This FAQ is written from my perspective as an educator and as someone with complex PTSD. It does not constitute medical advice; I am not a medical professional.
Content Warnings: Frequently Asked Questions
What is a content (or trigger) warning?
A content warning alerts students that there is potentially traumatizing subject matter in a reading, a film, other educational materials, or in an upcoming discussion or lecture.
Why do people ask for content warnings?
Individuals who have been traumatized (by violence or assault, for example) may find themselves triggered when forced to relive those experiences through readings, films, discussions, and lectures (as well as other educational experiences, like role play).
What does that mean?
Being triggered is an intense physical and psychological experience that can vary widely by person. There are, however, some common ways in which being traumatized can manifest. I’ve described some of the ways I experience being triggered in a blog post you can find here.
How is a trigger different from simply being upset or uncomfortable?
Triggers, upsets, and discomfiting situations have some things in common: they often feel scary (particularly when experienced in a classroom environment), can involve physical reactions (like crying or an accelerated heart rate), and can have effects that last longer than the class period. Preparing students for discomfort and upset, and talking through ways to deal with those feelings, is a great tactic for any classroom. I’ve shared one way of doing this here.
When a person is triggered, however, they are often thrown back into the emotional and physical state they were in when originally traumatized. They can feel terror, disabling panic, very real physical pain, and profound spatial and temporal disorientation. Their mental, emotional, and physical experience of a trigger can be very intense.
How does a content warning help?
Being unexpectedly confronted by traumatizing material or experiences is a prime cause of being triggered. If an individual knows that there is potentially traumatizing material/experiences ahead, they can prepare for it.
What does that mean in practical terms?
You might not see the student behave any differently than any other class member. Individuals who are prepared for such material ahead of time can often deploy coping mechanisms to weather the discussion, film, reading, or lecture.
A student may ask, however, for page numbers where they’ll find descriptions of graphic violence, sexual assault, or other traumatizing material, so that they can skip them while still reading the rest of their assigned text.
A student may ask you to supply a different text to read.
A student may ask for permission to step out of the classroom during a discussion or depiction of graphic violence, assault, or other traumatizing subject.
Many other coping skills are highly individualized. Talk with students about what will help them.
You keep talking about traumatizing subjects. How am I supposed to know what will traumatize people?
There are some experiences which people commonly find traumatizing: graphic violence or sexual assault, for example. You can also ask people to let you know if they need a warning for other situations or experiences. Here’s the language I use on my syllabi:
I have tried to anticipate where you may need a content warning, but if you have concerns or want to check that a particular trigger has been taken into account, please let me know. I am happy to provide that warning so that you can interact with class material safely, and on your own terms.
Isn’t this just coddling people?
No. It’s providing an equitable playing field. Indeed, if your student has PTSD from a traumatic experience, they have a disability that requires you attention like any other. Not every student who has been traumatized, however, has PTSD, or has a formal diagnosis. Therapy and psychiatric services are expensive and inequitably distributed, which can make getting a diagnosis difficult, and PTSD is only one outcome of being traumatized.
There are no ‘content warnings’ in the real world!
This is untrue. Netflix, for example, regularly provides warnings about violence, sexual acts, or profane language at the beginning of TV shows and movies. Most movie reviews contain information about things viewers may want to avoid.
And let’s not pretend that college is not ‘the real world’. Students do not get traumatized in Narnia. They have witnessed and experienced traumatic events that make the world very real.
Isn’t the only way to get over trauma to expose yourself to the thing you’re scared of?
It’s not the only way. Even if someone chooses to engage in exposure therapy it should be conducted by a qualified mental health professional with the consent of their client. Forcing a student to absorb traumatizing material is not a healing act.
Everything I teach is traumatizing to some degree.
This is why anticipating common areas of trauma is helpful, but nothing replaces asking students what they need. A student may, for example, be able to deal with a generalized discussion of rape, but not a graphic description of a rape occurring. A student may, for example, be able to handle a generalized discussion of lynching as a tool of white supremacy, but not a graphic photograph of someone being lynched.
Should students who are traumatized even be in my classroom?
Sometimes, a student may choose to drop your class because it’s not right for them. Sometimes, students take a leave of absence if their symptoms are acute and the material in their courses is too overwhelming. The important thing to remember is that choosing to disengage completely should be up to the student and not you. A common thread that runs through the traumatic experiences of many people is of having had choice taken away from them. Let them choose how they deal with the aftereffects now.