A Case for Content Warnings

Published On August 26, 2017 | By Morgan Krakow |

Words by Morgan Krakow, Photos by Ty Boespflug

Over the past three issues, Ethos has looked at how the First Amendment functions at the University of Oregon. The national conversation has run wild with pundits and splashy headlines, so the magazine explored how these issues are playing out in Eugene.

In fall, we dove into perspectives on international censorship, understanding how globalization made the First Amendment a fluid right, and crossing borders as far as China and Ethiopia. In winter, we looked at conservative voices and a national watchlist of professors. This final gaze into expressive freedoms takes an intimate view of classrooms to understand the ultimate buzz phrase: trigger warnings.

On a sunny afternoon in May, psychology professor Shoshana Kerewsky begins class with 20 Honors College students sitting around her. It looks like any small class — a little cramped, too many chairs for the table, backpacks shoved underneath feet. But this doesn’t always feel like any small class. It has distressing content. It’s indicated in the title: “Children In War.” Scenes of rape, blood, and violence are commonplace.

Breaking from the stories of Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and Germany, Kerewsky is taking class time to discuss how this type of content can affect individuals differently. She’s talking about both those sitting around the room and the subjects they are learning about.

“Some of you have written about feeling traumatized by the content, whether you called it trauma, or being disturbed, or having bad dreams about being pursued by the Khmer Rouge,” Kerewsky says.

Before the term even begins, Kerewsky starts her classes with a warning, and tacks one onto her syllabus. For her, a content warning that preempts material that might trigger or make a someone feel uncomfortable eliminates shocking or traumatizing her students.

Nationally, pundits and university administrators are trying to find middle ground. Check any major newspaper’s opinion section, where terms like “snowflake” and “trigger warning” get volleyed across the political spectrum daily. The argument that students need safe spaces and a place to learn that is both inclusive and comfortable appears to run directly counter to the idea that such warnings and accepting areas coddle and shelter students and revoke professors of their First Amendment rights.

On the University of Oregon campus, the dialogue is less about free speech and flashy Breitbart articles. Rather, the conversation is about getting students to learn information, without further traumatizing them through readings, videos, or class discussions.

Trigger warnings often evoke the term snowflake — meaning that individuals melt easily and are overly sensitive. It’s a moniker that Kerewsky views as particularly harmful. She says that this is a way to mock someone for a personal vulnerability. For Kerewsky, a little heads up is a no-brainer. These warnings are not a sign of weakness, nor an encroachment on academic freedom. Instead, she says, they’re an effective practice to help students learn.

“I want people to be comfortable enough in the classroom that they can take some risks, and that they can be uncomfortable, and that they can possibly be upset,” Kerewsky says, “and I’d like people to bring passion to it.”

For University of Oregon creative writing professor Jason Brown, trigger warnings are reflective of a change in both the makeup of the university classroom and the makeup of the humanities syllabus. The change in what’s taught — literature from a diverse set of authors and perspectives — means that students feel more represented in the classroom. But, it also means literature is more reflective of human history: ugly and sometimes difficult to process. Readings include firsthand accounts of war, slavery, and various forms of oppression.

“It’s in the DNA of what is supposed to happen in the humanities and the social sciences,” he says. “So, in other words, you should receive a giant trigger warning as you enter the campus.”

Brown is sympathetic to the fact that students from an increasingly wide set of backgrounds sit in his classroom. He prefaces all discussions and readings with a similar warning to Kerewsky.

They both realize that the university classroom is evolving. According to a Department of Justice report, between 197o and 2012, the number of women with a college degree went from eight percent to 28 percent. Due to Title IX, there are now more people of color, women, and students with a wider variety of backgrounds and experiences who are seeking degrees. This change makes both Brown and Kerewsky aware of the need for a warning.

It’s not applicable for everyone sitting in the room, but this type of learning — the videos and audio of war — has impacted her students. Kerewsky says that she often warns her students of unsettling content because it expands opportunities.

“We have increasingly students with a diagnosed mental illness on campuses because now those students are welcomed.” Kerewsky says. “Those are people who are coming into it with some particularly heightened vulnerabilities to those kind of content. I don’t know why we wouldn’t continue our welcome of those students by providing them with information and options.”

Oftentimes, the imagery and information has no context attached to it. Watching a video or seeing a slideshow of traumatic images and sounds is challenging. The experience is more limited compared to the way a real life event might play out on television or in person.

“My feeling is that the only thing that the trigger warning does is that it reduces the element of surprise,” Kerewsky says.

Niharika Sachdeva is a junior majoring in public relations and political science and took Kerewsky’s course to fulfill an Honors College requirement. She wanted to take a class she wouldn’t normally find herself in. Sachdeva says students in the class have a variety of backgrounds and family histories. To her, the warnings make the material more accessible. Reading or watching something about an 8-year-old picking up a gun in Sierra Leone can be horrifying and disturbing, especially without context or an understanding of the information to come.

“It’s so important to provide that sort of warning, whether it be in regards to trauma in war, or whether that be in regards to something about rape,” Sachdeva says. “I think it’s important because you don’t know the effect that the shock value is going to have. It could really disturb someone so much that it triggers something.”

And these are just the type of situations Kerewsky tries to avoid in her teaching. She understands that power is unbalanced in a university classroom. She always gives her students the option to leave if they are feeling triggered by the material. But those little uncertainties are always there. Students might wonder what a professor might think if they actually do take a break from the material. And from her perspective, she has to make sure a student is still learning what she is responsible for teaching them.

“But they don’t get a choice really, and so that concerns me,” Kerewsky says. “I don’t want to spring things on my students, and I don’t want to give them stuff that’s gratuitously distressing.”

And for Brown, that’s the nature of humanities classes. There will always be content that distresses someone.

“On some level, it’s sort of absurd,” he says. “Almost every course that I know of — whether  it’s in the classics, in the renaissance literature, or contemporary literature, or American history — if it didn’t contain material that would require a trigger warning, it wouldn’t be doing its job.”

Brown makes a distinction when it comes to trigger warnings. He says that professors and students must understand that a warning about distressing material shouldn’t be politically motivated. And it shouldn’t constrain the actual content of the course. The space between requiring a trigger warning and disallowing certain material is small.

“We need to be careful not to create a different type of hegemony that’s restrictive,” he says. “We just have to keep things open, even to hearing things and seeing things that we don’t want to hear and see.”

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