Why UConn professors are using (or not using) trigger warnings

The University of Chicago, of which doors near the Bond Chapel are pictured above, was in the spotlight recently after the dean released a statement on trigger warnings and the university's policy against them. A new survey shows that half of U.S. professors use trigger warnings. (Phil Roeder/Creative Commons)

A recent survey conducted by NPR Ed revealed that half of U.S. professors interviewed had utilized “trigger warnings” in the classroom. 

Of the 841 professors, 428 reported having used trigger warnings and, of those 428, most reported that they had chosen to do so themselves, not because of pressure from the university or from students. Only 1.8% reported that their institution had an official policy regarding the use of trigger warnings. 

The survey comes in the midst of a debate about the use of trigger warnings - a warning aimed at those who have experienced trauma that certain content may be upsetting - on college campuses. 

The University of Chicago explained in a letter to its incoming freshman class that its administration would not support the use of trigger warnings, citing concerns over academic freedom, according to NPR. 

The University of Connecticut does not hold any official stance on the use of trigger warnings, leaving the decision up to individual professors. 

Anna Mae Duane, Associate Professor of English at UConn, gives a warning to her students anytime she foresees that the content of the lesson may make some students uncomfortable. She started using trigger warnings early in her teaching career after one incident in which a student became very distressed upon reading one of the texts for her class.

“We were discussing Lucy Grealy's ‘Autobiography of a Face,’ which depicts the brutal bullying of a young girl whose cancer treatments had left her with visible scars and baldness,” Duane said. “Before class, a student came up to me visibly upset. He asked me not to call on him in class that day, because he had experienced similar bullying when he was undergoing cancer treatment in high school.” 

Seeing how shaken the student was, Duane asked him if he’d like to sit out of the discussion. This wasn’t what the student wanted, however.

“No, it's actually really helpful to be able to sit and think about this. I wouldn't do it otherwise. I just don't think I could speak about it in front of the class just yet,” Duane recalls the student saying.

But other professors at UConn are very much of the opposite position in the trigger warnings debate. 

“The day I’m forced to offer ‘trigger warning’ before teaching is the day I stop teaching,” began Gina Barreca, professor of English at UConn, in her opinion piece for the Seattle Times entitled 'I’m not giving students ‘trigger warnings.’” 

Barreca argued that causing a feeling of uneasiness is the very mission of education, and to offer trigger warnings is to shut down the conversation and remain uneducated. Being unnerved, according to her, is the first step towards getting someone to question their beliefs and see things from a different perspective. 

“Trigger warnings are a version of a kind of intellectual eugenics. There’s something sterile, unproductive and grossly contorted about the process. Their fiercest advocates are poorly equipped not only because they are dealing with their own intolerance but also because what they’re learning to cherish is ignorance.” Barreca wrote.

Barreca does not dismiss the importance of students’ emotional responses to powerful literature. She reports having had many students who suffered sexual assault and says her door is always open to any student who wants to talk about their feelings.

In Barreca’s classroom, “students never talk about how they feel, they talk about what they think.”

While feelings are important, classroom discussion should be about “the literature itself,” Barreca said. 

“They (students) can come into my office later and talk about how they feel,” Barreca said. 

When asked about other professors’ use of trigger warnings, Barreca said, “Great teachers have different styles.” 

Duane and Barreca seem to be on the same page in that they both believe their positions help expand academic discourse instead of limit it.

“I think that part of the resistance to trigger warnings comes from the perception that professors give such warnings so that students can somehow get out of having hard discussions,” Duane told the Daily Campus.

Rather, it is more important to acknowledge that some topics covered during class may be difficult for some student, Duane said.

“I tell my students that the books we'll read may upset them, and that reaction is totally appropriate. It's not helpful to pretend as if these topics don't have emotional impact. The university is one of the very few places in the US where people of different beliefs and backgrounds sit in the same room and talk about the very issues most people spend their days desperately trying to avoid. That's hard work,” Duane said.

“Acknowledging how hard it is—asking students to lean in to that discomfort and think through it—is to me, vital to any definition of academic freedom,” she said.

Alex Kreidenweis, professor of political science at UConn, said he finds his position somewhere in the middle of what he describes as two extremes. 

“I use them (trigger warnings) when I know they’re appropriate,” Kreidenweis said. 

Kreidenweis, whose academic work centers largely around women’s studies and political science, often has to tackle difficult subjects with his students, including human trafficking, gang rape, racism, imperialism, colonialism, genocidal rape, and sexual slavery. 

Kreidenweis said he began using trigger warnings after going through training with trauma psychologists so that he could be accredited to talk with survivors of sex trafficking for his research. During this training, he said he learned the power of words.

“What may be a harmless comment to you may be psychologically traumatic to someone else,” Kreidenweis said. “I need to be careful about how I talk about what I talk about.”

Because his classes tend to regularly touch upon potentially triggering topics, Kreidenweis said he often gives his trigger warnings as a preface to the entire course. However, he said he does sometimes give a “heads up” at the beginning of individual classes for the especially hard subjects. 

“Prefacing something allows you to queue up your mental defense barriers,” Kreidenweis said.

Kreidenweis said he also sees Barreca’s point about challenging beliefs about certain issues through the emotional impact of a hard topic. 

“The criticism of trigger warnings, in some places, has validity,” Kreidenweis said. “It becomes inhibiting if you have to trigger warning everything that comes out of your mouth, but again, that’s a gross extreme.” 

Sometimes not forewarning students gives the “extra punch” it takes to change an individual’s mind, Kreidenweis said. 

Kreidenweis said he does not see trigger warnings as an inconvenience, though, or as a limit to academic freedom. 

“I think academic freedom should be protected,” Kreidenweis said, “But I think they [professors] have to [offer trigger warnings] by moral obligation with empathetic concern for others.”

Kreidenweis also expressed concern over University of Chicago’s statement on trigger warnings, stating that the university went “way too far” with an “unwise policy.”

Kreidenweis said he wonders how, as the “home of political science” at universities in the United States, University of Chicago could ethically teach students about difficult subjects such as genocide without forewarning them, especially given the diversity of the university and the probability that some students may be from parts of the world affected by war.


Oliver Peabody is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at oliver.peabody@uconn.edu.