Eithne Dodd talks to a number of lectures on trigger warnings, and whether UCD needs an official policy on it.
INCREASINGLY at the start of a new semester in UCD, students will find themselves being given ‘trigger warnings’. Be it verbally in class, on the module outline or via an announcement on Blackboard, trigger warnings are becoming more prevalent in UCD.
Dr Naomi McAreavy, Head of Teaching and Learning at the UCD School of English, Drama and Film said that while the school does not have a policy on trigger warnings, staff covering potentially triggering material usually flag it to students; usually through verbal warnings in class.
Particularly in subjects such as English, politics and social science when readings or discussion points could easily turn to potentially ‘triggering’ themes some students.
Lecturers and tutors sometimes choose to warn student of texts containing scenes of abuses of power, violence or victimisation so that those students that may be survivors of similar trauma can prepare for exposure to it.
Dr McAreavy said “I teach Renaissance literature and don’t use trigger warnings, but I try to flag to students in advance if a text deals with issues such as rape so that they can sufficiently prepare themselves for the class.”
“I feel that we have to address such issues, not just to understand key themes in Renaissance literature such as genre, gender, power and sexuality, but also to interrogate the culture of rape in our own society” said Dr McAreavey.
While no school in UCD that was asked stated that they had a policy in relation to trigger warnings, many agreed that some modules contained topics that were potentially triggering. For example, some modules run by the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice discuss child sexual abuse and gender based violence.
Owen Kinsella of the UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice said “We don’t have a written policy but do this on our social work graduate and undergraduate modules as appropriate. The need for it is discussed by course management teams or one to one with the head of school”.
The UCD School of Politics also does not have a policy in relation to trigger warnings. However they did say they recognised that some topics discussed in politics could potentially be triggering. School Manager Dara Gannon said “we would not want to inhibit the open-ended discussions that characterise our modules and cannot guarantee that such topics may not come up”.
Gannon also added “we are an inclusive department that takes our pastoral role with regards to our students seriously and recognise that many of them have experienced harms that make certain subjects particularly challenging for them. The study of politics is, however, so broad and encompasses so many potential issues – conflict, human rights violations, and much more – that all possible eventualities cannot be envisaged”.
It has been well reported that students in US universities have been asking for trigger warnings with their reading lists. While many see this as further proof that “the snowflake generation” is both overly sensitive and overly coddled; others see it as a positive step towards more in-depth discussion of difficult topics that require sensitivity.
Trigger warnings on module outlines do not necessarily mean that students can skip classes for fear they will be triggered, only that they may want to brace themselves.
‘Trigger Warning’ is very much a buzz phrase of the day and the need for them is very hotly debated. The top definition of trigger warning on Urban Dictionary is “A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit”.
As no policy in UCD seems to exist on trigger warnings in modules, there is no clear direction for a student to take who may be affected by topics covered in their classes. Right now, it is entirely dependent on the module coordinator and their view on trigger warnings that will determine what a student can do. It is entirely possible that they may take a similar view to that of Urban Dictionary.
Trigger warnings can be introduced into UCD in a positive way. They do not have to be seen as silencing difficult topics, just as a sign of caution.
Seeing a trigger waning attached to something also means that UCD staff and students will not take harmful material for granted because it bears no significance to them.
When asked why she teaches potentially triggering material, Dr McAreavey stated “It is our obligation, as scholars and citizens, to address difficult, upsetting or sensitive issues because if we don’t face them then we can’t change them. More damage is done by silence, as our history has shown.”
Having trigger warnings might allow people to realise the diversity of experiences that are in a classroom or lecture theatre at any time. It reminds us all that traumatic experiences analysed for credit in a module actually happen to real people.