According to the Atlantic, the dean of students at the University of Chicago sent a notice to incoming freshman warning them that trigger warnings were not supported by the university.
“We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” the letter read. “The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
While the sentiments expressed in this letter are valuable, they entirely miss the point of trigger warnings.
Trigger warnings aren’t for students who are afraid of exposure to sensitive subjects; they’re for students who’ve been exposed to traumatic experiences. A student who would legitimately benefit from a trigger warning regarding topics like suicide or rape isn’t a student who needs to be further exposed to the subject for the sake of education. For the sake of those students, trigger warnings should be mandatory in educational settings.
Trigger warnings are not a form of censorship, because trigger warnings do not prevent a class from discussing a sensitive subject. All a trigger warning does is alert students to the fact that it will be discussed. In a survey of 800 professors at both public and private universities by NPR Ed, none of the professors surveyed who used trigger warnings said a student had tried to get out of an assignment or skip class because of a trigger warning, and that the most common responses to trigger warnings were nothing or a student excusing him or herself from class for a brief period of time. Trigger warnings don’t prevent discussions about difficult subjects, and they don’t interrupt a student’s education. At most, they take a few seconds of class time.
Even if students have personal experiences with a subject they need to work through, the classroom shouldn’t be a place to experiment. During my sophomore year of college, I lived through a traumatic experience and was diagnosed with PTSD by a psychiatrist. Some days the symptoms were worse and on other days they weren’t so bad.
One of my professors had announced previously that we were going to be discussing Virginia Wolfe’s suicide note in class. I appreciated the warning and thought that I could handle it, but on that day she played a video with a voiceover that read the note, and I couldn’t stay in the room. I left class abruptly, retreated to the DeSantis bathroom and cried there. My PTSD symptoms eventually lessened, partially because of time and partially because of repeated exposure to things that reminded me of that experience. But that day in class, I wasn’t being an overly-sensitive millennial. I was a person going through a rough time, and I didn’t want to openly weep in front of an entire class of students whose names I didn’t even know.
According to the National Center for PTSD, prolonged exposure has been identified as one of the treatments with the most evidence for mitigating PTSD. Prolonged exposure involves helping those suffering from PTSD to confront the experience through exposure to things that remind them of the trauma. I don’t doubt that prolonged exposure works, but a classroom isn’t the place to be testing it out. Not using trigger warnings to preserve some perceived sense of academic integrity doesn’t help anyone. Trigger warnings do make a difference.
NSU doesn’t have a trigger warning policy, but according to the official university guidelines for appropriate conduct and ethical behavior for employees, NSU faculty and administrators should “employ teaching methods appropriate for the subject and objectives of their courses.” Trigger warnings are a harmless way to teach a sensitive issue appropriately, with the wellbeing of all students in mind.
Sensitive issues are sensitive for a reason, and while college is often expected to be a place where students expand their experiences, students who benefit from trigger warnings are a captive audience. Forcing them to relive traumas by springing topics without warning doesn’t educate them or expand their minds.
So what’s the harm? Because there’s no harm to free speech and there’s no harm to students.