Mara Grayson, California State University Dominguez Hills – Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

Mara Lee Grayson English, CAH

Are trigger warnings helpful in the classroom?

Mara Grayson, assistant professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills, says maybe not.

Dr. Mara Lee Grayson is an Assistant Professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her research and teaching explore rhetorics of race, composition pedagogy, and racial literacy in writing studies. Her first book, Teaching Racial Literacy: Reflective Practices for Critical Writing, provides theoretical framing and pedagogical strategies for instructors seeking to implement racial literacy curricula. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in English Education, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, English Journal, Fiction, Columbia Journal, The St. John’s University Humanities Review, The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, and numerous edited collections. An active member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), Dr. Grayson holds a PhD in English Education from Columbia University and an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York. She is currently completing her second book. Follow her on Twitter: @MaraLeeGrayson.

Trigger Warnings in the Classroom

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Have you used trigger warnings in your classes? Since Slate magazine called 2013 “the year of the trigger warning,” these statements, which inform students of distressing or potentially re-traumatizing content, have been a subject of national debate. Though they are common, there is limited evidence of their usefulness.

Critical pedagogies require open acknowledgment of systemic inequities like racism. Some educators claim that trigger warnings help scaffold these difficult yet necessary conversations. Others suggest that they prevent intellectual growth and reduce psychological resiliency. My current research asks: How critical a pedagogy is the trigger warning?

Though trauma disproportionately affects people of color, survey and interview data show that trigger warnings are most commonly used by white educators in predominantly white institutions. These warnings frequently preface depictions and discussions of racism. Many educators believe that providing a “heads-up” about controversial topics honors students’ emotional well-being.

For white students, however, the cognitive dissonance that arises when faced with new knowledge about racism is a necessary part of developing a nonracist identity. By preventing that dissonance, trigger warnings lessen the potential for critical self-reflection. Some educators also allow students to “opt out” of particularly difficult conversations. Students of color cannot opt out of racism.

To teach equitably, educators must examine practices, like the trigger warning, that might be less critical than they seem. Under the guise of student responsiveness, the trigger warning may limit transformative discourse and reify existing racial hierarchies.

The trigger warning, of course, is not the problem – but it is not the solution either.

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