Sociology is a discipline with a close eye on social problems, and the political and emotional intensity of the material we teach is a testament to the gravity of many of the social issues we study. Some of these deeply troubling phenomena are present in the biographies of many of our students (and in some of our own), and those experiences introduce the scars of trauma into our classrooms. Sociology itself is not exempt from the linkages between biography and history highlighted by C. Wright Mills, and the historical moment in which we now find ourselves teaching sociology is entwined with broader historical patterns, some of which ensure the presence of trauma survivors in the university. Some universities, such as the University of York, SOAS University of London, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Warwick are offering scholarships to support student refugees and asylum seekers in pursuing higher education, further increasing the likely prevalence of biographies of trauma survival amongst the student body. Just as universities once had no official stance on how they would accommodate women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and other groups with particular access needs, they’re now confronted with how to make the classroom space accessible and safe for survivors of trauma.
But there’s a hot debate brewing about trauma trigger warnings in academic settings. If you use them or propose their use, you’re virtually certain to be met with polarised responses: some will be grateful for your mental health consciousness and good-faith endeavour to protect vulnerable students, while others will be convinced that you’re encouraging critical disengagement in an increasingly consumerised body of students who seem to be growing convinced that their lecturers should only be telling them what they want to hear. Heavily pressured and over-worked teaching staff aren’t exactly chomping at the bit for one more thing they need to take into consideration in their teaching practice. Our fatigued aversion to these kinds of changes is producing a lot of resistance to the implementation of reflexive teaching practices which take the omnipresence of trauma survivors into account.
Further complicating our relationship to teaching trauma-triggering material are our own biographies of trauma. As we all know but others tend to sometimes forget, academics are people, and we are no less likely to have survived traumatic experiences than our students. Indeed, in our discipline of social critique, many of us may have had our intellectual interests inspired by traumatic personal life experiences, and must find ways to manage our own trauma responses in the progress of our teaching. Far from ensuring a trauma-sensitive brigade of teachers, however, this can have counter-intuitively mixed results, with some trauma-surviving academic staff convinced of the importance of accommodating students, and others persuaded that students should be able to cope without particular accommodations, as many teaching staff have often had to do.
Disgruntled aversions notwithstanding, it’s become increasingly clear that this issue needs to be addressed clearly and explicitly in academic institutions. Educators are beginning to sort out what is involved in trauma and the protection of trauma survivors, and differentiating this from (needlessly) shielding students from ideas they may find intellectually or emotionally challenging. These issues take a lot of awareness of what trauma does to people and careful thinking through. I’d like to shed some light on the rationales for the use of trauma-sensitive teaching and explain why it’s necessary. I’ll also clarify the difference between students being challenged by course material and trauma-surviving students being triggered by it. Lastly, I offer some practical advice about how to implement the use of trigger warnings and trauma-sensitive coursework design in a way which will be practically viable in your teaching and will minimise confusion between trauma and non-traumatic distress.
Trauma isn’t just ‘upsetting’
Much of the resistance to the use of trigger warnings in teaching proceeds from the view that academic material, especially in a social science discipline, ought to be challenging on both an intellectual and an emotional level. Finding material offensive or upsetting is not sufficient reason to expect to be shielded from it, and with the student populations of our courses being comprised of future academics, researchers, social workers, third sector and government workers, policy makers, and the like, it’s not (necessarily) insensitivity that leads us to the position that part of educating students of sociology involves teaching them to work through emotionally confronting material.
If this were all that trauma triggering amounted to, there would be little debate to be had. However, that’s not at all what a student survivor of trauma is dealing with when they’re triggered. Many of us will have had the experience of being confronted by an upset student who found something in the course material deeply offensive. As the lexicon of trauma and triggers has pervaded the zeitgeist, our students have become increasingly equipped to deploy this language to assert their preference for less emotionally challenging material, and many of us will have become accustomed to thinking of trauma sensitivity as a concession to a lexically empowered student body with the weight of the National Student Survey at their backs. We imagine the experience of trauma-triggered students to be much like what we ourselves feel when reading an outrageously offensive cover story in The Sun (or the feedback from reviewer number three).
This is an especially easy equivalence to assume when what a student is describing is precisely that experience. However, trauma-surviving students who’ve been triggered (who, by the way, are generally not the angry students you’re getting emails from – more on that below) are having a wholly different experience (an overview from the American Psychological Association can be found here). A more appropriate analogy would be what you would likely feel if you were hiding in a closet in your flat while an armed axe murderer wandered through each room looking for you, intent on killing you:
Your heart is in your throat – you can hear it pounding in your ears.
You’re barely breathing.
Your muscles are rigid with tension and panic.
Your bloodstream is coursing with adrenaline.
Your face is hot and bloodless.
Your hands are shaking wildly.
Every hair and nerve in your body is standing on end.
When someone experiences a traumatic life event, these are some of the kinds of things they feel at the time, and when they’re exposed to a trigger, they are jolted back to the embodied emotional experience of that moment, even though they know very well that they’re not in any danger. This is an entirely involuntary reflex, and one which is ruefully unresponsive to reason and evidence. It doesn’t matter that they know they’re in a lecture hall, and nothing would make them happier than the ability to switch this automated emotional response mechanism off.
Misconceptions about trauma affect everyone involved
Those of us who have dealt with student complaints of triggering in our teaching which seem to have actually been instances of non-traumatic distress are familiar with the misunderstanding from which those complaints proceed. Students, like many of us, often don’t know the difference between their own non-traumatic distress and trauma, believing that the intensity of their emotional response to something is tantamount to trauma. Many of us have ourselves had the experience of being taken aback by how emotionally impacted we were by academic material – it may have affected us deeply, altering our mood for hours or days at a time. These effects are not, however, the same thing as trauma.
What is important to note is that these misconceptions have real consequences for trauma survivors. They occupy the same educational spaces as the rest of us, hear the same discourses, and think many of the same thoughts. When students who are not informed about trauma characterise their non-traumatic distress as trauma, those who are actually traumatised are given the impression that their trauma is no more serious than another student’s being deeply offended. An even more urgent point, and one which cannot be overstated, is that students who have survived trauma are aware that academic staff are annoyed at them for needing accommodation. They hear the things we say about trauma survivors: that they’re histrionic and over-sensitive, that they shouldn’t be studying a social science if they can’t handle the brute realities of social life, that they’re spoiled and expect us to coddle them. These debates are not invisible or inaudible to our students, and we are doing real harm to trauma survivors by characterising their very legitimate needs in this way.
The end result is that the errant conflation of trauma with non-traumatic distress affects everyone: educators become dismissive and careless in our ways of speaking about trauma survivors, doing them real harm, non-traumatised students are led to make inaccurate claims of trauma sensitivity needs, minimising or invisibilising the needs of actual trauma survivors, and traumatised students are further stigmatised, isolated, and emotionally harmed. While it is tempting for us to be deterred from addressing the needs of traumatised students by the obvious inaccuracy of some claims of trauma-related needs, it is essential that we prioritise providing for the needs of trauma-surviving students. In much the same way that we institute policies for accommodating students with illnesses, personal emergencies, or bereavements, even though we know that some of these may be exaggerated or feigned, we must have policies of practice in place to protect student survivors of trauma even though some trauma claims may be exaggerated or inaccurate. It is ethically unjustifiable for us to neglect to meet students’ real needs on the spurious grounds that not all students genuinely share those needs.
Seeing trauma survivors is often impossible
There are trauma survivors in our classrooms. That is a matter of mathematical certainty. It’s very unlikely that any of us has ever given a lecture or tutorial to a group which did not include at least one, and if there are any such groups, they are in an extreme minority. We are very unlikely to have known who the trauma survivors were, though, and they will probably not have done anything to make themselves known to us. The angry student who emails you to tell you that they were offended by something in your lecture or profoundly emotionally affected by the reading assignment is probably not a trauma survivor (though they may be, so it’s important that we exert ourselves not to be too eager to dismiss these complaints). This might be surprising – after all, if trauma sensitivity is such an urgent need, why would the affected students not speak up?
The answer is that trauma trigger responses often induce intense feelings of shame and embarrassment. Revisit the paragraph above where I describe the sensations of trauma. Now imagine that you are instantaneously induced into that precise state by a word, a phrase, or a photograph in the safety of a lecture hall. It’s very unlikely that the first thing you would do is run to the lecturer and inform them that a phrase on the fourth lecture slide left you panicky, adrenaline-addled, shaky, breathless, and fraught. To have such an intense reaction to such a seemingly inconsequential provocation is embarrassing. Trauma survivors are well aware of how disproportionate their reactions to triggers appear to others, and again, they’ve heard the things we say about them and how unreasonably fragile some academic staff believe they are.
You are almost certain to have triggered someone at some point in your teaching career without being aware of it. While the other students carried on as usual, this student will have quietly taken deep breaths and hid their hands under their desk, hoping that no one would notice that they were shaking. The non-traumatically upset student sends you a strongly-worded email, but a triggered trauma survivor is more likely to have gone home, ashamed and shaken, and hidden themselves away for the day. Just because you haven’t received any complaints that your course material is triggering doesn’t mean that it isn’t – your trauma-surviving students will often be powerfully averse to disclosing their trauma-related needs to the university (or, in many cases, anyone else in their lives).
There is a still more impenetrable barrier to our detection of trauma-related needs amongst our students: many trauma survivors do not themselves identify as such, or recognise their experiences as traumas. The identifying mark of a trauma – its lasting effect on the survivor long after the experience has taken place – can be surprisingly easy to overlook if not examined. Many survivors may experience triggering effects for years before recognising that they bear the scars of trauma. Still others may never come to be aware of it. Nevertheless, trauma triggering is a profoundly emotionally violent experience.
Others may have experienced the traumas for which they require trauma-sensitive teaching only recently, or worse, during the course of the ongoing teaching term – unfortunately, traumatic experiences continue to sometimes occur in students’ lives even as they attend university. Not only will those students require time to register their needs with the university formally, but it also may take them significant time to come to recognise the nature and magnitude of what they have experienced, and to seek out available forms of support. It is important that we treat our students with sensitivity in a more holistic way than by offering these formalised mechanisms of support. In addition to recognising the serious adverse effects of trauma, we must also recognise the extreme difficulty of seeking out and making use of support infrastructures. For a survivor of a trauma (especially a recent one), the prospect of sitting across a desk from an administrator equipped with a computer and a data entry system and facing the profound discomfort and emotional vulnerability of disclosing a trauma experience – even without elaboration of its details – can be paralysing and painful in itself. The responsibility for being conscious of these issues lies with ourselves as educators.
Trauma-sensitive teaching: How-to
While this may all sound like a lot of responsibility and, by extension, a lot of extra work, we can incorporate trauma sensitivity into our teaching with surprisingly little time and effort. We can also strategically design our trauma triggers to minimise the prevalence of non-traumatic distress being mistaken for trauma.
A central concern for the use of trigger warnings is that we cannot predict everything that will be triggering, and this leads some educators to feel that we might as well not bother trying to protect students from triggers. Just about anything may become associated with a traumatic experience in a trauma-survivor’s mind, so it’s impossible to avoid all triggers. However, there are some obvious likely triggers that can and should be avoided or, if they can’t be avoided, preceded by warnings. Contrary to the concerns of some academic staff that these adjustments undermine intellectual rigour, they can actually create opportunities for us to increase the empirical grounding or theoretical depth of our courses.
While it is never possible to evade triggers entirely – especially when dealing with particularly trauma-related topics – some triggering material can be avoided or minimised through creative framings of course material. Here are some examples I’ve encountered in my own teaching:
A debate about the reliability of assault claims from alleged victims (a discussion sure to be fraught with triggers) can be re-framed to focus on the structural and cultural sources of distrust of survivors’ accounts.
Debates about the extent to which racism has diminished (a conversation which can easily descend into the argument that it no longer exists, potentially triggering survivors of racist abuse) can instead be approached as a debate on the respective roles of culture and social structure in causing racism.
Discussion of the debate between radical feminism and transgender liberation (which is borne out in a literature rife with transphobic language) can be explored through a comparison of the assumptions about the relationship between structure and agency implicit in each side’s claims.
Teaching on male violence against women (often involving many triggering images) can focus on the relative efficacy of different protests and interventions aimed at decreasing it.
In these ways, a small adjustment to the framing of a lecture or discussion can serve the dual purposes of protecting trauma survivors in the classroom and making the course content more sociological and critically engaging.
In some cases, total avoidance of triggers is impossible, and trigger warnings must be used. In these cases, it can be helpful to phrase warnings in a way which both advises survivors of the trigger and reminds non-traumatised students of the difference between their own distress and trauma. A common way of phrasing trigger warnings is by stating that ‘this material may be upsetting’. While effective at warning students about the trigger, this can have the effect of conflating non-traumatic distress with trauma. Instead, warnings can be phrased in a way which highlights the trauma-specific reason for the warning: ‘This content contains graphic imagery/language relating to X. If you have personal experience of X type of abuse, this material may be triggering for you.’ This phrasing makes explicit for students that the warning is intended to protect survivors of traumatic experiences, rather than to shield students in general from being emotionally challenged by the course material.
Circulate trigger warnings to students before the class session. In cases where triggers cannot be eliminated from the lecture or tutorial, warning students of the trigger only just before it is presented is not sufficient. Recall that many trauma-surviving students will not want to identify themselves, and looking down at their desks or covering their ears during a triggering moment in a lecture may be a more self-identifying gesture than they are comfortable making. This is another reason why eliminating triggers from the lecture altogether is ideal. If you feel that the triggering material is of significant academic value, you may want to circulate two versions of lecture slides to students, one with triggers removed and one with them left in, so that students without trigger sensitivities can view the additional material outside of class. Remember to also mark likely triggering readings in the reading list, and to ensure that it is possible for students to participate fully in discussions and assessments without reading triggering material. Students with a particular interest in the topic of a specific lecture can explore the more triggering material on their own if they wish, or as part of an assessment. The common practice of providing a range of options for essay and exam questions enables students to select a question which will not compel them to read material that is likely to be triggering for them.
These fairly simple and straightforward adjustments to your teaching approach can be accomplished with as little as a few minutes of extra preparation time, and can make a tremendous difference toward protecting your trauma-surviving students. As you become accustomed to taking trauma issues into consideration in your coursework design, you’ll find that these things occur to you quickly and easily, and trauma sensitivity will become seamlessly integrated into your pedagogical thinking.
Trauma is not the same thing as being upset, and it is our responsibility as educators to know the difference and protect student survivors of trauma.
Students sometimes misunderstand the difference between trauma and being upset, but this does not excuse our conflating the two or neglecting to protect survivors.
Virtually any word, phrase, idea, or image can be a trigger for someone, so it will never be possible to completely avoid triggering students. However, we need to make a good-faith effort to protect students from likely triggers.
Trauma survivors are often ashamed of their powerful response to triggers, making them unlikely to come forward. Some who have trigger responses will themselves not recognise their experience as trauma or identify as trauma survivors. Trauma sensitivity policies need to reflect these realities.
How we phrase trigger warnings can serve as a reminder of the difference between trauma and being upset.
Our broader pedagogical decision-making should incorporate an awareness of the ubiquity of traumatic experience. As ethically-engaged educators, we can provide stimulating, intellectually challenging, and robust teaching to our students without compromising student safety, and this need not stop at trigger warnings.
The debates on trigger warnings draw a lot of ire from those who see academia as an intellectual endeavour which shouldn’t be sidelined by concerns about safety and well-being – especially emotional well-being. But we who are standing at the heads of classrooms in universities are very clever people. It’s well within our capabilities to construct ways of educating our students that are as intellectually challenging, rigorous, and enriching as they’ve ever been without compromising the well-being of our students. If we feel frustrated by the ever-growing demand for an academic space free of trauma triggers, then it may be beneficial for us to reflect on how frustrated trauma survivors are by the omnipresence of those triggers. Our trauma-surviving students do not want to make our lives more difficult. They just want to hear our lectures and read course material like everyone else – without the sensations of trauma.
- Ehlers, A., Hackman, A. and Michael, T. 2004. ‘Intrusive re-experiencing in post-traumatic stress disorder: phenomenology, theory, and therapy.’ Memory, 12(4): 403-415.
- Ehlers, A., Hackman, A., Steil, R., Clohessy, S., Wenninger, K. and Winter, H. 2002. ‘The nature of intrusive memories after trauma: the warning signal hypothesis.’ Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40(9): 995-1002.
This article follows from a very fruitful and illuminating dialogue with Prof. Celia Kitzinger. Many thanks to Prof. Kitzinger for her thoughts and insights on this important topic.