*In this piece, I use “content warning” as a term that means warnings about content that could trigger a person’s PTSD, anxiety, or other mental illnesses.
I knew going into my two film classes this semester that we wouldn’t be watching Disney movies the whole time. Art pushes boundaries, and sometimes that means handling topics that are real and often difficult. We would be watching films that deal with trauma, with abuse, with a whole plethora of difficult. I’d never thought a lot about content warnings being given in school, because in high school, most explicit movies were either not shown, or they were shown with very little context given beforehand.
Post-secondary shifts the way we learn and how we think of education. It’s self-guided, it’s expensive, and classes happen either way too early or way too late in the day. The content of classes is also a lot more focused, and the rules of what can be shown or discussed are less strict. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing—I think that, at a university, we should be willing to talk about difficult things and watch challenging films. The thing is, if the content of a film triggers anxiety or PTSD, it’s not challenging the student; it’s taking their voice out of the discussion.
There has been plenty of debate online about the necessity of content warnings and trigger warnings. The arguments for and against are complicated and have been laid out better by people who are not me. I wholeheartedly believe in using content warnings. I’m more worried about what happens when they are implemented with very little research on the topic and without specific guidelines on how to do it. There is no way to know every possible thing that could be a trigger to a student. It could be a sound, a smell, something innocuous. They may feel comfortable asking the professor to warn them about specific things, they may not. Content that could be distressing to anyone, even those without trauma specific to it, should always be presented with a warning. I think it’s just professional and polite.
This is how my classes have handled it. In one class, Class A, my professor has links to content warnings on CourseSpaces. They also remind us what those warnings are before the viewing, and then send us off on a short break. The break allows students uncomfortable with the content a chance to go home or take a breather before it starts. The professor takes these warnings seriously and seems to understand why they are in place.
The other class, Class B, uses a similar approach. Students are asked to do research beforehand about the film’s content. The prof reiterates prior to the viewing what distressing content there might be, usually from their own memory of the film. We also get a five-minute break, in case we’d like to leave. The same concept as Class A. Almost the same, except in delivery. The gist of what we hear when warnings are given before the break is, “Yes, there are bad things in this. But they aren’t too bad, don’t worry. You can handle them.” They treat the content warning as an obligation, but perhaps not one that they believe in or understand.
The same methods, but with different tones. I know that the professor in Class B is trying to keep it light and not scare people out of the classroom. I’m grateful that they try to give warnings at all. However, a student might feel judged if they pick up their stuff and go after the professor contradicted the content warning with reassurance that it will be fine. One movie that we watched in Class B did contain all the sensitive content we were warned about, and more, and it was far more intense than he had described. The movie caught me completely off guard. It was graphic, the colours were muted, and it was intentionally supposed to be somewhat uncomfortable. The first 30 minutes were particularly difficult; I had trouble staying engaged with the movie. After class, I went home and took a nap. I was completely unprepared for the movie’s intensity, because the prof had dismissed it as “not that bad.”
With regard to content warnings, my professors seem to be trying their best. They probably could use more resources and more education on the topic. We all could. The things they get right are posting information about the films beforehand and giving students the chance to leave class. Ways to improve? Offer to give personal warnings if a student has a trigger that is not mentioned; send out an email if the content of the class changes to something potentially harmful. This article contains the basics of content warnings and how they can be presented, including a list of basic things to post warnings about.
Content warnings do not coddle students, and they don’t restrict professors from showing what they need to to teach the class. They offer students the chance to make decisions about their education and mental health. If your professor refuses to give content warnings, and you feel comfortable talking to them about it, ask them why they can’t do such a simple thing for the students paying hundreds for the class.
How would you like to see your university and its staff handle content warnings? Let us know in the comments.