Trigger warnings and safe spaces

Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces: Reflections and Strategies


In recent years, there’s been much ado about trigger warnings. Some have argued that they are a crucial step to establishing a safe, accessible classroom environment for diverse students; others have framed them as a threat to educational integrity. But what exactly are trigger warnings and how can they be used effectively to foster safe(r) spaces of learning?

What Do Trigger Warnings Do, and What Issues Arise Around Them?

Trigger warnings have a history. At their simplest, they are defined as a warning to students that material they may come across that semester could trigger memories of traumatic experiences. They emerge from the classification of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a medical condition and the negotiation of trauma in the age of the Internet.

In the last decade, the practice of flagging content as potentially disturbing became a mainstay of a progressive blogosphere invested in granting readers agency over what they may encounter there. Within an educational framework, trigger warnings gained traction with teachers invested in a feminist, intersectional, queer praxis as a way of being inclusive to students. They are intended to make the classroom a safer space for those who have dealt with or are dealing with trauma.

Although trigger warnings are meant to make educational spaces, particularly those dealing with material about sexual assault and racism, accessible to the very students who have been marginalized by these violences, some have argued that they do more harm than good. It can be difficult—even impossible—to pinpoint what might trigger someone, critics point out. So in the name of protecting students from potentially harmful material, trigger warnings might instead prevent them from doing the work of critical thinking the classroom requires. Others have called out trigger warnings as divisive, parsing, as Jack Halberstam wrote, “politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.”

Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces—Why Do They Matter?

In short, the subject of trigger warnings brings up polarizing responses. But in a moment of political turmoil, under an administration that is actively subjugating the civil liberties of many groups already marginalized in our society, the question of how to foster safer spaces is one very much worth returning to. Now more than ever, we need to think about how to build classroom spaces that are communal, that acknowledge a gathering of people with varied backgrounds and experiences, and that lay the groundwork for empathy and solidarity. Trigger warnings, when used thoughtfully and with intention, can help in that mission.

Using trigger warnings doesn’t necessarily mean radically shifting the way you teach if you don’t want it to. Instead, try seeing them as a flexible tool whose usage can evolve depending on context and circumstance. Trigger warnings can be a small but vital step in fostering an inclusive classroom environment.

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