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The Need for Content Notes and Trigger Warnings in Seminars

Photo by Goska Smierzchalska / CC BY-NC 2.0

Content note: this post contains a discussion of sexual violence and rape.

A few weeks ago I was at a seminar where the speaker unexpectedly diverted from the main topic of their paper and used a rape example to support their argument. As discussions of rape in philosophy seminars go it was not particularly insensitive. But what disturbed me was that from the pre-circulated paper’s title and abstract there was no indication that it would include a discussion of rape. A victim of rape or sexual violence would have had no warning that they were about to be confronted with an extended discussion of it. Given the appalling statistics on rape and sexual violence that would almost certainly have included several people in the room. For them the discussion of rape might not have been just another abstract thought experiment, but an intensely triggering experience that brought back memories they did not want to deal with at that point. It made me think that the speaker could have respected this possibility by sending a short ‘content note’ (like the one above) with the abstract warning people that the seminar would contain a discussion of rape.

Over the last few months there has in fact been a lot of online discussion over the use of content notes and trigger warnings1 in academia. The recent debate was sparked by students at several US universities calling for content notes/trigger warnings to be included in course syllabuses. The idea behind these is to warn students that certain readings in the course contain discussions of topics that might be stressful or triggering. Much of the ensuing criticism has taken the line that they represent a ‘serious threat to intellectual freedom’ and even ‘one giant leap for censorship‘. This criticism is unfortunate because it falsely suggests that content notes/trigger warnings are there to stop or censor discussions of sensitive topics. Instead the point of the them is to facilitate these discussions by creating a safe and supportive environment where people are given the choice over how and when they engage with topics that they know can be immensely painful for them. As Laurie Penny argues “Trigger warnings are fundamentally about empathy. They are a polite plea for more openness, not less; for more truth, not less. They allow taboo topics and the experience of hurt and pain, often by marginalised people, to be spoken of frankly. They are the opposite of censorship.”

Perhaps some of the hostility to content notes/trigger warnings comes from a lack of knowledge about how they could work. People seem to imagine them as these big intrusive and ugly warnings. I think an actual example of a content note shows us how far from the truth this is:

Course Content Note: At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.) 

If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.

Though much of the online discussion has focused on syllabuses and student seminars, I think it is important to recognise that the same arguments also apply to seminars among professional academics. I think we academics sometimes falsely assume that the standards and principles we apply to student and non-academic discussions do not apply to our own professional practices. An academic giving a paper or a lecture which includes discussions that are potentially triggering should give attendees advance notice of this. This allows people to prepare themselves and not have it sprung upon them, and even the opportunity to avoid coming at all if they feel they are not able to cope with the discussion that day. Of course this does not address what is said during the ensuing question period. It does not stop another academic from insensitively using an example of rape or sexual violence when they respond to the speaker. Content notes and trigger warnings cannot (and are not supposed) to cover every possibility. To address that we could start by educating academics about what its like to be a victim of rape and hear examples of rape used casually in philosophy seminars.

Some have argued that “life doesn’t come with a trigger warning” and tried to suggest that using them in any situation is therefore pointless. While we may not be able to change everything, seminars are a small sphere of life that we have the power to make less hostile and more welcoming.

1 Content notes and trigger warnings are frequently confused. The difference is that “Trigger warnings are about attempting to identify common triggers for panic attacks and related experiences and tagging media for the benefit of people who find it helpful to be warned when media contains this material. Content notes are simply flags with information about content, to be used at the discretion of the person who encounters them.”


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  1. Bruno, thanks for the post. I am reasonably sympathetic to the idea here, but I would be quite interested to push into the details a little. Consider two things. First, there are lots of cases that might stir difficult emotions/memories, including, in different ways, examples involving assault, warfare, displacement, illness, social exclusion, bullying, robbery/burglary, affairs, and so on. Second, examples are often used indirectly to demonstrate a point using a common frame of reference. Thus, they tend to need to be both quite various whilst being something that people will know. Together, what these points imply is that there are likely to be a lot of cases with similar features (without meaning to imply equivalence) to the example you mention at least some of which it will need to be in use with some regularity. None of that defeats the thrust of your point, but I wonder if it raises some questions about drawing lines. For example, what do you think would be a good way to determine what content warrants warnings? Does all potentially difficult content need warnings or only that which will be of central focus or given a central amount of attention? If the former, do warnings need to be particular (e.g., mentioning the different possible discomforts) or can they be general? The example you mention seems relatively general, but I wonder whether that might not have entirely the desired effect, perhaps not being particular enough for people to realise what might give them discomfort or being so broad as to discourage people even if none of the particular content would actually give them discomfort. Many of these questions are issues about the specifics of any policy design (not, as I say, any kind of broad objection), but I do think they merit consideration. And perhaps there might be some deeper relevance to them if drawing lines proves particularly difficult or contentious. Anyway, I would be interested to hear your ideas.

  2. Hi Bruno, like Andrew, I see the general point, but it seems to me that a lot here depends on how the practice really works on the ground. I think there is nothing wrong with having a general trigger note like the one you quote, but then one would have hoped that teaching staff is sensitive enough to allow for students leaving the room anyway if they feel unwell discussing a certain topic. I think honesty in the course description should do a lot of the work.
    What I find as least as worrying is the way in which examples of rape or violence are sometimes carelessly introduced in (philosophical) debates, without any necessity. This expresses a lack of respect towards victims, but can also be quite offensive for others. So maybe we need to work on the general sensitivity of how to deal with such examples. Trigger / content warnings might be helpful for this as well, but they are not a necessary step.

  3. Hi Bruno,
    Thank you very much for the post. I have to admit that I had previously never heard of either content notes or trigger warnings so I very much appreciate the opportunity to learn. While I have no strong objections, I think my position might be close to Lisa's. I think we, as educators and philosophers should always take the time and care to consider what topics and examples we use and also – perhaps most important – how we use them. A case I often am confronted with in my surroundings is the discussions of religion in which Islam is almost always taken as an example of a non-modern extreme, oppressive tradition – very often by feminists – without any consideration for the audience or the generalization being made. Would you consider such topics also requiring content notes or trigger warnings?

  4. Thanks, Bruno. My thoughts are very similar to others who have commented on this post. My sense is that 'content notes and trigger warnings' may appear somewhat artificial, and that a more promising strategy is simply to foster an educational environment that is inclusive and generally sensitive to others' needs. This approach would also mitigate the complications that Andrew highlights. A further advantage is that it is better able to deal with difficult issues that come up on the spot, without warning. As you well know, you cannot always predict the direction of a seminar and so in these cases it may be impossible to issue content notes and trigger warnings.

    I'd also be interested to hear what you make of the following. When I teach, I often feel the need to avoid discussing particular historical or social events for precisely the reasons that you mention, if I haven't previously issued a content note. One way to avoid this is to discuss hypothetical examples that are less closely connected to the real world. The problem with this, however, is that it makes the questions seem of less social or political relevance. It seems to me, therefore, that there might be a trade-off. You might respond by claiming that I should be prepared to issue more content notes in advance of seminars. The problem with this, however, is that the direction of a seminars is somewhat unpredictable, and it would trivialise the idea of content note to issue one before every seminar on the chance that a difficult subject may be raised. Thoughts?

  5. This is an important point Andrew. The problem is that literally anything can be a trigger for victims and survivors. I think the best we can do is educate ourselves about what the common triggers are. This primarily (but not only) includes graphic descriptions of the topic.

    In terms of how general to be. One problem is that people can be triggered by the trigger warning/content note itself. To avoid this, overly-detailed descriptions should probably be avoided. I think saying that the post/seminar 'includes discussions of x' will usually be enough. Sometimes it might be worth saying that it 'includes graphic discussions of x'.

  6. Lisa I think you're right that a lot can be done by teachers being more sensitive. I similarly get very frustrated by (usually male) philosophers who seem to think that rape is an 'edgy' example to prove their argument. Some of the examples of this on 'What its like to be a Women in Philosophy' are awful.

    I think that only allowing students to leave the class is not enough though. That becomes a public expression that this topic triggers you, which is something you might not want people to know. I think giving the warning before the class gives people the opportunity to excuse themselves privately.

    Finally, I agree that honesty in the course description helps a lot. In a sense that is a kind of content note/trigger warning.

  7. Thanks Anya I hadn't thought of that example. My initial reaction would be that if some of the reading material is clearly Islamophobic/racist it might be good to warn students of that beforehand as well. In material that is less obviously so, it might just be a good idea to flag it without making a full warning. Its also a shame that some liberal feminist writing about Islam/culture (e.g. Susan Moller Okin) seems to be oblivious to the existence of Islamic feminism.

    I also agree that philosophers could do with a lot more self-reflection on why they are choosing certain examples to make their point. Again gratuitous examples of rape and violence stand out here.

  8. I wouldn't draw such a strong division between content notes/trigger warnings (CN/TW) and a inclusive and sensitive environment, because I think CN/TWs help create an inclusive and sensitive environment. Giving CN/TWs shows people that you are sensitive to their needs and reactions, and respect their choice to engage or not engage with the material or discussion. Creating such an environment also takes a long time, and this is something that can be done now.

    I agree that what comes up spontaneously in seminars is really difficult. One approach might be to educate students at the beginning of the course about the effects on victims of using triggering/upsetting examples, and tell them that using them should be avoided in classes that have not been specifically set aside for such topics. If they do still come up it might be good to try and steer the conversation away. Importantly that does not mean that these topics cannot be discussed (they absolutely should be!), but that students should know beforehand whether they will be and given time to prepare/excuse themselves. I think its also important to remember that hypothetical examples can be just as triggering/upsetting if they are graphic or realistic.

  9. Thanks, Bruno. I think that your reply might rest upon an ideal of teaching that is in some cases impossible to fulfil. Seminar teaching is demanding in that you only have a very limited amount of time to deal with any given topic. To say, 'Let's return to this at another time so that I can first issue a content warning' seems unrealistic. The reality is that these issues would end up simply being taken off the table, which is surely a much worse result.

  10. It depends on what content someone brings up. If a student tries to give a graphic description of sexual violence I think the right thing to do is say that this is not the right environment to discuss it. I think the worst result is to have a seminar where someone feels deeply distressed or is even triggered into flashbacks because of the discussion.

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