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Warning about "trigger warnings" used to censor university curriculum

Warning about "trigger warnings" used to censor university curriculum

Started by Mark A. McCutcheon March 7, 2014 - 9:19am Replies (10)

CAUT has alerted Canadian university faculty associations to an emerging concern about the use of "trigger warnings" in university curriculum, use with serious implications for quality of teaching and academic freedom:

"Trigger warnings," are statements posted on websites that "warn" readers that they may encounter "offensive" or "troubling" material on the site or in a specific posting. 

 Apparently there is a growing trend on American university and college campuses to flag, if not censor, course material that contains “disturbing” content. A recent Guardian article reports that "Oberlin College recommends that its faculty 'remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.' When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings. For example, Oberlin says, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is a great and important book, but 'it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.’”

The growing concern over trigger warnings in university curriculum does at first glance suggest some Faculties, disciplines, and fields may be more vulnerable to this kind of suppression and censorship than others. (Full disclosure here: I am particularly alarmed by this trend given given that I teach a course on Black Atlantic literature and culture that includes a substantial unit on slave narratives, and given my more general pedagogical commitment to the "fierce Humanities.") But the absurd lengths to which this use of "trigger warnings" have been put - as documented in the Guardian article - also suggest how far-reaching their implications could be, across the curriculum:

At Rutgers, a student urged professors to use trigger warnings as a sort of Solomonic baby-splitting between two apparently equally bad choices: banning certain texts or introducing works that may cause psychological distress. Works the student mentioned as particularly triggering include F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. The warnings would be passage-by-passage, and effectively reach "a compromise between protecting students and defending their civil liberties".

CAUT advises faculty associations to raise awareness of this threat to teaching quality and academic freedom. AU faculty, coordinators, instructors, tutors, learning designers, editors, and production group members who are aware of any request or demand to use “trigger warnings” in AU course development or teaching are urged to contact AUFA.



  • Jon Dron March 7, 2014 - 10:06am

    This is scary. It's the sort of thing that makes we actively want to include more controversial materials just for the hell of it.

    Having said that, when I ask students to confront uncomfortable things like 'A Rape in Cyberspace', I do as a matter of course prepare them for the ride by warning them it will be unpleasant reading. That's a pedagogical decision. I provide a warning because I think a bit of preparation can instil a more reflective attitude to what students are about to read and it encourages them to adopt a more critical stance from the outset. But that's only one way to handle it. I can think of perfectly decent alternative pedagogies that would work very well without such preparation, where trauma or shock is an intentional part of the learning design and the reflection comes later. Such confrontational pedagogies are harder work for all concerned, riskier and need to be managed with a lot of skill if they are to be transformative in a good way but, when they work well, they can change someone's life forever.

  • Derek Briton March 7, 2014 - 3:20pm

    Yes, this is far from new, but it is disturbing that it's spreading: 

    (Looks like Slate have removed access, try here:

    It represents a very conservative view of education: the reproduction of existing values, ideas, beliefs. I've always held that learning is inherently "disturbing" because it requires a reassessment and adjustment of current beliefs. If information can simply be assimilated into an existing belief structure without change (and at least some accompanying discomfort), it's simply a reaffirmation of existing beliefs (confirmation bias), not learning.

  • Sandra Law March 7, 2014 - 6:24pm

    I don't think that some books on my shelves would pass muster with this movement.

    • The End of Alice (A.M. Homes)
    • Cyrus, Cyrus (Adam Zameenzad)
    • Jacobean Tragedies (e.g. Webster's work)
    • Grotesque (Natsuo Kirino)
    • Bastard Out of Carolina (Dorothy Allison)
    • Hypnotism Made Easy (Marie Nimier)
    • Vanished (Mary McGarry Morris)
    • Chimney Rock (Charlie Smith)
    • Rabbit Boss ( Thomas Sanchez)
    • Canada's Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondages (Marcel Trudel)

    This movement could also impact student work. Would a Masters thesis like "Lynch a Thousand Times a Week if Necessary" Lynching and Women's Rights in the American South be possible? Would a public (students, members of public, as well as examiners) thesis defense on such a topic be possible?


  • Mark A. McCutcheon March 7, 2014 - 10:02pm

    It's really a shame to see what originated as a modest, minimal courtesy to readers online now appropriated to serve overly chilling (or overly zealous) approaches to institutional teaching, learning, and reading. As a student pointed out to me, in a side discussion of this issue, the very naming and itemization of possible "triggers" imposes an instrumental rationalism on coping with trauma, as though abstractly itemized categories could adequately anticipate (never mind manage) the unpredictable, latent psychology of trauma:

    the extent to which some of these trigger warnings go to label upsetting or uncomfortable things "triggering" (not to mention their use to control and shame those who misspeak) is an affront to the seriousness of PTSD. I've had panic attacks over things as particular as meeting a man with crowsfeet around his eyes ... or walking into a room where the furniture looks kind of like the furniture in the library where I used to hide out ... You can't control for that kind of response by just controlling whether and how people talk about trauma. What makes trauma so traumatic is how it defies processing through language alone. 

  • Marc Cels March 7, 2014 - 10:48pm

    Is CAUT responding to an instance or complaint reported in Canada or is it setting out on a hunting expedition? 

  • Mark A. McCutcheon March 7, 2014 - 11:50pm

    CAUT hasn't mentioned a Canadian instance but does want to know if it's happening here. I don't know if that counts as a hunting expedition; I see CAUT's alerts on issues like this as a useful "DEWline," a Distant Early Warning system. For another example, CAUT has, for a couple of years now (if not longer), been advising vigilance over "respectful conduct" policies as mechanisms for curtailing academic freedom (among other, arguably more positive uses) - and we have, in this past year, come to appreciate directly the value of that particular vigilance.

  • Sandra Law March 8, 2014 - 2:43am

    Trigger warnings may promote self-censorship in terms of the content (e.g. novels, videos) used in courses - the impulse may be to select content that will not require trigger warnings. I am reminded of a line in the book Music for Torching (A.M. Homes) where one of the main characters enters a motel bathroom and sees drinking glasses wrapped in paper to which the label, SANITIZED FOR YOUR SAFETY, PROTECTION, AND PLEASURE, is affixed. The phrase has particular relevance to the story and for those contemplating using trigger warnings. I wonder if people will be inspired to choose more informal (DIYEdu, reflection, joining a book club) avenues (especially in literature courses) to explore ideas to avoid the restrictions involved in more formal educational settings. How do you facilitate online discussions of a book (on the Landing or in Moodle forum) if the expectation is that trigger warnings are needed? Would students be asked to reference page/para/line numbers of the book or literary work rather than directly quoting sections in a book on a controversial subject?

  • Mark A. McCutcheon March 8, 2014 - 5:11pm

    Here's a more extensive critical article on how and where trigger warning use has spread from Internet forums to classrooms.

    As a means of navigating the Internet, or setting the tone for academic discussion, the trigger warning is unhelpful. ... One of the problems with the concept of triggering—understanding words as devices that activate a mechanism or cause a situation—is it promotes a rigid, overly deterministic approach to language. There is no rational basis for applying warnings because there is no objective measure of words' potential harm. ...

    trigger warnings can have the opposite of their intended effect, luring in sensitive people (and perhaps connoisseurs of graphic content, too). More importantly, they reinforce the fear of words by depicting an ever-expanding number of articles and books as dangerous and requiring of regulation.

  • Mark A. McCutcheon March 13, 2014 - 2:25pm

    And here is another article, which contrasts the proliferating application of trigger warnings to critical pedagogy against their absence from sites of structural racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. The problem, as the article points out, is not with sensitively framing difficult subject matter (which there are many ways to do, as our own discussions have shown), but with enlisting trigger warnings to the neoliberal corporatization of the University:

    "Yet, no one is arguing for trigger warnings in the routine spaces where symbolic and structural violence are acted on students at the margins. No one, to my knowledge, is affixing trigger warnings to department meetings that WASP-y normative expectations may require you to code switch yourself into oblivion to participate as a full member of the group. Instead, trigger warnings are being encouraged for sites of resistance, not mechanisms of oppression."


  • Mark A. McCutcheon May 29, 2014 - 4:28pm

    For the latest critical thinking on the problem of trigger warning use in university teaching, see U of A prof Nat Hurley et al's must-read essay on why they will not use trigger warnings: