College’s Trigger Warning Proposal Incites Media Backlash

Madeline Peltz

The Office of Equity Concerns posted a Sexual Offense Resource Guide earlier this month that discussed Oberlin’s potential use of trigger warnings in the classroom and urged professors to “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” After a surge of reaction from various media outlets around the country, the section on trigger warnings was removed from the site.

In an oped titled, “We’ve Gone Too Far with ‘Trigger Warnings,’” Guardian columnist Jill Filipovic sparked the media response to the institution’s suggestions.

“Trigger warnings in online spaces … have expanded widely and become more intricate, detailed, specific and obscure,” said Filipovic. “Trigger warnings … are now included for a whole slew of potentially offensive or upsetting content, including but not limited to: misogyny, the death penalty, calories in a food item, terrorism, drunk driving, how much a person weighs, racism, gun violence, Stand Your Ground laws, drones, homophobia … corpses, skulls, skeletons, needles, discussion of ‘isms,’ neuroatypical shaming, slurs (including ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’), kidnapping, dental trauma, discussions of sex, death or dying, spiders, insects, snakes, vomit, pregnancy, childbirth, blood, scarification, Nazi paraphernalia, slimy things [and] holes.”

Filipovic also wrote that trigger warnings are something that one would most likely encounter “on feminist blogs … or in the social-justice oriented corner of Tumblr.”

“College, though,” said Filipovic, “is different.” The Guardian columnist went on to argue that, “the space between comfort and freedom is not actually where universities should seek to situate college students,” and that “the universe does not treat its members as if they come hand-delivered in a box clearly marked ‘fragile.’ ”

Prior to its removal, the resource guide defined a trigger as “something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual.” The document described triggers as “not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma.” It advised professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression” and to “realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that … students have lives before and outside [the] classroom, experiences [the professor] may not expect or understand.”

The resource guide used Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as an example of a text that should be accompanied with a trigger warning.

The task force is co-chaired by Vice President and Dean of Students Eric Estes and Associate Dean of the College and Interim Title IX Coordinator Meredith Raimondo.

Raimondo clarified that the potential use of trigger warning is not a proposed part of the sexual offense policy changes.

“The new Sexual Misconduct Policy, like the current Sexual Offense Policy, is designed to stop, address the effects of, and prevent the recurrence of sexual misconduct and other forms of gender- and/or sex- based discrimination,” Raimondo said.

Despite the task force’s efforts to solicit input through two public input forums earlier this year, many learned of the proposed trigger warning implementation through other media outlets, such as The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and The Globe and Mail.

“I learned about it first not from the website but from the media in general,” Associate Professor of English DeSales Harrison explained. “So in a way it became a public thing before it even became an internal thing, which probably had a distorting or anxiety-producing effect.”

In her column, Filipovic mentioned the resource guide’s reference to Things Fall Apart.

“A trigger warning for what Oberlin identified as the book’s common triggers — racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence and suicide (and more) — sets the tone for reading and understanding the book,” wrote Filipovic. “It skews students’ perceptions. It highlights particular issues as necessarily more upsetting than others and directs students to focus on particular themes that have been singled out by the professor as traumatic.”

Harrison echoed this skepticism.

“I would like to leave open the possibility that I’ve just been wrong for my however many years of teaching and perhaps missed some opportunity to make certain kinds of students feel like they have a place in the class,” he said. “There’s a sort of irritated professorial response and an impatient one that would say something like, ‘my job is your discomfort.’ But that’s what I’m here for, and in some ways that’s what you’re here for, for me; we’re all supposed to be on edge.”

But according to Raimondo, the use of trigger warnings in the classroom is far from atypical.

“I have used trigger warnings myself in the classroom, and I have not experienced any occasion in which alerting students to potentially triggering material had a negative effect,” Raimondo said, drawing from her experience teaching in the Comparative American Studies department.

The student response has been varied. In an anonymous interview, one student spoke about the experience of living with triggers from post-traumatic stress disorder related to sexualized violence. This student is active in the Sexual Information Center on campus as well as other organizing efforts concerning sexual misconduct.

“It’s not really about hand-holding or coaxing people into situations; it’s about the fact that if something is going to be sprung on you, you shouldn’t have to, in your learning environment, be exposed to something that’s going to throw you into what could be a full-on reliving of an experience,” the student said. “Sometimes I get triggered, and I know I’ve been triggered, but I don’t always know what has triggered it. It’s not some- thing that I ever account to being anyone’s fault or anyone’s blame.”

The student acknowledged the difficulty of anticipating an entire classroom’s triggers.

“There [are] a lot of things that the policy can’t do. People with triggers, at least for myself, and I think a lot of other people who experience triggers overall, don’t expect a policy to solve the problem. They know it’s not going to solve the problem, because I know on certain days it feels like the world is a minefield.”