We know about them from “Dateline” stories on kidnappings and from gory shows such as “Game of Thrones.” But trigger warnings — the messages that
alert viewers of disturbing material such as rape or violence —
may now have a place in the classroom.
The University of California, Santa Barbara, student
government has issued a guideline asking faculty to include
warnings in syllabi. The goal is to allow students who may have
experienced traumas to miss classes that have emotionally
upsetting material without affecting their grades. Other
students, including those at Rutgers University and Oberlin
College have raised similar concerns over content.
But trigger warnings are controversial. As soon as Santa
Barbara students issued their guideline, free speech groups
and the media criticized them as a generation that needed to
learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. They also
raised the question of where to draw the line. Would a professor
teaching “The Great Gatsby” now need to warn students about
violent content, as recommended by one Rutgers University
And how far should these warnings go? Students and
professors at Oberlin College have been battling this year over
the draft of a guide that would require professors to include
trigger warnings about content that implies racism, sexism and
discrimination against transgender individuals and people with
At Santa Barbara, professors worried that students might
file official complaints to the university, resulting in a judicial
nightmare that would jeopardize their careers, The New York
Times reported in May.
“There is a certain paradoxical challenge for me about
this issue,” says Jane Close Conoley, PhD, dean of UC Santa
Barbara’s Gevirtz School of Education and a professor in the
department of counseling, clinical and school psychology.
“I always strive to be sensitive to the life circumstances and
history of each of my students. On the other hand, university
education is meant to provoke and cause disequilibrium,
to confront with data, unpopular views and surprising
The role of psychology educators
There’s no research yet on trigger warnings in the psychological
literature, so psychologists don’t know what effect they might
have. That’s one of the reasons psychology educators including
Conoley are hesitant to endorse such requirements.
But the research does show that no one can predict who will
experience secondary trauma from material.
And many people have been exposed to trauma, says Eileen
Zurbriggen, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University
of California at Santa Cruz who has studied vicarious trauma
in the undergraduate classroom. “As many as 50 percent of
students have some trauma history, and even small doses of
SPECIAL SECTION FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS
Once reserved for graphic TV, warnings about disturbing
content may be coming to a classroom near you.
BY KATHLEEN SMITH
This course may cause