Trigger Warning: School


My first week of law school I got into a debate with a new classmate about rape laws (pro tip: if you want to make lots of friends, definitely blog about your arguments with them). As they tend to do, things got heated. “Calm down,” he told me. “It’s not personal.”

I wish I could say that first fight was an aberration from my experience as a student, but it was instead an all-too-accurate harbinger of things to come. In classroom discussions and casual debates over drinks a certain divide has manifested: those of us who understand ourselves as governed by the law and those who understand themselves as floating above it. Of the former category, some of us can imagine ourselves targeted by the law, some of us can imagine needing the law to protect our rights, and some of us could imagine ourselves in both positions at the same time — and, either way, know we’d likely be let down by the system we’ve decided to study. We see ourselves in the plaintiffs and defendants described in the cases we read. And we stand in stark contrast to those who can’t imagine needing much of anything and see themselves only as judge or the invisible lawyer in the casebook.

In short, there are those of us who take our classes personally, and there are those who don’t. The race, class, and gender lines are drawn exactly as you’d expect.

I’ve been thinking about this divide since reading Jenny Jarvie’s piece on trigger warnings in university syllabi. Condemning the practice in The New Republic, she writes:

On college campuses across the country, a growing number of students are demanding trigger warnings on class content. Many instructors are obliging with alerts in handouts and before presentations, even emailing notes of caution ahead of class. At Scripps College, lecturers give warnings before presenting a core curriculum class, the “Histories of the Present: Violence,” although some have questioned the value of such alerts when students are still required to attend class. Oberlin College has published an official document on triggers, advising faculty members to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” to remove triggering material when it doesn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals and “strongly consider” developing a policy to make “triggering material” optional . . .

What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals not only the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university, but a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense. And yet, for all the debate about the warnings on campuses and on the Internet, few are grappling with the ramifications for society as a whole.

The larger should-we-or-shouldn’t-we trigger warning debate has been recycled many times, specifically on the topic of trigger warning use in the feminist blogosphere, and I have neither a definitive stance nor anything new to add to the macro question. I’m not wholeheartedly convinced either way in the syllabi context, either. In general I think helping some people feel safe at the cost of annoying others is worth it, though I understand the concern that trigger warnings reinforce the already marginalized as “weak, vulnerable and ‘other.'” I’m also intrigued by Tressie McMillan Cottom argument that these university policies may have more to do with the corporatization of higher ed than social justice: schools want to keep consumers happy and comfortable (until that costs more than your tuition check, of course).

I definitely disagree with Jarvie, though, that there is something particularly noteworthy about the expansion of trigger warnings from the blogosphere to the academy. There are certainly significant differences between “Internet forums” and classrooms, but we bring our histories and our responsibilities to one another into both. Only if we accept my classmate’s view that a subject is depersonalized because it is studied is there any reason to believe otherwise. People read about upsetting, unproductively destabilizing things on blogs. They also read about them in textbooks. And we certainly owe survivors of trauma no less because we see them in a classroom than if we see their avatars on comment boards.

At the Guardian, Jill Filipovic argues that classrooms are different for another reason: “Students should be pushed to defend their ideas and to see the world from a variety of perspectives. Trigger warnings,” she says, “don’t just warn students of potentially triggering material; they effectively shut down particular lines of discussion with ‘that’s triggering.'” I’ve definitely seen the claiming of triggers abused in organizing circles to avoid uncomfortable conversations, but I’ve also seen groups effectively agree to responsible use, deciding beforehand that they want to use warnings to facilitate preparation for–not avoidance of–difficult topics. And maybe recognizing that classmates will have different relationships to the material, some more visceral than others, is part of learning to “see the world from a variety of perspectives.”

At the end of the day, the fact that a tool can stymie conversation when used irresponsibly doesn’t mean it can’t be used productively. Trigger warnings don’t need to censor and could, I think, have the opposite effect. Jarvie worries that the spread of trigger warnings signals “the growing precautionary approach to words and ideas in the university.” Oberlin’s recommendation that teachers “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals” does worry me: that directive could be read as a call to empathy or as corporate double-speak to keep the freshmen happy. But warnings could also provide professors with greater space to include potentially disturbing content by providing students and faculty with an easy shorthand to acknowledge potential harms. I’d rather a professor give me the chance to decide whether and how to approach an assignment than leave it off the syllabus altogether.

More broadly, though, Jarvie’s worry reminds me of a common but fallacious trope I see in “anti-PC” critiques: the belief that acknowledging the effects of speech is somehow counter to its free movement. Jarvie’s charge that trigger warnings indicate a “precautionary approach” calls to mind the image of a professor too afraid of negative reactions to assign a book or publish a paper, raising concerns of academic freedom. But don’t we study because we believe in the power of ideas? Don’t we research and write and edit ferociously because we recognize the material impact of words? We can distinguish, then, between a university that fires professors who publish controversial ideas and one that urges them to recognize the effects of their assignments on their students and offer warnings when necessary.

To me, it is a mark of respect for the academy and its projects to acknowledge that what we read in class could make us feel or act. That’s the whole point.

(Image via.)


Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing, founding co-director of Know Your IX, and first year student at Yale Law School.

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  • anyadnight

    I think the biggest potential benefit to course trigger warnings (if used correctly) is raising the visibility of marginalized groups in the classroom. Your friend thought rape law wasn’t personal because he assumed you had no personal relationship with rape and the law. Professors taking time to incorporate trigger warnings could serve to remind those who are privileged to be careful labeling one topic or another as impersonal and take care in making assumptions about the experiences of fellow classmates by reminding them that some students may find the discussion personally triggering. I think it could be an important step in linking subject matter to reality and the diversity of experiences represented in any group of students.

  • Katie

    Your conclusion is so important and so (unfortunately) uncommon. Particularly in legal circles, divorcing oneself from feelings/personal experiences (as if that’s possible) is considered a virtue–in fact, often presented as the way law is “supposed to” be, i.e., a neutral arbiter, an objective judge, that “invisible lawyer in the casebook” you mention.

    This, of course, is impossible, since “the law” doesn’t exist outside of the people and institutions that make it up (not to mention societal influences as a whole). What it does mean is that the people straight white men who control those institutions have an excuse to accuse anyone challenging the status quo of being “emotional” and “irrational” and taking things “personally” (when they should be being “objective,” obvs). It provides a shield of “rationality” behind which bias and discrimination and completely subjective notions of right and wrong can hide (clearly a reflection of the male/rational–female/emotional paradigm, and of the dominant/intelligent–marginalized/just freaking out paradigm more generally).

    Life is personal, and because the law is an institution that shapes and impacts people’s lives, it’s personal too. The point of debate isn’t the debate, it’s the actual reality, the actual consequences of what the debate means to people and does to people. Too often we (meaning lawyers and law students and probably many other disciplines where “rationality” is deified) think of this as a bad thing, as something clouding our judgment. But dismissing the fact that our judgment is necessarily shaped by our experiences and our status is radically unhelpful and regressive. (This is also the big problem with textualism and other interpretive strategies that claim they can break out of the hermeneutic circle. Bish pls, thinking words have an objective meaning.)

    I could go on about these things forever, but I basically just want to echo that acknowledging that ideas have effects on people, via trigger warnings or otherwise, would be a huge step forward for the legal community. Solid connections between the legal world and reality are crucial for law to be the institution we want it to be (i.e., just); acknowledging, creating, and discussing those connections cannot be more important.

    p.s. If you haven’t read Catharine MacKinnon on this stuff (particularly her critique of Weschler’s “Neutral Principles” article), you should definitely check it. She’s amazing and so incredibly smart. Plus, here’s some great RBG: “The notion that Texas’ Top Ten Percent Law is race neutral calls to mind Professor Thomas Reed Powell’s famous statement: ‘If you think that you can think about a thing inextricably attached to something else without thinking of the thing which it is attached to, then you have a legal mind.’ Only that kind of legal mind could conclude that an admissions plan specifically designed to produce racial diversity is not race conscious.” (from Fisher)

    • honeybee

      Your response is well written but I don’t actually agree with you. I think it’s not only possible to *mostly* divorce your personal feelings from the matter but actually essential. Especially for certain positions like judges – but even lawyers – especially defense lawyers and family law lawyers – you absolutely must take your own personal feelings out of it or you aren’t giving proper justice and fairness to those involved.

      Now, I also agree that not everyone can do this. In fact, you could probably argue that *most* people can’t do this. But some people definitely can. Those who cannot shouldn’t enter these professions.

      • Clint

        I agree wholeheartedly. One would think when you enter a courtroom, judgments about guilt, innocence, and convictions would be based upon the letter of the law, not whether a jury or an activist judge can empathize with someone. That’s how you end up with cases like the 18yo brat suing her parents for not getting her way or another too large bevvy of lawsuits that actually get their way via sympathetic peers in the courtrooms. The more emotion you can take out of it, the more you retain the basic nature of the spirit a law was written, in my humble opinion.

        As for the classroom and society as a whole, I think far too many people allow their emotions to amp up in debates in general to the point insults & attacks demean the entire discussion & dismiss any learning opportunities that could arise from it. We all have experiences and values that shape our world views but to allow that to override rational facts or figures on the heels of emotions running wild that demand the opposition see things your way is totally counterproductive. I view every debate as a learning opportunity whether I’m right or wrong. Far too many people want to be right & take respect for others out of a the discussion VERY quickly in debates today, be they on message boards, classrooms, or face to face with insulting labels overtaking the situation the second a “trigger” is pressed.