Powell Danielle Hernandez 5/9/13 Final – Option II Trigger warnings can save lives and yet most people don’t even know what is meant by the term “triggering.” Triggers are anything that can cause mental instability to someone who has a traumatic association with the said trigger. We often debate what content is suitable for the classroom- often in terms of morality and development. Many pre-service teachers have no problems with the idea that pushing students out of their comfort zones is a good thing; however, there is a difference between getting students to tackle difficult topics and inadvertently sending them back to a traumatic experience. Common triggers often include sexual assault, incest, suicide, and abortion. One social media website offered a more extensive list which I feel is worth including. It shows that there are many things that students can be hypersensitive to: Swearing Rape Abuse (physical, mental, emotional, verbal, sexual) Child abuse/pedophilia Self-injurious behavior (self-harm, eating disorders, etc.) Talk of drug use (legal, illegal or psychiatric) Suicide Descriptions/pictures of medical procedures (even if they don’t contain blood or gore)
Descriptions/pictures of violence or warfare (including instruments of violence, such as knives or guns)
Trans* degendering, or anti-trans* views of bodies
Dismissal of lived oppressions, marginalization, illness or differences
Corpses, skulls or skeletons Needles Discussions of -isms, shaming, or hatred of any kind (racism, classism, hatred of cultures/ethnicities that differ from your own, sexism, hatred of sexualities or genders that differ from your own, anti-multiple, nonvanilla shaming, sex positive shaming, fat shaming/body image shaming, neuroatypical shaming)
Kidnapping (forceful deprivation of/disregard for personal autonomy) Discussions of sex (even consensual) Death or dying Spiders, insects, snakes Blood, vomit Pregnancy/childbirth Serious injury Trypophobia Scarification Nazi paraphernalia Slimy things Anything that might inspire intrusive thoughts in people with OCD
Any time slurs are used (this includes words like “stupid” or “dumb”, which are still widely considered to be socially acceptable)
This list may strike some as “going overboard,” but it is clear that many of the things on the list are things that inevitably do come up in classrooms. For instance, we spoke about depictions of death and warfare. In this course, we did discuss how appropriate certain images such as warfare imagery are in classrooms. The problem is that we discussed it largely in terms of development.
Many of us tried to put an age on when students would be alright seeing these things. However, this disregards the fact that an elementary school student who has never been personally affected by that content and a high school student who has will receive the information is very different ways. The wide range of triggers that exists should not, however, cripple teachers when developing content. It is not about omission- it is about openness, warning, follow-up, and support. The success of the content lies in the pedagogy. Take the case of Richard Stinson’s classroom. In his class, he struggled with the topic of Vietnam. It wasn’t just because of its general controversy, but because many of his students were personally affected by Vietnam and had parents who had fought in Vietnam. The lesson was a failure because he didn’t know how to properly address these students without offending them. I believe that trigger warnings can help prevent such situations. Imagine, for a minute, if Stinson had told his class the day before, “Tomorrow we will be talking about Vietnam. I know it is a delicate topic, so if anyone has a problem about the topic, please don’t hesitate to speak with me or e-mail me.” And what if he’d opened the class with, “If at any time you feel uncomfortable, you are welcome to excuse yourself,” and ended it with, “If you are feeling upset by the topic we just discussed, I encourage you to go talk with one of our school’s guidance counselors about it.” It is very possible that, in Stinson’s class, Donnie was not necessarily out to make very controversial remarks. He may have been caught off guard, was uncomfortable, and therefore, as it continued to escalate out of control he began to speak without thinking- without empathizing or sympathizing. Perhaps, had Donnie known that these feelings were normal, had he been told that it was okay to be triggered by the topic, and had he known he could excuse himself, he may have done so.
Also, if Stinson was that disturbed by the students’ comments, you can only imagine that there might have been that one student in the class, sitting silently, who was just as upset. You never know and you can never assume, so it is always important to remind students that there is support for them and warn them when touchy content is approaching. Some teachers may retaliate to this, believing that students will take advantage of being allowed to excuse themselves, but we must remember that the teacher is not a dictators. The school is democratic. In Democratic Schools, Beane and Apple insist that “in a democratic school it is true that all of those directly involved in the school, including young people, have the right to participate in the process of decision making.” To back my assertion up, I’d like to say that I, personally, have seen so many examples of triggers gone wrong in the classroom and will use some of them as examples of how very important they can be. Case 1: Gettysburg College Queer Eye on America Course A student was told to watch the film Mysterious Skin for class. They were not told what the film would be about prior to watching it. The student watched the film and ended up becoming physically sick and then attempting suicide because the film was triggering. The entire film’s plot had to do with childhood rape/incestsomething the student has experienced personally. They would have liked a trigger warning beforehand. Assessment:
Had the professor offered a trigger warning, the student would have talked with the professor to find an alternative assignment. Case 2: College of New Rochelle Advanced Calculus Course A student’s professor made insensitive comments to the student who asked for an extension on a project since she was suffering from Hurricane Sandy. He said that other students were affected too and it was no excuse. He suggested she have better time management. Later on, he sent the class an e-mail encouraging them to volunteer in the clean-up. We should have been considering the triggering aspect of what he was saying. What he didn’t know was that that student lost her house in the Hurricane, nearly was trapped in the house, and suffers PTSD from the experience. Assessment: When a topic is very obviously close to home (i.e. Hurricane Sandy in the New York area, bombings in the Boston area, Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area), you should automatically assume that things said in relation to the topic can be triggering. Think before you speak about mental health of students. Case 3: High School Morality Course A student was presented with certain morality questions that were particularly triggering to her which was augmented by her Asperger’s Syndrome. As a result,
she developed a type of obsessive compulsive disorder that is specific to moral questions. Assessment: Courses such as this one which are inherently controversial should be filled with trigger warnings and reminders that counseling services are available. This particular student did not end up receiving proper help for another two years and it affected her other coursework. Case 4: Middle School American History A very graphic video is shown to the class of a soldier having his leg amputated. There is blood and gore. A student is triggered by the sight of blood, excuses themselves, and cuts themselves in the bathroom. Assessment: The teacher should have warned students that the video would be graphic and also given students a warning that a graphic scene was coming up so students who know they will be affected can look away.
Sometimes it can be a rude awakening to teachers- from those pre-service to those with many years of experience- to realize that there is this silent influence they have. The idea of what might be going on “behind the scenes” should be shocking enough to remind teachers that,
although they don’t need to forgo some controversial content, they need to be psychologically delicate in their pedagogy. Sometimes, of course, it is as easy as giving students a warning. Although I’ve found no literature on the place of trigger warnings and support in classrooms, I have found a number of teachers’ personal blogs in which they ponder the same question. One theme I came across is that they are afraid of offering students a trigger warning and the chance to leave because it singles the student out and marginalizes them according to content they are receiving. However, it is clear that leaving the topics out altogether is not an alternative teachers want to take. It is very inconclusive as a whole because they focus on the before and during, which is why I can stress, at the very least, the after- reminding students that they can receive help from the school psychologist or counselor at a later time. Even just hearing that can help students realize that their teacher is sensitive to their personal human experience. There is no perfect solution, but making teachers- especially pre-service teachers- aware of this is very valuable.
Bibliography Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (2007). Democratic schools. (pp. 1-25). Portsmouth: Heinemann. Wineburg, Sam S. (2001). Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. (pp. 217-231). Philadelphia : Temple University Press, c2001.