It’s time to start using content warnings for course material

Surprising students with triggering material won’t help them learn

Distressing course content should be communicated to students before they take the class. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

by Kyla Dowling, Staff Writer

Whether it’s the content warning that displays in the left corner of a Netflix screen, or a giant “TW” at the beginning of a TikTok video, content and trigger warnings are being used more frequently. These warnings caution viewers that sensitive content lies ahead, and allows them the option of not engaging with the material or to mentally steel themselves before engaging. So then, why aren’t our professors using trigger warnings when it comes to sensitive course content? 

Trigger warnings are a controversial topic in academia, with some believing they are akin to censorship, or that they act as a barrier between students and learning. As someone who has been impacted by a traumatic experience, I find it absurd that something intended to be helpful is seen as contentious. A study from 2019 suggests that trigger warnings are unnecessary and, at worst, do more harm than good. While this may be true for the participants in that study, no two people will ever experience trauma in the same way. The overuse of content warnings could potentially distract or diminish the effect of more vital trauma-related warnings, but that does not mean they should not be used. By prefacing content with a warning, people are given the option to protect their mental health and not expose themselves to something that could induce a traumatic reaction. 

Recently, in one of my English courses, I ran into this issue. My professor had given us a trigger warning for one of our assigned readings; however, they only stated the chapter in which the explicitly triggering content occurred. There was no warning about the uncomfortable foreshadowing or that the triggering content was the inciting incident in the story, and would thus be a prominent theme throughout the entire book. I felt trapped. I could skip over the chapter and suffer through reading the next 200 pages detailing the traumatic ramifications on the main character, or I could try to communicate with my professor. The latter option wasn’t a fair one either. Why should I have to reveal my trauma to a stranger in order to be accommodated? Either way, the damage was done — the six chapters I’d already read were triggering enough to harm my already fragile mental health.

This experience could have been avoided, and so could many others, if professors would put informative content warnings on course materials. Cautioning the class that one chapter discusses a traumatic event does nothing when the plot of the entire novel revolves around it. Alternatively, professors could stop choosing course material in which women are abused, assaulted, and murdered. In every English course I have taken so far in my undergraduate career, there has been at least one required reading centering around the dehumanization of women. It’s important to note that this is only what is triggering to me and different people will be affected by different content.

Professors need to warn students about potentially triggering material, not just the week the readings are assigned, but in their course outlines. I would never have chosen to take this course if I had known how triggering the readings would be. Throughout the entire pandemic, students have been urging SFU to take mental health more seriously. The school needs to make sure that we are able to take classes without fearing for our mental health because no one thought to include a trigger warning. At the very least, they should be explaining why such traumatic material is integral to our learning.