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Trigger warning debate heats up on college campuses

Wednesday - 5/21/2014, 9:10am  ET

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Earlier this year, students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, passed a resolution asking administrators to institute mandatory trigger warnings on all syllabi. (ThinkStock)

WASHINGTON -- As college campuses empty for the summer, a debate is heating up nationally surrounding the suddenly hot topic of trigger warnings.

Formerly reserved for online forums that deal with potentially traumatic subjects -- such as rape, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental illness -- these disclaimers serve as a warning to the reader that they are about to encounter something upsetting.

Earlier this year, students at the University of California-Santa Barbara passed a resolution asking administrators to institute mandatory trigger warnings on all syllabi. This follows a popular movement at Ohio's Oberlin College, which implemented a formal trigger warning policy in its Sexual Offense Resource Guide.

Justin Peligri, a rising senior at George Washington University, says he was inspired by Oberlin's proactive approach to trigger warnings and wants his campus to take up the issue.

"This liberal-minded attempt to promote sensitivity and respect in an online world with a great deal of harmful content is refreshing. And in recent months, this empathetic trend has gained traction beyond the Internet, as trigger warnings are now popping up in syllabi at major universities across the country," he wrote in an April opinion piece for The GW Hatchet.

The point, he says, isn't to censor controversial literature or hinder academic freedom, but to give students a chance to emotionally prepare before seeing or reading something upsetting in class.

"The main premise of the movement, if you can call it that, is for professors to have some basic respect and acknowledge that some specific topics, some specific literature, movies, whatever the case, could be sensitive," he says.

"It doesn't meant that type of content should be removed from classrooms at all. Academic freedom is extremely important."

Oberlin's policy, which is now under review after faculty complained it was drafted without their input, goes beyond addressing PTSD and sexual abuse in the classroom. It includes "racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression."

Filmmaker and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons, a rape survivor who teaches at Temple University, in Philadelphia, tells the Associated Press that she is careful to alert students on the first day of class and in her syllabus that "we are getting ready to delve into some really difficult, painful information here," such as sexual violence and police brutality.

Simmons also gives them lists of resources for emotional support and has arranged private viewings for students who are afraid to watch a film in class. But she worries that trigger warnings, a term she does not use, could stifle free speech if taken too far.

"Sometimes, I think you can get triggered by trigger warnings," she says.

Already, the demands have led to head-scratching and, in some cases, concerns about censorship.

Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College, in Amherst, N.Y., writes that the very idea of issuing a trigger warning could harm the process of learning.

"Substantive learning most often occurs when the learner experiences cognitive dissonance -- that is, when new material directly conflicts with what the learner thought to be true or with the learner's life experience, forcing that learner into a deeper level of cogitation and reflection than would have been the case otherwise," he writes in an opinion piece for the Huffington Post.

"Put another way, college -- all education -- is about challenging your personal belief system."

But Peligri says the censorship argument misses the point of trigger warnings.

"The goal is just to make sure that everyone is on the same page," he says.

Peligri knows what it's like to be caught unprepared. He sat in a classroom where a professor showed an explicit and "gruesome" rape scene, which made him and some other students uncomfortable. While Peligri has not been a victim of sexual abuse, he does know others who have and worried that the course material would prove upsetting or traumatizing.

"Had I known that I was going to watch a movie with gruesome sexual violence scenes, I would not have left the classroom, I would not have protested watching the movie, in fact, I really enjoyed the movie and I'm happy that I had an opportunity to watch it," he says.

"My only point is that I wish that I had known what I was about to see."

Looking back at the experience, Peligri says he "felt frustrated" and "concerned that some students were being taken out of their comfort zone for reasons that could have been avoided."

After the class, Peligri approached the professor and suggested providing trigger warnings in the future as a courtesy. The professor politely agreed, he says.

But George Washington University has no plans to formally introduce a policy regarding these disclaimers, a spokeswoman says. The issue came up late in the year, and administrators and faculty have already left for the summer.

"It would have to come up in the fall," the school says.

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