Content Warnings in Classroom Settings

(Content note: this article discusses triggering and mentions common topics of triggering by name.)

In a world where mental health issues continue to be stigmatised, it is no wonder that the debate regarding the use of content warnings (also known as trigger warnings) continues to be divisive. Many support the use of content warnings and equally as many eschew them. In case the nature of this article hasn’t made it clear, allow me to say it right now: I consider content warnings to be necessary and the reasons against them to be inherently flawed. Far too few teachers, however, seem to agree. After almost six years of university studies and over 60 completed courses, only two have included anything even resembling content warnings. (Incidentally, both were gender studies courses where such consideration is luckily becoming the norm.) During my time here, subjects I’ve dealt with during various courses have included, for example, the following: graphic torture, gore, dissociation, self-harming behaviour, misogyny, sexual assault, racism, homophobia, ableism… the list goes on. I’ve had to read countless novels where misogynistic language runs rampant or explicit torture scenes pepper the pages like a well-seasoned spread of juicy carnage. Needless to say, it’s impossible for every single student to be fortunate enough not to be triggered by any of it – and still any and all forms of content warnings remain unused.

Let’s establish what I mean by content warning. It’s a list or a statement that alerts students (or readers, or the audience) to the fact that the topic at hand – a literary text, for example – contains potentially distressing material that might cause a severe negative psychological or physiological response. More importantly, however, they allow teachers to establish their classroom as a safe space for all students, since prior warnings allow people to engage with potentially harmful material in a way that reduces the harm and fosters an accessible environment for everyone.

Throughout the past years, I’ve seen people give many reasons not to warn for content, and all have been equally silly. Let me allay your fears regarding some of them:

Using content warnings will spoil the story,” literature students might say. Well, no. It’s easy enough to make a list of the most obviously triggering material and put it somewhere online, like the course’s Moodle site, and then tell your students that they can check the list if they feel the need to do so.

It should be your own responsibility to avoid things that you find disturbing,” others might say. Perhaps. Or perhaps you should ask yourself this: how can someone be expected to avoid things that disturb them if they don’t know that topic is going to be addressed in the first place? And for that matter:

Using trigger warnings will mean my students won’t read/watch/interact with the material,” teachers might say. Again, no. It doesn’t mean they won’t engage with the material, it just means they’ll be prepared when they do. And if they do choose not to read it or to skip your course due to the abundance of material that would be harmful to their mental health, then that will be a decision they made with their own well-being in mind and not one anyone should castigate them for.

Content warnings are just feminists and social justice warriors getting offended by every single thing,” obnoxious dudebros might complain. Content warnings are not about simply wanting to avoid content one finds offensive, and anyone who still thinks so has clearly not been paying attention to what I’ve been saying.

Content warnings are a form of censorship,” people might say. No, they’re not. By using these warnings, you’re not suppressing content, you’re merely allowing people to consent to what they are exposed to and the manner in which they do so.

But students should have thicker skin,” some complain (and inevitably sound like assholes while doing so). It’s not about having thin skin or being hypersensitive or needing to be protected from the big bad world. It’s about preparing yourself for it. It’s about being aware and taking precautions and making informed decisions. It’s about having agency over your own emotional and mental health.

And no, this doesn’t mean you can’t address triggering topics in class. You can still discuss heavy subject matters with your students – but by using content warnings, you ensure that all of your students are mentally and emotionally prepared to do so too.

As a reference, these are some of the most common things to warn for: ableism and ableist language; torture; self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide; racism and racist slurs; homophobia and homophobic slurs; transphobia and transphobic slurs; misogyny and misogynistic language; mental illness; sexual, psychological and physical abuse; rape; child abuse. This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully you’ll see the pattern here. The most obviously potentially harmful content is something you should give your students a heads-up about.

Of course, you can’t warn for everything. Sometimes the most seemingly innocuous things can be triggering for people, and while there is absolutely no shame in that, you cannot be expected to know them all unless your students tell you. But you can take steps to warn for the most common triggers. Here’s an easy how-to 101:

  1. Think about the topics you’ll be discussing in class and the material you’ll assign your students to read or watch. Think about the examples above, and make your own list for every material and lecture.
  2. Post the list online – really, Moodle’s great for this! – and inform your students. If you don’t have an online page for the course, send the list as an attachment in an email – this way people can choose whether they want to see it or not.
  3. Do your best to give your students the list well before the topics are discussed. Warning for specific content at the beginning of a lecture isn’t much of a help, since it gives the students next to no time to prepare and they might feel stuck in an uncomfortable, stressful situation they can’t get out of without calling undue attention to themselves.

That’s it. It really is that easy. And if, after all this, you still think such warnings aren’t needed, then the odds are that you’re speaking from a place of privilege, in which case I urge you to consider your position with regard to others and to think again. As I see it, there are no downsides to using content warnings. One the plus side, you get the chance to prevent your students from potentially going through major emotional and physical distress. It’s a win/win, isn’t it?

So, consider this a call to arms. Normalise the idea of content warnings. Normalise mental health issues. Allow your students to prioritise their well-being in a way that doesn’t compromise their position at the university. When the means of doing so are this easy, there’s really no good reason not to.