The Trigger Warned Syllabus

Apparently universities are issuing guidelines to help professors consider adding “trigger warnings” to syllabi for “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals.” One example given is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” for its colonialism trigger. This from New Republic this week.

I have no desire to enter the fray of online discussions on trigger warnings and sensitivity. I have used trigger warnings. Most recently, I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse. I was uncomfortable shoving a very powerful description at people without some kind of warning. I couldn’t read past the first three sentences. I couldn’t imagine how it read for others. So, I referenced the article with a trigger warning and kept it moving.

But, I’m not sure that’s at all the kind of deliberation universities are doing with their trigger warning policies. Call me cynical, but the “student-customer” movement is the soft power arm of the neo-liberal corporatization of higher education. No one should ever be uncomfortable because students do not pay to feel things like confusion or anger. That sounds very rational until we consider how the student-customer model doesn’t silence power so much as it stifles any discourse about how power acts on people.

I’ve talked before about how the student-customer model becomes a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.

The trigger warned syllabus feels like it is in this tradition. And I will tell you why.

In the last three weeks alone: a college student has had structural violence of normative harassment foisted on her for daring to have sex (for money), black college students at Harvard have taken to social media to catalog the casual racism of their colleagues, and black male students at UCLA made a video documenting their erasure.

It would seem that the most significant “issue” for a trigger warning is actual racism, sexism, ableism, and systems of oppression. Cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had my crystal stair dead end at the floor of racism and sexism and I’ve read “Things Fall Apart”. The trigger warning scale of each in no way compares.

Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.

At for-profit colleges, strict curriculum control and enrollment contracts effectively restrict all critical literature and pedagogy. We elites balk at such barbarism. What’s a trigger warning but the prestige university version? A normative exclusion as opposed to a regulatory one?

Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.

That is an odd business for higher education to be in…unless the business of higher education is now officially business.

In which case, we may as well give up on the tenuous appeal we have to public good and citizenry-building because we don’t have a kickstand to lean on.

If universities are not in the business of being uncomfortable places for silent acts of power and privilege then the trigger warning we need is: higher education is dead but credential production lives on; enter at your own risk.

41 thoughts on “The Trigger Warned Syllabus

  1. I really enjoyed this. TW are useful in many ways and i see no issue with advocating for them in other spaces but I feel that the classroom is not the space. I teach on both Violence and Mental Health and I make it clear to students if they’re concerned about engaging in a topic to talk to me but I feel like there’s a reasonable expectation that at some point in your academic career you will read/hear something that hurts you in some way. In open spaces, just as twitter or on blogs that cover several topics or even in movie and tv shows I find them just another tool to decide if that’s content you’re interested in consuming.

  2. Wow! On target! Today a colleague & I were just opening a discussion about this, in re the case of the 3 young white male students whose narcissistic complaints of “discomfort” led to their Black professor being reprimanded (horrid decision!). “Trigger” warnings indeed! Education begins with discomfort. That’s what learning is. To change. Creating new habits, using new skills, incorporating new knowledge, trying new dispositions–these are awkward, frustrating, difficult, uncomfortable. It hurts. As a waitress, my customers were “always right,” even when they were wrong. As a professor, no, my students are not always right–usually (though not always), I am. And, as a student of life, the universe & everything, I am always uncomfortable, almost always “wrong” — and always learning–thanks for helping us learn!

  3. I taught for many years and going off curriculum is a dangerous mood. Anyone can view anything the wrong way. Jokes can be misinterpreted, a off handed remark can be slanted the wrong way and even a gesture can be a peril to a teaching career. I was accused of being a good teacher by many and yet there were always some who found fault. I made to many jokes, I was in a bad mood, I pushed an agenda. It all is in the eyes of the beholder.

  4. “…I made a personal decision to not retweet Dylan Farrow’s piece in the New York Times detailing Woody Allen’s sexual abuse.”

    I believe the correct phrase would be “alleged abuse” as Mr. Allen has never been charged, much less convicted of these allegations.

    It’s a small matter but important.

  5. Bingo! What a well written, well articulated post! You hit it on the head. When did we forget that personal growth and development begin with being uncomfortable? Until you are challenged, you cannot grow. Being challenged means you will have discomfort. But it also means you will be stronger and more equipped to face life. With so much fear of discomforting students, higher education is failing them because it isn’t equipping them to engage in real life discussion. It babies them instead. Great post. Way to ignite a discussion! 🙂

  6. @…”That is an odd business for higher education to be in…unless the business of higher education is now officially business…”>>Agree with both of those comments; and as usual found your write highly interesting..My son is soon to be an Alumni of Univ. of Michigan, so I’ve heard quite a bit on this topic. A lot and much…I’d say more but you’ve done a superb job on covering it all. 2 thumbs UP for having the courage to TOL(think out loud). Love it!

  7. It’s repulsive how far away from intent we have gotten in our society in the realm of things that actually matter… such as democracy and education.
    we are all too busy busying ourselves with constant entertainment. At some point the charade will have to lessen…The denouement will come, it always does

  8. So two days ago my class was working on a project with some very specific parameters. Two of the students were arriving at a solution from very distinct approaches. I stopped the class and showed what they were doing so the rest of the class might gain more clarity on my intentions.
    Immediately one young woman in the class said: “When you single out other students as examples it makes the rest of us feel bad.” Seriously. In a college classroom.
    Trigger warning: you may not all be rock stars.

  9. I’m not an academic, but having had my share of school, I’ve seen my share of ridiculousness.

    Trigger warnings are a form of disclaimer, and exist solely to attempt to relieve people of responsibility. My master’s level professors were obliged to include academic dishonesty blurbs on their initial class materials not because they thought that master’s level student’s didnt know the consequences of cheating, but their departments feared lawsuits if the quasi-miranda warnings weren’t issued.

    Ultimately, it’s society telling people that they don’t need to be responsible for their own actions, it’s ok to believe that it’s somebody elses fault.

  10. Surely, a university environment is the place where sensitive issues should be discussed in an objective, educational manner. Would any of the literary classics be significant if they were not in some way challenging, or shocking? The same goes for many art-works, and the major points of history.
    Avoiding the trauma of personal triggers is important, but we cannot gloss over the whole world.

  11. The University system died out in the late 1960’s when it completed the transition from being an end itself to being a means. The job of the university was never really to teach, it was to preserve western culture. As Arabs would send their children off into the desert with the Bedouin to absorb Arab culture, so western parents would send their children to university to absorb western culture. The university took over from the monastery as the place where we kept what was left of the literature from classical antiquity and it provided a refuge from the world, like a monastery, where that literature could be preserved, studied, critiqued and passed on to the next generation via the very best of students.

    It was a place where people who were willing to be poor went to because it permitted them a life of contemplation and philosophy, in exchange for teaching.That’s all gone, now it’s a political institution which thinks it’s a university and which students think is a stepping stone to middle management. Students aren’t interested in politics, they’re not all that interested in western culture either; what they’re interested in is acquiring marketable skills and knowledge. That’s what happens when an intentionally elitist, high prestige institution is opened to the masses: it dissolves and falls to the lowest common denominator and slapping trigger warnings on everything is symptomatic of that.

    The goal of universities has shifted from selecting those best able to learn and preserve culture, to trying to cram as many people though the doors as possible. Then when those people started making demands the university was faced with a choice between integrity and elitism or money and egalitarianism. Guess which one it picked.

  12. ” trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression.” Yes. Yes. The irony here, of infantilizing and purporting to “protect” women and people of color, merges with the dangerous assumption that language is a purely transparent mechanism.

  13. *here via socimages–I don’t read the comments there, too much fail*

    Trying not to tl;dr, but, yes, I agree with you. I also think there’s a problem with misunderstanding what a ‘trigger warning’ is in this notion of giving a trigger warning for things that might upset someone–being triggered isn’t being upset, it’s having your experience of trauma reactivated. Things can be upsetting, disturbing, depressing, etc, and we can talk about our affective responses to class content in the classroom where it’s appropriate–but that’s not the same thing. Students who have experienced racism and have traumatic responses to it are less likely to be triggered by reading critical works of literature or scholarship that unmask racism than they are by reading things that are actually racist–and students who are racially privileged and are upset by learning about the nature of that racial privilege need to work through their issues, first and foremost. Sometimes that classroom can be a space for that, but not always.

    1. I agree that a lot of conflation has happened between trauma and discomfort. I do not know a way to systematically separate the two in policy or practice. This may come down to which bargain we are willing to make.

  14. I left you a comment on Sociological Images just to let you know I like the connection you’re making between the student-customer model and the rationalizing away of the critical canon. I’ll add here that I love the writing. “don’t have a kickstand, to lean on,” in particular, wows my writer-self.

    I may have more to say once I’ve had time to process this.

    I’m glad you guest-posted this over there. I never would have found you otherwise, and I’m definitely following after reading this.

  15. I’m glad to see the blogger is wary of trigger warnings. However I don’t think the reasons behind this trend have much to do with the student-customer model of education and/or academic capitalism so much as with the culture of victimhood that prevails in the PC fringes of the social sciences and humanities, where “social justice” is somehow more important than freedom of thought and expression. This is the sector of the university where students are encouraged to see themselves as oppressed fragile flowers who must be protected from hurtful language, who are entitled to never be offended (or challenged). This is where trigger warnings originate and flourish, not in the more lucrative big science sectors of the university but in the PC-obsessed fringes.

  16. Reblogged this on A Very Long Apprenticeship and commented:
    This is an excellent essay by Tressie McMillam Cottom. Her work–which you can find at–is overall superb. This piece, written last week, is a great analysis of how the trigger warning, a mechanism originally used to prevent sudden and unforeseen interaction with potentially traumatic material, is now being used “as a tool to rationalize away the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism.”
    If you are critical of the for-profit education movement–or are a critical thinker in general–check out her work.
    “I’m on tl;dr mode”: McMillan Cottom makes the key point of this particular essay quite clear:
    “Trigger warnings make sense on platforms where troubling information can be foisted upon you without prior knowledge, as in the case of retweets. Those platforms are in the business of messaging and amplification.
    “That is an odd business for higher education to be in…unless the business of higher education is now officially business.”

  17. Recently students in my first year journalism class have started complaining that our prof ought to provide trigger warnings. Keep in mind that our prof shows a lot of graphic things, like photos of piles of machete mangled bodies from his work in Rwanda post-genocide. However, I honestly think those students should probably just switch programs now if they can’t handle things like that without being “mentally prepared” or whatever. The real world doesn’t have trigger warnings and our prof’s job is not to protect us, it’s to inform us.
    Anyway, bravo. Loved this post.

  18. If you spend enough time around college students these days, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that when they use the word “safe,” they often mean “comfortable.” I appreciate the need to feel comfortable at least a fair amount of the time, but it’s not possible in a classroom situation — or even in plenty of other situations. Which they will find out as they get older.

  19. the real world does really have trigger warnings but they just aren’t usually called that. or you dıdn’t have parents and grandparents never went to church and never read the food pages of the newspaper … trigger warnings are part and parcel of everyday social life. flashing red or yellow, yield and falling rock zones – marked cross walks children at play or workers at work – detour and paid market analysts – the wall street journal and so on. Movie classifications cigarette packs …

    ı went to the unıversıty of pennsylvania class of 69 graduating with honors and ı can’t think of any faculty member ever then or in the 45 years of academic experience since where traumatizing materials were ever sprung on classrooms of students without warning.

    to me it is not an issue. not an issue for those student bodies that want to make it an issue and not an issue to the vast majorıty of academics i’ve known

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