Is There Any Evidence Trigger Warnings Are Actually a Big Deal?

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Campus trigger warnings have generated a lot of strong opinions lately. To their proponents, they are a means of showing sensitivity to people suffering from PTSD or anxiety disorders who have experienced trauma, and who may be “triggered” by certain sorts of content in a class reading or video. To opponents, they’re a sign that universities are taking a dark turn toward overprotectiveness and coddling and political correctness — if not outright authoritarianism.

What the conversation has lacked is any sort of solid information about how common trigger warnings, or debates about trigger warnings, really are on campuses. No one really knows whether the few anecdotal reports about truly ridiculous trigger-warning requests (a student in a class on rape law saying the term violate triggers her, for instance) are indicative of a bigger problem, or merely isolated instances that shouldn’t be spun into grand arguments about the decline of higher education, or the fragility of millennials, or whatever else.

Now we at last have some numbers. Last week, the National Coalition Against Censorship released the results of a survey about trigger warnings. The organization teamed up with the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association to ask those groups’ members to fill out a survey about their experiences with trigger warnings. The survey included both standard multiple-choice response items and chances for the respondents to write in their own responses.

It’s important to note that, as the NCAL itself acknowledges, this wasn’t a scientific survey — the organization didn’t conduct the usual, rigorous (and oftentimes expensive) procedure one would need to get a sample of respondents that’s approximately representative of the national population of college professors. (For one thing, the sample consisted, by definition, entirely of professors who study the subjects covered by the MLA and CAA.)

That means the results should be taken with a grain of salt. It doesn’t mean, however, that the report can’t be used as a decent first-pass attempt to understanding the trigger-warning phenomenon, given the profoundly lopsided ratio of anecdote to data undergirding this conversation. Representative or not, this was a survey of 800 professors working in exactly those fields where, the think pieces tell us, trigger warnings are wreaking the most havoc. And perusing the results makes it very hard to understand all the hand-wringing over trigger warnings. If these numbers are anywhere close to the accurate, national-level figures, trigger warnings have a submarginal role on campuses. They exist more as a concept professors (and pundits) dislike in theory than as an occurrence they’re forced to navigate in practice.

Here’s the first item in the meat of the report:

1. While very few institutions have formal trigger-warning policies, educators report a significant number of requests and complaints from students.

Although fewer than 1% of survey participants reported that their institution had adopted a policy on trigger warnings, 7.5% reported that students had initiated efforts to require trigger warnings on campus, twice as many (15%) reported that students had requested warnings in their courses, and 12% reported that students had complained about the absence of trigger warnings. Despite a media narrative of “political correctness,” student requests concerned a diverse range of subjects from across the ideological spectrum. [emphasis in the original]

Of the 15 percent of professors who said students had asked for trigger warnings, 13.3 of those percentage points fell in the “once or twice” category, with the remaining 1.7 percentage points in the “several times” or “regularly” categories. So even for those few professors who have had firsthand experience with trigger-warning requests, it hasn’t been common.

These are extremely underwhelming numbers. Given the heat emitted by some of kids-these-days pundits who have written about this subject, one would think college campuses are rife with trigger warnings, that every bare breast in an art history book, every rape scene in a novel was being met with a hysterical wave of student outrage, if not undergrads fainting out of their seats. That hasn’t been anywhere close to the experience of the professors in this survey. It’s also worth pointing out that a solid majority of professors — about 58 percent — reported having provided voluntary “warnings about course content.” As one might intuitively expect, professors don’t mind giving students a heads-up that some difficult material is ahead; in fact, before the trigger-warning debate exploded, this was a rarely remarked-upon common courtesy. (The report rightly points out that there are differences between content warnings and the most specific sorts of trigger warnings; there are also differences between the types of trigger warnings, which is another complexity that has gotten washed away by the shrill nature of the debate over this subject.)

Yes, many of the professors in the NCAC survey were generally opposed to trigger warnings — a bit under 45 percent responded that they thought such warnings have or would have a “negative” effect “on classroom dynamics” (though 28.5 percent responded that they didn’t know, and 9 percent that they’d have no effect). And almost 63 said they thought trigger warnings could have a “negative” effect on academic freedom. But the fact that professors oppose trigger warnings when asked about them doesn’t mean trigger warnings are a big problem on campus, or warrant anywhere near the Sturm und Drang they’ve elicited.

On the other hand, to engage honestly with this issue, it’s worth acknowledging that there certainly do seem to be isolated instances in which students can hijack a learning environment with overzealous demands for trigger warnings and similar approaches to controversial material, sometimes screwing things up for other in the process. The New York Times reported last year that at Oberlin, for example, “a draft guide was circulated that would have asked professors to put trigger warnings in their syllabuses.” Explaining their overall approach to trigger warnings, the activists who authored the document wrote that while the novel Things Fall Apart is a “triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read,” it could “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide and more.”

The idea that students who have “experienced racism” — that is, just about all students of color — could be “triggered” just by reading about it is a severe misunderstanding of the nature of trauma, and it’s also insulting to the small subset of students whose mental-health conditions really do cause them to relive traumas as a result of triggers, a group which includes some veterans and survivors of domestic or sexual assault. Thankfully, faculty at Oberlin appear to have successfully shot down this silly and overly broad wording.

Sometimes, though, the silliness does worm its way into the classroom. When I solicited trigger warning stories back in August, for example, one of the crazier ones I got was from author and UCLA professor Shira Tarrant, whose research deals with gender and sexuality. It wasn’t exactly about trigger warnings, but involved related issues concerning some students’ overheated demands for a very particular, peculiar type of “safe” learning environment:

[M]y experience last fall [was] with a small group of students who felt offended and “unsafe” with the content of a senior-level class I taught. (I’ve taught that course many times with no problem other than the fact that the readings are challenging for students.)

The so-called offense was that the assigned readings included theorists such as John Stuart Mill and Mary Daly. The former rankled this group of about six because he’s a white dude; the later for her transphobia. They were unwilling to engage in discussion about transgender issues in the military because militarism. The students decided the classroom was not “safe” and did not reflect their individual identities. Instead of doing the readings in order to critique — which I encourage in this course! — their strategy was instead to derail the class, bully the other students into fearful silence, and take their issues to the Associate Dean.

My administration is very supportive and, as professionals, the Dean’s office and my Chair got that the students missed the point and were functioning in a Group-Think Spiral. In the meantime, though, I spent hours meeting with the remaining students in the class who were distraught and anxious, crying, and afraid to speak in class due to this small group of self-described radical vanguards who saw it as their job to make the room “safe” for the others. It was disturbing that they failed to see that their actions had a silencing, seizing effect.

This all sounds like a giant pain in the ass, not only for Tarrant but for the other students in the class. But look at the outcome: The administration quickly stepped in and was completely unsympathetic to the young revolutionaries’ insistence that they be exempted from reading about transgender issues in the military “because militarism.” Even in this, an extremely unusual and overheated manifestation of self-righteous kids at their worst, saner heads prevailed, just like they did at Oberlin. And was there ever a time in recent history when a small subset of college students trying to understand their place in the world weren’t annoyingly self-righteous and, yes, bullying? Why pin the anecdotes on anything unique to this generation?

Maybe the key lesson here, especially until we get more and better data, is to keep in mind the filtering mechanisms that are dictating which stories we hear and which we don’t. Yes, there are some professors, Tarrant included, who do think things are getting worse and more heated on campus. But every day, the vast majority of college classes in which difficult issues are discussed go off without a hitch. Most college students, like most people, are reasonable individuals capable of adult discussion. Yet we don’t hear about this normality; what’s filtered down to us are the outliers, the outrages, the case studies in kids-these-days-ology, the think-piece fodder. It would be a mistake to draw too much from these episodes.

In other words: Certain people are being hysterical, but not all of them are college students.

Are Trigger Warnings Actually Widespread at All?