content and trigger warnings

The following are notes for the introduction to a panel I organized on content and trigger warnings at ACCUTE 2018.

We’re here today to talk about what has become an increasingly controversial idea: trigger and content warnings in our classrooms. I proposed this panel in the wake of some fraught discussions in my own department that got me wondering if we’re even all speaking the same language when it comes to trigger warnings. In a department meeting just before I went off on maternity leave, a colleague asked that we take a department stand to bar trigger warnings from our classrooms. I was shocked that this was seen as necessary, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. What one teacher sees as a gentle heads-up another sees as an act of silencing or even censorship. The ensuing discussion was fraught, and it seems to me like – both in this small example and in larger online discussions that some of our panelists will reference today – we haven’t yet come to a common understanding of what a content warning is and how it functions in the classroom.

I do use content warnings in my own teaching. I came to it several years ago after a semester teaching Dave Eggers’ autobiography, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in a first-year literature class. The text begins with a painfully graphic depiction of Eggers’ parents nearly simultaneous deaths from cancer. I knew it was difficult to read – it’s supposed to be, in the context of the book – and I knew it reminded me viscerally of losses in my own life. But in that class, I had two students with a parent who was dying or recently had died of the same cancers as in the book. For those two students, the experience of sitting through a close reading of that content was not tenable. They both asked to be excused from class on the day we would discuss those scenes, and they both asked to write the assigned paper on a different book instead. These seemed like reasonable accommodations to me; what didn’t seem reasonable was the obvious distress one student had worked herself into while waiting to talk to me about the issue. That is when I decided to start giving students a brief heads-up about textual content that may be difficult at the level of the syllabus, with the intent of setting up the expectation with students than I am here to guide them through the process.

The conclusion I came to, for me, is that my (frankly sometimes arbitrary) text selection isn’t worth more than a student’s well-being. When I say arbitrary, I don’t mean that flippantly, but there are hundreds of books I could choose to teach about unreliable narrators and the slippery notion of truth: I use Dave Eggers’ book because, among other things, it is pleasurable to teach. Does that outweigh a student’s discomfort?