Last year, after quite a bit of discussion with friends and colleagues online, I added a trigger warning (or, as I describe it, a content note) to my syllabus. Here’s what it said:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
I won’t rehash all the conversations that went into that decision — if you’re interested, you can read pieces that I wrote during the process here and here and here. But to summarize quickly, I was interested in giving my students advance notice of material that they might find unsettling, as well as guidance about their rights and responsibilities in my classroom.
I introduced the note for my summer classes last year and have revised it each semester since. Here’s how it looks now, on my upcoming fall syllabi:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you suspect that specific material is likely to be emotionally challenging for you, I’d be happy to discuss any concerns you may have before the subject comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to course material with the class or with me individually afterwards, I welcome such discussions as an appropriate part of our classwork.
If you ever feel the need to step outside during a class discussion you may always do so without academic penalty. You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually to discuss the situation.
As you can see, most of the text remains from the original version. Beyond various language tweaks, the major changes are these:
First, I added a sentence inviting students to discuss potentially traumatizing material with me before it arises in class. If a student knows that they’re likely to find particular course content challenging, I’d rather have that conversation in advance than leave us both to be surprised in the classroom — far better for us to strategize together before the issue arises than to react to it on the fly.
Second, and more subtly, I re-arranged the material. Where I had originally offered students the option of stepping out of the room before stating my willingness to discuss students’ personal response to potentially traumatic material, I now foreground discussion. The new version of the note centers dialogue — before, during, or after class — as central to the academic project.
I got the content note basically where I want it pretty quickly. There was, though, one element of the project that I wrestled with for a bit longer — how to discuss it in class.
Like most professors, I’m a believer in going over the syllabus point by point at the beginning of the semester. When we arrived at the content note, though, I initially tended to get a little flustered. Everything else we cover that first day — absence policy, grading, office hours — is familiar ground for both me and the students, but this is new territory for all of us. (I’ve asked a couple of times whether students had ever had a trigger warning in class before, and none has yet said yes.)
When I introduced the content note for the first time, I felt like I was bringing the session to a screeching halt. The note is intended as a quiet heads-up for the few students who may need it, but I initially tended to over-explain, leaving the impression that the course was going to be far more fraught than it actually is.
This spring, though, I came up with a more concise and focused way of addressing it. As an illustration of what I have in mind, I tell the class that the death of children may be a topic that comes up in the course, noting that a student who has lost a child or a sibling might respond differently to such material than one who hasn’t. It’s for helping to manage those sorts of situations, I say, that the content note is intended.
This specificity, it turns out, is really helpful. In the abstract, a syllabus trigger warning strikes a lot of students — and a lot of professors, and a lot of observers of higher ed — as weird, intrusive, and unnecessary. But when I introduce it in the context of parental bereavement and the murder of Emmett Till or Charles Darwin’s eulogy for his young daughter, my students tend to listen, nod, ask a couple of small questions, and then move on with me to the next item on the list.
I’ll continue tweaking the note and how I introduce it going forward. At this point, though, I see the experiment as a success.