Discussing triggering topics in the classroom can be a learning experience

By Grace Hogsten

Elm Staff Writer

In recent years, our society has developed a greater understanding of mental health issues. As we gain a more accurate picture of how certain content can affect people and potentially trigger past trauma, the question arises as to whether certain content should be off-limits in the classroom.

Topics such as hate crimes, sexual assault, or suicide can be disturbing or triggering for some to discuss. However, these issues are often present in the assigned readings and class discussions in many college courses.

There are a variety of approaches to discussing potentially triggering material. Although there is no current school or department procedure, many professors at Washington College choose to accompany the content with warnings to prepare their students.

“[I] have information on my syllabus that talks about how we do talk about those [potentially triggering topics] quite a bit, but I do tell students…that if…for [any] reason they cannot read a given text or talk about it [or] be in class for a specific day, that they should let me know,” Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the English Department Dr. Elizabeth O’Connor said.

The syllabus, which details the class readings and possible discussion topics for the class, acts as a trigger warning, providing students with a warning up-front about which issues will be covered in class.

When we are faced with disturbing or potentially triggering content, our instinct may be to avoid it or even ban it from our spaces. However, using an overall avoidant approach to disturbing material is harmful – there is no one type of content that should be completely removed from classroom discussions.

“As a person from a minoritized and historically resilient community, I get really nervous about exiling…certain life experiences from fields of knowledge. To me, that feels dangerously close to closeting or silencing,” Associate English Professor and Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. James Hall said.

Many people, especially marginalized groups, have had horrible experiences of violence or discrimination.

As students seeking education, we must acknowledge that. We can only address societal problems when we know that they exist.

Some may choose not to discuss certain topics to avoid triggers, and trigger warnings give them that choice. However, widespread avoidance as a blanket solution enables further problems through ignorance.

“These are the real stories of a lot of people, and I think by not having these conversations, we can continue to perpetuate ignorance around these topics,” junior Jude Souazoube said.

When disturbing topics are taboo, people feel alone and don’t know how to process their experiences or seek solutions for widespread problems.

In a college classroom, professors want to teach students about the world and the many different human experiences, which includes discussing disturbing content. The world is full of terrible experiences that have lasting effects on people, and for many, writing or reading about traumatic experiences can allow them to heal and cope.

“One of the things that literature can do is to give us stories, models, [and] resources for the things that occur in our world…I think there’s always a little bit of risk involved in encountering art, and we can do the best we can with content and trigger warnings at events or on syllabi,” Dr. Hall said.

Mental health, trauma, and triggers, are all valid issues that should be recognized and not stigmatized because they affect so many people’s lives. In an important distinction, trigger warnings and trauma-informed methods do not and should not equal censorship. It is possible to give appropriate warnings and still discuss the upsetting topics that are vital to understanding important human experiences.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo Caption: Professors at Washington College try and warn their students about potentially triggering topics in class readings, but these readings and discussions are often beneficial.

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