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Trigger Warnings

posted by Linda Downs


Trigger warnings was the topic addressed on a panel—organized by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and CAA—that took place at the one hundredth anniversary conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington, DC, on Friday, June 12, 2015. Joan Bertin, executive director of NCAC, led a group of speakers that included Shaden Tageldin, professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota and chair of the MLA’s Women’s Committee, Anita Levy of AAUP, and DeWitt Godfrey, professor of art and art history at Colgate University and CAA president.

Faculty at several universities, including Wellesley College and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have adopted procedures to warn students, on syllabi, of disturbing topics that could trigger posttraumatic stress disorder or other strong reactions to subjects that will be presented in class. Students who may be affected are allowed to miss the class in which the identified work is discussed.

CAA and MLA prepared an informal survey in preparation for this panel and sent it to all members. Bertin summarized the results in her introduction. The survey found that less than 1 percent of the respondents’ institutions have adopted a policy on trigger warnings. However, 23 percent of faculty report that they have voluntarily provided warnings several times or regularly. Student-initiated efforts have instituted trigger warnings represent 7.5 percent. Fifteen percent of faculty indicated that students in their classes have requested warnings in the course they teach. Roughly 12 percent of respondents report that students have complained, either to the instructor or to administrators, about the failure to provide warnings. And 45 percent of respondents who have had first-hand experience with trigger warnings see it as a real threat to academic freedom. Many respondents added comments to the survey regarding their approaches, policies, concerns, and questions about trigger warnings. The panel will be reviewing them and preparing a document that summarizes them to assist other faculty in approaching this issue with their students and administrators.

Godfrey believes that trigger warnings are a form of self-censorship that induces doubt, fear, and intimidation in students as well as faculty. He called on faculty to reassert the humanities as a space of speculation and imagination at the center of human experience and to help students confront the unfamiliar in order to change it. “Art is where cultures and communities work things out,” Godfrey said, “where we come to terms with the unfamiliar and reexamine the familiar.” He sees a shift from the “politically correct” to “individual correctness,” where any one person’s trauma is, by definition, the greatest trauma. The individual now is asserting a right never to be offended or challenged intellectually. This shuts the door on exploration and discussion. There is also a chilling effect on faculty who are increasingly subject to administrative, student, and parental criticism and evaluation. Trigger warnings grew out of the feminist concern for the status of women on campus, but the result is that they find themselves in a place that can be identified as that of the political right. (CAA has published the text of Godfrey’s presentation.)

Tagilden indicated that trigger warnings grew out of the feminist concern for the status of women related to the trauma of rape, and that there should be a clear differentiation between mediated reality and reality in the classroom, so that students can move beyond their own limitations and find outlets and language to deal with traumas instead of normalizing victim appropriation. If students opt out of classes with difficult material, it automatically places the personal on a political plane.

What is the cause of this interest in protecting students from topics that may be difficult or traumatizing to address? Some in the audience saw it as coddling students for fear of criticism being levied on faculty. Some saw it as a question of race and class privilege. Students who have lived protected lives determine the need for treatment of all students. Others see it as a new generation of students isolated and unable to handle personal interaction as described in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together.

The panel will be reviewing all the comments from respondents to the CAA/MLA survey to cull the most useful approaches that were recommended from the field to address the issue of trigger warnings. These recommendations will be posted by NCAC, CAA, and MLA in the near future.



Filed under: Education, Students, Teaching

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