CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When the University of Kentucky assigned the book “Picking Cotton” for all incoming freshmen to read before the start of the 2015-16 school year, the university included a note alerting students that the book includes descriptions of sexual assault and systematic racial discrimination.
In summer 2016, the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students wrote a letter to incoming students about the school’s commitment to academic freedom. That commitment “means that we do not support ‘trigger warnings,’” the highly-publicized letter stated.
The use of trigger warnings – alerting a person to the presentation of potentially traumatic words or images – is one of the most talked-about and controversial topics in higher education in recent years. Emily Knox, a professor in the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, is the editor of “Trigger Warnings: History, Theory, Context,” one of the first scholarly looks at the issue.
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The book has two sections, one on the history and theory of trigger warnings (also called content warnings) and one on case studies of how they were or were not used in classrooms. One chapter, for example, deals with military veterans in English classrooms. The authors describe veterans who struggled with writing about traumatic events, dealing with literature that includes depictions of war and relating to students with much different life experiences, and they debate how to help a student confront those issues.
Scholars in English, communication and library and information science from a variety of higher education institutions, including community colleges, wrote the chapters. They include a broad range of viewpoints and ideas. Knox highlighted the fact that there is no consensus on the use of trigger warnings.
“People don’t even agree on what trigger warnings are or how they should be used or who should use them,” she said. “I think the fear for a lot of people is that administrators will decide we must use trigger warnings and not trust the expertise of instructors to do the right thing.”
The debate has forced faculty to think more clearly about what they are asking students to read or view, Knox said.
“Trigger warnings are really about relationships,” she said. “What I think a lot of people feel is they don’t mind giving a trigger warning, but they don’t call it a trigger warning. They say, ‘Heads up, there might be some difficult material.’ The term is overly political but what is done is not political at all. It’s about caring for your students.”
Knox studies intellectual freedom and censorship and is the author of “Book Banning in 21st-Century America,” a book that looks at challenges to materials in public libraries and schools. She remains ambivalent about trigger warnings in the classroom, noting in her introduction to the new book that her field has historically been opposed to the labeling and rating of materials, believing the practice to be both arbitrary and an issue of social classification.
She taught a course on information policy for which she used a “Wired” magazine story on the people who censor images on social networks and who are exposed to visual depictions of violence on a daily basis. She did not offer a trigger warning, but the next time she uses the “Wired” article, she will.
“I believe that reading can change people. That’s what trigger warnings are about. Reading has effects on people’s lives,” Knox said. “Everyone can name a book that changed their life. People have visceral reactions to what they read and see.”
However, she is concerned that trigger warnings will either discourage people from looking at certain content or will lead to the sanitization of that content. She also sees the warnings used more often with content from minority or marginalized authors, artists or musicians.
“For example, the ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Content’ stickers on music with potentially offensive lyrics in many respects divide music into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ she wrote in the book. “An entire genre that is associated with a minority community, rap and hip-hop, tends to receive parental advisory labels on a regular basis.”
Knox believes that deciding whether to use a trigger warning must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“I disagree with people who say there are no consequences to trigger warnings,” she said.