Content Warnings Fail to Reflect Life After Oberlin

Aaron Pressman, Columnist

I have no objection to professors warning students that some information discussed in their classes may be emotionally challenging or difficult to hear. In fact, it is part of a professor’s job is to outline the content of a course and distribute that information to students before the add/drop deadline so students can make an informed decision as to whether or not they want to take the class. If a student wishes to drop a course during the add/ drop window, they have the right to do so for whatever reason, including feeling that material covered in class may be emotionally distressing. Students also have the right to speak to professors about the content of classes, and I encourage professors to be very understanding of a student who may be suffering from PTSD when reading or discussing a particularly triggering topic.

However, students’ demands for trigger warnings on Oberlin’s campus and on many other college campuses throughout the U.S. seldom stop at courteous warnings on syllabi or minor accommodations in class. Some students call for professors to give trigger warnings for a certain list of topics, while others have asked professors to give warnings for every triggering topic before each reading or class session. Requests to skip assignments, classes and even parts of exams that contain content that a student claims to be triggering then accompany these accomodations. “Classroom Censorship Can Improve Learning Environment,” (The Oberlin Review, Nov. 13, 2015) an opinion piece written by Review Online editor Cyrus Eosphoros even argues that professors should remove potentially triggering content from their class syllabi. Trigger warnings taken to any of these levels not only compromise the educational value of courses but also arbitrarily allow professors or administrators to determine what content could be triggering.

One of the main purposes of higher education is for students to learn from their classes. Trigger warnings that create coursework exemptions or that require professors to change the content of their courses seriously detract from students’ abilities to receive the education for which they pay. Extensive trigger warnings also create an environment in which students are overprotected and leave Oberlin unprepared for exposure to sensitive topics that arise after graduation. To further complicate the issue, many students claim to not only be triggered by certain topics but also by dissenting opinions within a topic, preventing a positive and educational flow of ideas. College should not be a time to treat students like children. Professors’ job descriptions do not include acting as nannies to protect students from the dangers of dissent. Instead of facing sensitive topics in a constructive learning environment, trigger warnings ultimately throw students into a world of triggering topics and diverse opinions cold turkey when they encounter life beyond Oberlin.

Students’ calls for trigger warnings on certain topics are also arbitrary. Students who have undergone trauma or have certain mental illnesses may all be triggered by incredibly different stimuli. Any specific word could trigger a different person who has experienced a different type of trauma, as could any specific action taken by a professor or another student in class. For example, sexual and physical assault survivors may be triggered by any characteristic of their attackers, as well as by any details of the attack, such as by the smell of alcohol if the attacker was drunk or by a specific word uttered by the attacker or related to the attack. The word “trigger” itself could even be a trigger for a victim of gun violence or for anyone else who associates the word with a traumatic experience. While it is important for professors or classes to be accessible to a student who may be concerned about a particular topic, blanket advance warnings are incredibly arbitrary and promote the idea that certain triggers are more valid than others.

Some students cite mandatory courses for certain majors as an obstacle to simply dropping a class that contains content a student finds triggering. However, the courses for a student’s major are likely to be consistent with the subject or field the student wants to pursue after college. The same obstacles will present themselves in a student’s course material as in their chosen profession. Imagine a doctor asking to stop in the middle of surgery because the sight of blood or a gunshot wound became triggering, or a clinical psychologist being unable to perform psychotherapy after discussing mental illness. If courses have content that is incredibly difficult for students to get through, those students always have the option to drop a class or change a major. The worst thing the school can do, however, is exempt certain students from course assignments or change course material and leave students unprepared for life after graduation, no longer protected by the administration or their professors.