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The New York Times recently ran an article which stated  colleges and universities are debating whether to add “trigger warnings” to course materials that contain topics that could upset students.

A trigger warning, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is any material that depicts events similar to the one that caused the initial trauma can “trigger” symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, the Times cited examples of possible trigger warnings that could be used in literature present in college curriculums.   Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart: it “is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.” Other warnings could be used from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (suicide) to Charles Dicken’s Old Curiosity Shop (racism, ableism) to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (racism, classism, ableism).

But where does one draw the line? Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor doesn’t actually agree with the warnings.

“Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,”  Hajjar  told the Times. “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.”

Should professors shield their students from anything that could trigger something, or should these students realize that the world is a big trigger and at any given point in time, something could happen that they’ll have to learn how to cope with?

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  • Anthony

    I can sympathize with the concept. This semester, I taught the fourteenth century book by ibn Khaldun called the Muqaddimah “Introduction.” Frankly, ibn Khaldun referring to Africans as barely human was enough to make not want to teach the book again despite the fact it is a ground breaking book in historiography.

    When I was an undergrad, Wlliam Faulkner’s constant use of the n- word really grated my nerves, no matter how true it was to the reality of early twentieth century Mississippi.

    I think it reasonable for a professor to warn students that books deal with potentially sensitive issues or words.

  • Ask_Me

    Facing uncomfortable truths is apart of life.

    When students sign up for classes they typically have an idea of what the reading material will cover. For example, African American studies will likely deal with aspects of African American history. Women’s studies will likely deal with aspects of women’s lives and the issues we face.

    So, I don’t feel there needs to be a disclosure ahead of time. You know what you’re getting when you sign up for most classes. It is a rare thing to be surprised by the material in assigned readings.

  • Stacy L.

    No. College literature should not include trigger warnings. I agree with Professor Hajjar.

  • Anthony

    I think telling students that a book has uncomfortable material is good teaching. Whether that counts as a trigger warning, I don’t know, but I always mention that things may be unpleasant. I do that with film too, for instance, I tend to show Tsotsi as a dramatization of the problems in Post-Apartheid South Africa, and I warn students about the nature of the subject and the language used.