Paul L. Caron

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Data Is In: Trigger Warnings Don’t Work

Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed:  The Data Is In — Trigger Warnings Don’t Work, by Amna Khalid (Carleton College) & Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (Carleton College):

The original proponents of trigger warnings on campus argued that they would empower students suffering from trauma to delve into difficult material. “The point is not to enable — let alone encourage — students to skip readings or our subsequent class discussion,” the philosopher Kate Manne wrote in The New York Times. “It’s about enabling everyone’s rational engagement.”

Now, about a decade after trigger warnings arrived on college campuses, it’s clear that an avoidance rationale is officially competing with the original lean-in logic.

A recent Inside Higher Ed piece by Michael Bugeja, an Iowa State journalism professor, is emblematic of this shift. In light of the tumultuous times (a “mental-health pandemic,” ongoing sexual violence and racism, the anxiety of returning to in-person instruction), Bugeja says that trigger warnings are needed now more than ever. All faculty members should follow his lead, he argues, and include detailed trigger warnings on their syllabi accompanied by the following note: “You don’t have to attend class if the content elicits an uncomfortable emotional response.”

Bugeja’s article prompted us to review the latest research on the efficacy of trigger warnings. We found no evidence that trigger warnings improve students’ mental health. What’s more, we are now convinced that they push students and faculty members alike to turn away from the study of vitally important topics that are seen as too “distressing.” ...

We appreciate that advocates of trigger warnings have drawn attention to the fact that students’ mental health affects their learning. And we share their commitment to treating students with compassion. As a result, we think it’s imperative to acknowledge that the best evidence to date finds that trigger warnings do not minimize anxiety and emotional distress, and might even do the opposite. Furthermore, applying trigger warnings to any material that elicits an “uncomfortable emotional response” makes a mockery of the real challenges faced by those suffering from PTSD. As the Harvard study we cited earlier concluded, trigger warnings are “unvetted interventions” and their use is “irresponsible to victims of trauma.” In our view, the problems with trigger warnings extend well beyond mental-health concerns. By contributing to a misguided safety-and-security model of education, trigger warnings ultimately deprive all students of the most powerful learning opportunities.

Wall Street Journal, College Students Don’t Need Protection from the Truth:

Academic research suggests ‘trigger warnings’ carry no significant benefit and may even cause psychological harm.

The collapsing justification for one university fad brings hope that others may follow. Even within the academic establishment, it seems that no one can mount a fact-based defense for the trendy notion that students need to be protected from potentially disturbing ideas. This week’s encouraging news also presents an interesting test case of whether academic institutions can still perform the basic functions for which they were created. ...

Now that the relevant academic literature says that a highly influential academic theory is wrong, what are college administrators going to do about it? Will they abolish trigger warnings, or will they bitterly cling to a faith-based conviction that free inquiry must come with a warning label?

Update:  Michael Bugeja (Iowa State), Essay Critical of Trigger Warnings Was Misguided (Chronicle of Higher Education Letter to the Editor):

This letter is in response to Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder’s recent essay, “The Data Is In — Trigger Warnings Don’t Work” (The Chronicle Review, September 15), which references my Inside Higher Ed essay, “Updating the Trigger Warning in Contentious Times.

The authors write: “For Bugeja, any topic that evokes an intense negative emotion is a potential trigger. To identify ‘where warnings may be warranted’ when he starts a new class, Bugeja uses a ‘trigger-word game’ to compile information on the words and phrases that elicit the most powerful emotions for his students. Here are some of the topics that made the ‘Top 10 Trigger List’ from his spring 2021 media-ethics course: Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Trump, #MeToo, and George Floyd.”

My trigger word game does not only measure “intense negative emotion.” I have played the game with my students since the early 1990s to teach them to be aware of what words media have put into their psyche — words that trigger positive as well as negative emotions. ...

The Khalid and Synder article omits my main points about why trigger warnings need to be updated in the age of machine learning and augmented reality and how my methods improve instruction. I’ll cite three short paragraphs from my article to give your audience a sense of what I wrote: ...

Since the authors say I am “emblematic” in this shift, I encourage your audience to read my IHE piece and then reread this one to see if Khalid and Synder’s arguments hold up. Keep in mind I am not critiquing the authors’ arguments about trigger warnings, although I could. I am critiquing why The Chronicle published the piece. Your audience should know that the Inside Higher Ed piece was originally submitted to The Chronicle, which rejected it, after several editors viewed it because the publication had covered this ground before and it just wasn’t a new topic.

I may have touched a nerve.

Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink