. Professors use them to avoid gratuitously stirring up past traumas that we are unlikely to know about ahead of time.  The idea of the trigger comes out of work on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It has been taken up in activism against sexual violence and by the refugee rights community.

Right now, both those issues ought to be foremost on the minds of university professors. Our campuses are international, which means we may well have students who experienced some kind of state violence in our classrooms.  Our campuses are also far too tolerant of sexual violence, a problem university administrations (including my own at McGill) have often been slow and late to address. We can’t know which of our students may have experienced sexual violence. But we do know that students who have suffered sexual assault often face increased difficulty completing their studies if they don’t have adequate support.

It is true that we can’t anticipate how materials in our classes might affect students. But we are not as stupid as the examples in this article make us look. The issue is not My Little Pony or other hypotheticals like bee stings; the issue is obviously violent or disturbing content. Anyone who teaches avant-garde material can come up against this, and anyone dealing with issues of gender or sexuality in their courses can come up against it. A warning about violent or disturbing material allows students to prepare themselves or step out briefly. It is humane and decent. We won’t catch every trigger, and that’s not the point. The point is that there is a big difference between doing nothing and doing something.

Perhaps there are professors who will object, saying that their pedagogy depends on shock and surprise. They should be free to continue working that way, but students should be informed enough that they are free to not take those courses.

It may well be the case that faculty members have also been affected by sexual or state violence in their lives, so a policy about triggers on a syllabus might also be to their benefit.

Jonathan Sterne
CAUT member

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