Trigger Warnings, Content Advisories, and Alternative Assignments
October 1, 2020
by Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D.
Most of us have experienced trauma at some point in life from painful situations. Examples of events that might induce trauma include the loss of a loved one, a car accident, a serious illness, stress from combat situations, social marginalization such as systemic racism, microaggressions and harassment, hunger, homelessness, drug or alcohol addiction, and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. When a person experiences a trauma trigger, their brain often interprets their environment as inherently threatening and their vigilance is activated. when a student feels unsafe in the classroom, they may become significantly less capable of processing information and advocating for themselves. Thus, some instructors will choose to place a trigger warning on content that may feature disturbingly violent or otherwise emotionally difficult.
Due to the specificity of the term “trigger” and its association with certain forms of trauma, some faculty prefer to instead provide a content advisory. A content advisory makes students aware that they will be exposed to certain types of content that they may find upsetting, controversial, or offensive. By sharing a content advisory with students up front, instructors provide an opportunity for students to opt-out of content they do not feel prepared to handle or comfortable discussing. While faculty cannot predict all content that might be triggering or concerning for students, by providing an advisory, instructors signal to their students that they will be sensitive and responsive to their emotional needs should a trigger arise. This kind of responsiveness can help address issues of equity in the classroom by indicating that instructors are willing to adjust the content in order to address the needs of individuals with backgrounds of marginalization and/or abuse.
The degree to which a student can opt-out of any given activity depends upon the instructor’s views on what is essential to the learning objectives of the class. Consider if the learning objective to a given assignment can be achieved in another way. Some examples include:
- In a History class, instead of asking a student to read direct examples of fascist propaganda, the instructor might allow a student to write a historical report about fascism or read secondary literature on the subject.
- In a Sociology class, if a student feels uncomfortable engaging in a group discussion on a topic such as racism, the instructor might request that the student instead submits a journal entry featuring their thoughts or experiences.
- In a Film class, instead of requiring a student to watch a film that features sexual violence or torture, the instructor can recommend another film for the student to watch from the same time period or genre that does not feature such graphic content.
- If the instructor considers an activity absolutely essential to achieving the course objectives, they can foreground that content on the first day of class, which gives students the opportunity to drop the class or switch sections if they do not feel comfortable with the assignment.
- If a student reveals to an instructor that they have experienced a recent sexual or physical assault or are currently the target of harassment, the faculty member has an obligation to report these instances to our District Title IX Office according to new Texas laws. The instructor should let the student know of their mandatory reporting responsibility and direct the student to ACC’s Counseling services.
Equity and Psychological Safety in the Classroom
While it can be difficult to figure out how to navigate the needs of many diverse student populations at the same time, small changes like trigger warnings, content advisories, and alternative assignments can help students feel more safe to take risks. One way to approach thinking about these practices is that these practices do not “solve” issues of psychological safety and consent for our students. Rather, they communicate to our students that their sense of safety is important to us and that we are open to hearing feedback or for them to share their needs with us. Other approaches to creating a perception of safety in the classroom are establishing collaboratively-determined group norms in the classroom and reminding students of the ACC Code of Conduct, which forbids any type of discriminatory behavior in the classroom. These practices might help students feel more comfortable in the classroom, especially students from marginalized backgrounds. Ultimately, while we want to challenge our students to think outside of the box by exposing them to new information and experiences, we want them to feel safe as possible in these educational experiences.
Sarah Lynne Bowman, Ph.D.
Program Coordinator, Peace & Conflict Studies
Adjunct Faculty, Humanities