Who among us doesn't appreciate a good spoiler alert? I appreciate not knowing important plot twists before I have a chance to experience the story for myself. For example, if I had known that Han Solo and Chewbacca were going to be revealed as a longtime couple in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I would've been denied the full pleasure of the gasps of my fellow moviegoers when we were exposed to the hot wookie on human action.
I like other warnings. In winter, when we're in bed, I like at least a smidge of notice before my wife touches her ice cold feet to my legs. At restaurants, I like it when the server warns me if a dish may be "spicy" or, "unfortunately tastes like turd." I want my internist to give me a little "hey-ho, coming down the pike we go" when it's time for the old prostate to be checked.
We consider these things normal courtesies, things we want done for us or may do for others because we are interested in maximizing the well-being of the people we are responsible for.
This is why I use "trigger warnings" with my students. In a classroom where a student has experienced previous trauma and something we may discuss or read may "trigger" a response that causes them to re-experience that trauma, you better believe that I am going to warn them.
I find that like a lot of things that have become political footballs, or proxy battles in the never ending culture wars, lots of people who express a hatred for trigger warnings have almost zero familiarity with their use, so I figured I should share my personal experience.
With a trigger warning, the stakes are a wee bit higher than a little heartburn if you're not told about the jalapeños, or being disappointed when you find out that Jon Snow is reincarnated as a talking dire wolf. Oops. Spoiler alert.
Imagine that every time you experienced a spoiler, rather than feeling a little irritated, you instead were transported to one of the worst moments of your life.
This is why I use trigger warnings.
I had a veteran student who thanked me for warning the class about a short story in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, where a character is killed by a mine. The student had seen people blown up by IEDs in Iraq, and the warning allowed him to prepare for what was coming. In the story "How to Tell a True War Story," the death of the solider is described as "almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came up around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms."
Because of the warning, this student was able to read the story and ended up writing his own essay about how he sometimes felt guilt about seeing "beauty" in some of the things he experienced when he was deployed in Iraq, but reading Tim O'Brien's experiences in Vietnam made him see that this wasn't so terrible, that he wasn't a monster.
During my time at Clemson, I warned students I knew to be particularly devout Christians about profane language or graphic sexual content in a reading assignment. I explained that my aim wasn't to offend their sensibilities, and that this expression was well within the bounds of contemporary literary art that one studies in college. Every single student read whatever I assigned without complaint.
In the case of those students, I wasn't giving a trigger warning, but a "heads up," which any of us appreciates. The difference between one and the other is a matter of degree, not of kind, and the warnings for students who have experienced trauma are much more important, and for students who have not experienced trauma, no harm is done.
It is a popular misconception that students use trigger warnings as a way to avoid having their world views challenged. In reality, it's the opposite. I give warnings so the students can engage with the work, rather than avoid it.
The students who need and benefit from trigger warnings to aid their learning aren't victims. They are, in fact, working to move past their traumas, rather than be repeatedly victimized by them. They need a warning so they can properly prepare for the blow because they are endeavoring to get stronger.
When people say they "don't like trigger warnings" I have to ask what they don't like. Being respectful of others? Helping students learn? I don't like all that political correctness! You mean like telling students that Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer gets a little racy in parts, so racy that it was banned as pornography in the 1960s? Would it be better to not assign the book so the instructor doesn't go to the great offense of giving students a heads-up?
There isn't a college or university in the country that mandates trigger warnings. Not even Oberlin, the wackiest of the weird, requires faculty to use them. Trigger warnings do not erode our freedoms. They do not enable the coddling of the young and impressionable.
They are a tool for teaching to be used as instructors see fit. Or not.
John Warner has spent the last 15 years inside of college classrooms, teaching students. He is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed and the author of the story collection, Tough Day for the Army.