A Generic Trigger Warning for College Students

09/02/2015 10:17 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2016

This is a post about trigger warnings. If the mere thought of a trigger warning upsets you, this post will upset you. You may also be upset by references below to the diverse things about which trigger warnings warn. Yes, this paragraph is a trigger warning. Read on at your own risk, or stop reading now.

Still there? Okay, here we go. A trigger warning warns of a trigger, which is anything potentially traumatic. I start here with the problem of trigger warnings in college and end with my solution: the one and only trigger warning higher education will ever need.

In recent years there has been increasing concern that college students may be traumatized by what they encounter in their courses. College courses, after all, may include examples and discussions of -- ready? -- racism, sexism, rape, abortion, suicide, morality, sexuality, evolution, death, culture, religion, gender, violence, poverty, socialism, capitalism, climate change, colonialism, immigration, slavery, torture, terror, ethnic cleansing, war and genocide. (Have I left anything out?)

Some people may be upset by the mere introduction of some of these topics. And even for those willing to broach them, these are topics about which many people hold views deeply upsetting to many others. Shouldn't a course syllabus provide fair warning?

The basic rationale for trigger warnings is that the college classroom should be a safe space. Safety, in this context, is psychological, not just physical. It is not enough to protect students from physical violence. Safety includes protection from psychological trauma. There are microaggressions everywhere; students need to be protected, especially in their coursework.

This isn't how we have traditionally thought about college. The way we talk about college students today reminds me of an old cartoon of deer and antelope home on the range. As the others graze contentedly, one has perked up its ears and says, "I thought I just heard a discouraging word."

Oh no, and without prior notice! The only trigger warnings out on the range, apparently, are those announcing the arrival of Roy Rogers' horse. The deer and the antelope are on their own. But the young innocents who graze the college curriculum, some would argue, deserve better. If we can't censor all the discouraging words, at least we can warn students when one is coming.

But how are we to identify what to warn about? Triggering is a highly subjective psychological process. Anything can trigger something for someone. Traumatic memories may be triggered by an idiosyncratic sound, smell or image. Any student may request a specific individual accommodation, but there is no way to specify in advance what component of what assignment may trigger something traumatic for someone in a class.

A focus on trigger warnings, moreover, deflects attention from the intellectual and personal benefits of facing cognitive and emotional challenges in academic contexts. Instead teachers are at least implicitly encouraged to minimize student trauma, and their own as well, by deleting anything that may upset anyone. Thus trigger warnings have a chilling effect on curriculum by encouraging faculty self-censorship.

Let me add as a cognitive psychologist that all of us already, to varying extents, automatically filter out much of what upsets us. We need to compensate for this, not reinforce it, especially in educational contexts.

College should indeed be a safe space, but not in the sense of being safe from upsetting images or ideas. College should be a place where it is safe to explain what you believe and to disagree with others. But no one should expect to be shielded from the reality that the world is full of terrible things or from the equally disturbing reality of deep disagreement about fundamental matters.

I'm not against all trigger warnings, however. In fact, for those who deem trigger warnings necessary, I will now provide one. And this trigger warning, I humbly submit, is all we need. So here is my generic, all-purpose, comprehensive, transdisciplinary trigger warning, suitable for all colleges and universities, or at least those where academic freedom is valued.

Generic Trigger Warning: This is college. You will encounter topics, facts, interpretations, ideas, claims, conclusions, metaphors, images, stories, hypotheses, theories, and perspectives that upset you. Deal with it.