This school year, the University of Chicago has put the debate over "trigger warnings" on campus back in the news. The University told incoming freshmen that, because of its commitment to freedom of expression, it does not support warnings to students about potentially difficult material.
But amid all the attention to trigger warnings, there have been very few facts about exactly how common they are and how they're used.
NPR Ed sent out a survey last fall to faculty members at colleges and universities around the country. We focused specifically on the types of institutions most students attend — not the elite private universities most often linked to the "trigger warning" idea.
We received more than 800 responses, and this month as the issue once again made headlines we followed up with some of those professors.
Here are some of our key findings:
- About half of professors said they've used a trigger warning in advance of introducing potentially difficult material.
- Most said they did so of their own volition, not because of a student's request or an administrative policy.
This was not a scientific sample, but it's one of the larger and more representative polls to be published on the topic to date.
Our sample included 829 instructors of undergraduates. Just over half of our respondents, 53.9 percent, said they teach at public four-year institutions and 27 percent said they were at two-year institutions.
These instructors were overwhelmingly familiar with trigger warnings: 86 percent knew the term and 56 percent said they had heard of colleagues who had used them.
But only 1.8 percent said, as of last fall, that their institutions had any official policies about their use.
Let's define terms.
The term "trigger" in this sense originates in psychology, where it pertains to people with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. For survivors of combat violence, sexual abuse or other trauma, certain sights, sounds, smells or other reminders can bring on intense emotional and even physical reactions, like a full-blown panic attack.
In the media and elsewhere online, language similar to trigger warnings is often used more broadly to label material that concerns sexual abuse or sexual assault, that is potentially racially or politically offensive, or graphically violent or sexual. For example, when NPR covered the fatal shooting by police of Philando Castile, an African-American resident of the Minneapolis area, we included these words: "We'll embed the video here, with the warning that it contains images and language that viewers might find disturbing."
But the rules are different in a college classroom than in a therapeutic setting, and both are different than when addressing a general audience. Even some of our respondents who had supplied a form of trigger warning as a "courtesy" or "heads-up" said they didn't intend to give students a free pass to avoid uncomfortable topics.
In fact, the picture that emerges is of professors making private decisions within the four walls of the classroom. Only 3.4 percent said students had requested such a warning. Most instructors who told us they'd used trigger warnings — 64.7 percent — did so because, they said, "I thought the material needed one."
So what are the types of material that are most likely to trigger a trigger warning?
Our respondents were most likely to say they had used trigger warnings in reference to sexual or violent material. Racially, politically, or religiously charged topics were mentioned less often.
"I have had students break down reading novels depicting sexual assault and incest in my gender studies courses," a professor at the University of North Carolina said in a survey response.
Joanna Hunter, who teaches sociology at Radford University in Virginia, told NPR Ed last week that she has given a warning before explaining the practice of female genital mutilation, within the broader context of a discussion of cultural relativism.
Lauren Griffith, a professor of ethnology at Texas Tech University, said that she gave warnings when teaching Native American students whose religious beliefs required that they undergo a form of ritual purification upon viewing images of death. However, she says, outside of such specific situations, she doesn't believe that trigger warnings best serve the cause of liberal education: "I think that trigger warnings can and should be used in a limited number of situations, but overusing them can create a situation in which students opt out of learning experiences simply because they don't want to confront their own assumptions about the world."
Hasan Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, said in an interview that heavy emotions — even tears — are parts of the learning process that he welcomes. He teaches African-American and U.S. history.
He tells his students at the beginning of each course, "This is hard history. It's hard to talk about, hard to absorb. It's filled with trauma, sexual violence, racial violence, visual images of murder and chaos. You may walk into my classroom and see an image of a lynching that was put on a postcard. This is America."
At the same time, he adds, he's sensitive to the fact that many of his students may have experienced, say, sexual assault or police violence in their personal lives.
"I understand and take seriously trauma triggers," Jeffries says. "I'm not hostile to one side or the other and I don't think there's an absolute position."
None of the professors we talked to said that they had had a student try to get out of an assignment or skip a class because of topics that made them uncomfortable. The most common response to a warning was either nothing at all, or at most, for a student to excuse him or herself from class for a few minutes.
Jeffries, like other faculty members, told us that his department had ultimately decided against issuing an official position on the use of trigger warnings: "The general consensus was, we're not really interested in putting those forward. We feel confident in ourselves as teachers and in the maturity of our students."
Meg Anderson contributed to this report.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
A couple weeks ago the University of Chicago sent an unusual letter to its incoming freshmen. It said the school does not support teachers giving students trigger warnings to alert them of potentially difficult or offensive class material. Now, that letter fueled an ongoing national debate about free speech on campus and whether such warnings have any place in the classroom.
Our NPR Ed team did a survey last year that got responses from more than 800 faculty members at colleges and universities across the country. They've crunched the numbers, and NPR's Anya Kamenetz is here to talk more. Welcome back, Anya.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Thanks, Audie.
CORNISH: So let's take a step back for a moment and talk about where this term trigger warning originally came from.
KAMENETZ: It comes from the psychology of posttraumatic stress disorder. So individuals who have been through for example sexual assault or combat - they may have outsized emotional responses to potentially harmless words or images and that might be up to and including a panic attack. And the use of trigger warnings and that phrase really gained currency on the internet. But I had pointed out, you know, we use a form of trigger warning here on the air at NPR as well just to warn people, give them a heads up that something difficult might be coming.
CORNISH: We usually just call those content warnings. We say, you know, there's something here that you should be aware of, right?
CORNISH: Now, this debate about trigger warnings actually predates that letter we mentioned from the University of Chicago. So what's it really about?
KAMENETZ: Well, it seems to be one of these ongoing controversies. You know, on the one hand, you've got academic freedom, the nature of liberal education. On the other hand, you have the very strong feelings of student activists in the Black Lives Matter movement speaking out against sexual assault and what's been portrayed in some circles as an overindulgence of political correctness. Although I should point out that trigger warnings are just as likely to be requested, at least anecdotally, by conservative students who object to, say, sexual material in the class.
CORNISH: All right, so looking through the survey, do you guys have an example of how a teacher might use a trigger warning in the classroom?
KAMENETZ: Yes. There were a lot of really interesting examples. One professor said, I had a bunch of Native American students who - if they view a picture of a dead person, they may have to go through a ritual of purification. An example that came up more than once was depictions of lynchings - so you know, photographs of an African-American who was killed. And someone else mentioned the notion of female genital mutilation being very difficult to talk about in detail without giving students a heads up.
CORNISH: And so what happened when these professors used these trigger warnings?
KAMENETZ: Most of the time it really didn't seem like a big deal. The professors I talked to said at most a student might excuse him or herself for a few minutes, but none of them said that they had ever had a student try to skip out on an assignment, let alone a whole class because of disturbing material.
CORNISH: In the end, what surprised you about this survey, about the findings?
KAMENETZ: Well, I feel like the trigger warning debate has been framed so often as an academic freedom issue or one of chilling effects, but in our survey, two-thirds of professors said that the main reason they used a trigger warning was because they thought the material needed one. Less than 2 percent said that there was an administration-wide or even a department-wide policy on trigger warnings, and only 3.4 percent said that students had requested them ever.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz talking about trigger warnings on campus. Anya, thanks so much.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.