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Study: Professors Worry About Trigger Warnings

By December 3, 2015

FIRE has repeatedly counseled caution about the use of “trigger warnings” on college campuses. Now, a first-of-its-kind survey from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) suggests that professors worry that trigger warnings—intended to shield students from emotionally upsetting content—will harm academic freedom on campus.

NCAC’s non-scientific online survey, released this week, asked more than 800 members of the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association about their experience with trigger warnings. NCAC Communications Director Peter Hart told FIRE in an email that “[t]he impetus behind the survey was to get a sense of how educators are dealing with this emerging free speech issue.” The results suggest that a majority of professors are “deeply concerned about how trigger warnings will affect classroom dynamics and education.”

Respondents described demands for trigger warnings for an unpredictable list of reasons—sometimes for depictions of sexual assault or other forms of graphic violence, but also for things like a discussion of “indigenous artifacts” and “spiders.”

The study details several major findings, including a finding that professors receive “a significant number of requests and complaints from students” regarding trigger warnings, and that there is “widespread agreement” (even among professors who support such warnings) that there should be no administrative requirement to provide trigger warnings. Significantly, a clear majority (62 percent) of educators believe these warnings will harm academic freedom:

According to some, trigger warnings reflect a “presumption that anything which might be offensive should be avoided or that anyone offended has the right to call off the line of discussion,” or, as another phrased it, they force “teachers to change their teaching plans based on calculations about what topics might hurt students’ feelings or make them feel ‘unsafe’.”

NCAC points out that dismissing the calls for trigger warnings as mere “political correctness” is too reductive, instead noting that respondents considered trigger warnings (whether voluntarily or in response to student demands) for a variety of viewpoints. Still, their existence at all created the kinds of “impossible expectations” Greg criticized in his 2014 book, Freedom From Speech. NCAC described frustration from respondents over these expectations:

[M]any noted that “it is impossible to know what will trigger students.” There are reported complaints about spiders, “images of childbirth,” suicide in a ballet, indigenous artifacts, images of dead bodies, “fatphobia,” bloody scenes in a horror film class, and more. One respondent observed, “I’m not sure you can teach American literature without issuing a blanket trigger warning for the entire semester.”

As Greg told Inside Higher Ed yesterday, when students come to expect these types of warnings, professors feel pressure to respond.

When they do, it is often with self-censorship.

Torch readers may remember our reporting on an article by lecturer Rani Neutill, who said trigger warnings—and the trouble they caused—were one of the reasons she left teaching. We have also reported on the controversy at Duke University over students refusing to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home because it didn’t square with their conservative beliefs, with one student writing in The Washington Post, “I believe professors should warn me about such material.”

There was also the student at Crafton Hills College in California who, along with her parents, claimed certain graphic novels in a course about graphic novels were too, well, graphic and demanded they be censored. Crafton Hills backed away from a proposal to make trigger warnings mandatory for that course only after FIRE and other organizations intervened.

FIRE is pleased that the NCAC study serves as a starting point for tracking the emerging trend of trigger warnings on college campuses. More extensive research needs to be done.