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Richson: Colleges should adopt trigger warnings

BY BRIANNE RICHSON | MAY 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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We all have that one memory that we’d prefer people not bring up, because we want to block it from our consciousness forever, or at the very least, we’d prefer people not bring up while we’re in the vicinity. We all have unpleasant memories that, hopefully, become more vague as we grow further removed from them with time, but what about a memory that has legitimately traumatized a person? A memory that has made its holder a victim of post traumatic stress disorder?

Students at colleges across the country are taking a term originating from the world of online blogs, “trigger warning,” and calling for it to be utilized directly on class syllabi in anticipation of a student having an adverse reaction to sensitive academic material. This might include anything from sexual assault — which the recent White House campaign indicates as a prominent issue on college campuses — to eating disorders, violent graphic content, or topics of race. And the list goes on.

One might view taking such measures as dramatic and symptomatic of what I have often heard my father refer to as the “every kid gets a trophy” generation: a generation full of coddling and cushion when things go wrong. However, I don’t think it is fair to compare modern parents’ affinity for sheltering their children from failure with the generation’s demand to be protected from reliving that which was traumatic.

Is it too much to ask that a rape survivor be forewarned when a professor is about to cover material on the topic or to ask that a person who was confronted with a racial slur and beat up be allowed to leave the lecture hall before course material sends her or him into a tizzy of hypervigilance, a hallmark characteristic of PTSD?

A great difficulty that goes along with PTSD is that it can surface at any given time following a traumatic event — in weeks or years. It is one thing to be aware of what sensory elements could trigger an episode for you, but it is another to have the ability to actively avoid these potentially toxic situations.

University of California-Santa Barbara has passed a resolution that professors should indicate in syllabi when emotionally or physically stressful material would be presented in class, prompting a Los Angeles Times editorial to stamp the measure as “antithetical to college life.” The same editorial suggests that trigger warnings are a cop-out for students not wishing to engage with a diverse set of subject material or to face traditionally uncomfortable issues head-on.

Victims of PTSD do not have more to learn about the academic subject matter that is traumatic for them; they have lived it.

Not everyone has the luxury of dealing with issues upfront and immediately after a trauma. And no one has the right to force you to do so. In Ohio, Oberlin College has gone so far as to suggest that trigger material should not even be included in a course if it is not clear how the students might learn from the material.

Sure, it is cool to see a controversial movie clip in class sometimes, but at what cost?

Such measures certainly have a potential to be taken too far, but I think the decency to not make a trauma survivor’s class time a living hell outweighs the possibility for a stunted learning environment.


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