I’m someone who’s a big believer in content warnings. Each term, my students and I identify topics in my courses that might trigger someone in the room – cause a profound psychological and physical reaction, for example. I then indicate that on the syllabus, in class, or on my LMS so that those students can make an informed decision about how to interact with readings, discussions, and in-class materials. I believe that warnings allow students (and professors) to manage otherwise debilitating responses to triggering content. A warning lets traumatized students enter into learning without demanding that it become incapacitating, or creating negative ramifications that last long after class is over.
Those who protest the use of content warnings often do so under the presumption that they coddle students, needlessly (even wrongly) trying to protect them from the discomfort that is often a product of learning new things. But to me, that framing is all wrong. First, it suggests that there is no difference between hearing or reading new information and being thrown into absolute panic, or a flashback, or having your sensory systems overload and refuse to work. (Spoiler alert: there is a difference.) Second, it suggests that as instructors when things are inevitably discomfiting in our classes there is nothing we can (or should) do.
I find this problematic. Take my history classes, for example: I teach Native history, the history of women, non-binary, and trans people, the history of slavery, and the history of oppressive systems. Often, if a student is learning something brand new in those classes, they occupy a position of privilege in relation to the subject matter. My white students struggle with how ruthless enslavement really was, for example, while my black students already have a good idea. My non-Native students wrestle with their status as settler colonists, while my Native students have had to deal with settlers their whole lives. This is not to say my black or Native students don’t experience discomfort – they do. But their discomfort is often that of being in a marginalized position in a room full of white students whose position in a white supremacist system means they haven’t had to think critically about race before. That’s just one example.
When there’s that kind of tension in a room, it often becomes hard for people to talk. People have enormous feelings about the things we’re studying – rage, guilt, grief, worry, disgust – and it’s hard for the best of us to talk around a lump in our throat that’s a big ball of anger or the product of a visceral reaction to being upset. I don’t expect my students to intuit their way through my classes – to just know how to write a paper well or analyze a primary source – but until a few years ago, I expected them to intuit how to express their feelings, tackle tension, and deal with conflict.
I don’t anymore.
I’m trained in Intergroup Dialogue, and for the past five years have co-directed my campus’s IGD program, including teaching undergraduates how to become effective facilitators of difficult conversations. Part of the work my co-director, Gabrielle Raley, and I undertake with those students are reflective exercises about strong emotional reactions (SERs), drawing extensively on handouts provided by IGD program at the University of Michigan. We discuss how SERs are common (everyone has them), different from being triggered, and yet important to pay attention to in ourselves and others. The exercises we collectively undertake are meant take patterns that might otherwise go unrecognized and bring them to our attention, as well as create space in which we can all take the time to imagine new outcomes to old problems.
The first exercise has everyone read a sheet that defines what SERs are, and which offers a range of responses people commonly have when emotionally activated. We read this – sometimes silently, sometimes aloud in round-robin form – and then talk about which responses resonated for people. Do people typically fall silent when someone says something upsetting? Get angry? Leave the room? Internalize the conflict? This is a key part of surfacing our unexamined patterns of response.
The second exercise provides a list of things people might say or do in class that might cause us to have a strong emotional reaction. Together, we consider how activated we might be by a given action or comment, rating them 0-5 (0 meaning we’d have no reaction at all, and 5 meaning we’d have a strong reaction). On the back of the sheet are some examples of things we might say or do ourselves that could elicit a strong emotional reaction in us. When all the sheets are complete, we talk about what we learned – what our strongest, hot button issues are, for example, or why we might perceive ourselves to be disrespected in certain situations. We also talk about privilege, as it’s often easier for students with a lot of privilege to let things go as they do rarely feel personally singled out by the comments of others.
The third exercise is a reflective one, where we think of a time we’ve had a strong, negative emotional reaction in the classroom, break down what happened, and then imagine a different outcome for ourselves. This is not a magic cure all – students don’t learn how to deal with oppressive comments or actions, or generalized tension and conflict overnight. But by highlighting that there are multiple ways to react to comments and actions – be they ours or someone else’s – we’re better able to spot when we’ve been activated, and to remember that we have options about how we handle it. To be clear – the goal here is not to learn “civility” or to passively absorb whatever other people hand out. It’s simply to remind people that they have choices, and allow them to reclaim a full range of options to handle their emotional states.
The SERs exercises work in tandem with other in-class work – like setting ground rules for the classroom community. Ground rules like “Take issue with the idea, not the person” and “Speak your discomfort” provide structure to the ways in which people speak up and out, while making sure that oppressive speech or actions do not go unaddressed. It’s also really important for instructor(s) to do these exercises along with students. This emphasizes that instructors, too, have strong emotional reactions, and makes it clear the instructor is not abdicating ultimate responsibility for making the classroom a welcoming space.
For me, thinking about SERS and providing content warnings go hand in hand. Their goal is the same – to provide space in which students can interact with course content without that content inflicting harm, and without asking them to deny a part of themselves in order to be in class. I’m grateful to the Michigan program in Intergroup Dialogue for introducing me to the idea of tackling SERs head on, and for helping me work to ensure that students are not treated as disembodied intellects in my courses.