the trigger warning I’m putting in my syllabus

By | August 19, 2015

Lots of academics and teachers think trigger warnings in college classrooms signal the decline of deep, authentic inquiry into complex social issues. They believe trigger warnings are a symbol of the Dumbing Down of the American University.

I disagree, and I further believe that critiques of trigger warnings tend toward flagrant ableism and outright dismissal of experiences of trauma and of the experiences of people who are living their lives as part of historically oppressed groups. I also think that dismissals of trigger warnings tend toward overly simplistic views on how teaching and community-building actually happens in many college classrooms. Also, lots of the stuff I’ve read that’s dismissive of trigger warnings tends to embrace, either tacitly or overtly, masculinist, rationalist, and white-centric perspectives on what counts as “good” learning. I’m tired of seeing misogyny and racism in my newsfeed–and it’s even more exhausting to see it coming from people who at least ostensibly know better. Because, you know, they’re critical thinkers and very well educated and thoughtful enough about pedagogy that they’re willing to write blog posts about it.


This fall, I’m teaching a class called Nonviolent Social Movements. I’ll post the syllabus and course materials when they’re ready for prime time, but for now I want to share my trigger warning. In the syllabus, I refer to it as a “content warning,” for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s reasonable to avoid overusing the term “trigger,” because that term has a specific meaning for trauma survivors and I don’t want to water it down. Second, it’s the content of the class, and not the possibility of being triggered, that I want to warn people about. See, the class is going to focus to a large extent on the U.S. Black Civil Rights movement, with a particular focus on #BlackLivesMatter. So we’re going to be addressing some of the most abominable events in American history, including lots of violence. I want to warn my students that we’re going to be dealing with some awful stuff, without giving them permission to avoid dealing with it just because it makes them uncomfortable. I also wanted to give advance warning for any students with histories of personal or social trauma, so they can think about what they might need to engage with the content in a way that avoids re-traumatizing them.

Ok, so here’s my content warning, developed with the help of several friends and acquaintances who offered their thoughts on how to walk a careful line in crafting this warning. Thanks to everyone who helped me with this!

Content warning: This course focuses on issues of deep social injustice and the strategies used by oppressed groups to resist subjugation. It is impossible to explore these issues without also considering the tools of oppression—including instances of physical, verbal, emotional, and social violence. These are stories of trauma, and engaging with them may be distressing or painful. I will do my best to provide advance warning when we will be reading, watching, or discussing stories of trauma. If you anticipate needing additional accommodations—or if at any time in the semester you find yourself needing additional accommodations—in order to engage effectively with course materials, please let me know.

Additionally, we will spend a good deal of time this semester discussing issues of deep social injustice—including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and transphobia. Some of what we read or view in class could well leave you feeling guilty, uncomfortable, anxious, and sad. These are normal and healthy responses to exploring social injustice, and I will do my best to build a community in which these feelings can be discussed honestly and openly if necessary. If at any time you have ideas for how I can be more effective at supporting you or your classmates as we grapple with personal and societal injustices, please let me know.