“Trigger warning” – what does this mean?

A few months ago, I encountered a new expression, “trigger warning”. It came up in an academic setting (which is where I spend I good deal of my time) and pertained to a course or possibly to a lecture, discussion or textbook in a course. A “trigger warning” tells the student that a planned activity will include “sensitive” material, material that may be upsetting. It’s like the messages on web sites or TV programs – “contains graphic material, viewer discretion advised”.

If memory serves me correctly, I think the “trigger” in question was pregnancy loss, miscarriage. Yes, there could be, in any classroom, a woman who has suffered this misfortune and finds discussion of it to be very painful.

So what does this mean in the classroom? Is the student at liberty to skip the lecture or reading? Should the student warn the teacher? “Hey, I may fall apart if we discuss this topic.” Certainly communication between the student and teacher would be a good idea. To what extent must the teacher accommodate?

An obvious example of a trigger would be war scenarios. There are veterans in our classrooms, some undoubtedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. War related topics are likely to cause them great anxiety. Worst case, a student might suffer a flash back or uncontrollable physical symptoms like hyperventilation. A teacher planning a course on, say, the American Civil War, needs to think ahead about this.

I encountered a trigger situation in college many years ago, going to see the play “Sargeant Musgrave’s Dance” with a man recently returned from combat in Vietnam. In the course of the drama, an actor pointed a Gatling gun at the audience. Afterwards, my friend offered the opinion that it had been incredibly stupid to do that, because someone might have flipped out, lost it or even pulled out a weapon.

But colleges offer many courses that can be distressing – courses on genocide, the holocaust, cancer, death and dying, slavery… Can a teacher determine in advance who is going to be “sensitive” to what? Should books be labeled for possible “trigger” content?

Education can’t be conducted in a way that makes NO ONE uncomfortable. Students need to discuss disquieting topics like race and violence. This proves to me that what we ask of classroom teachers is a great deal more complicated that appears at first glance.

What about triggers embedded in fiction? Stay tuned for my next post. And please post a comment to let me know what you think about “triggers” and “trigger warnings”!


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