Trigger Warning Panel Elucidates Questions of Inclusion

January 7, 2015
Photo of J. Brendan Shaw

Originally published November 12, 2014

November 10, 2014: The department’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee held “Trigger Warnings in the Classroom,” a roundtable discussion and community dialogue that brought together English faculty and Student Advocacy staff to tackle tough cultural topics. Moderator and vice chair Andreá Williams introduced the panelists, explaining the increased awareness of sensitive classrooms and politics of comfort.

Panelists included English faculty Sandra Macpherson and Koritha Mitchell; Susan Hanson, Program Manager of Literacy Studies; English Ph.D. student J. Brendan Shaw; and student advocacy Sexual Violence Support Coordinator, Natalie Spiert. The panelist started by talking about "triggers" and content warnings--the advance notices that indicate that online posts or course materials contain matter that might be considered inflammatory or even traumatizing. From there, the discussion ranged from supporting potentially vulnerable students by providing disclaimers prior to the course or before explicit content was discussed; to the place of trigger warnings in contemporary scholarship and critique; to the instructor/student experience in pedagogy; and other related topics. More generally, the panel discussed issues such as rape, homophobia, racism, and violence that appear in books and films assigned in the classroom.

A group of about 70 students, faculty, and staff attended Monday’s event with numerous questions about prevailing trigger warnings on social media sites, including Tumblr and blogger spheres; student activism and how faculty can support their efforts; and personal anecdotes in classroom. The audience addressed gender discrepancies, racism and heterosexism, and privileges regularly unlabeled, “unmarked,” and perpetuated by silence.

Andreá Williams, chair of the Diversity and Inclusion committee, explained why she felt that such a discussion is important. “We want for students and professors to feel that the classroom is a place where they can be challenged and transformed. But we also have to acknowledge that no one comes into the classroom as a blank slate. People bring with them hurt, biases, or privileges that course materials expose in sometimes unsettling ways. This panel was about sharing ways to respond to those unsettling moments. I’m really glad to have people throughout our department and campus thinking deliberately about how we teach and learn.”

The dialogue isn't over, however. Community members interested in these range of topics have more opportunities to approach these tough topics in a number of upcoming events:

UCAT will host a discussion for instructors titled “Outside In: When Stress and Worry Disrupt the Classroom” on Thursday, November 13th from 1-2:30pm in 300 Younkin Success Center. The discussion will be facilitated by InterACT Theatre Troupe.

The Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies will host a brownbag panel on “Difficult Subjects in the Classroom: Teaching About Violence” on Tuesday, November 18th at 9am in 2150 Smith Lab. Participants include Guisela Latorre, Tay Glover, Krista Benson, Denise Delgado, and Lynn Itagaki.