Trigger Warnings Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean: A Practical Application

    It will get better, keep hope alive
    Photo taken from SMCM Wellness Center

    So you’re an English professor. On the list for your semester’s curriculum is the book Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

    You consider this book a necessary text, on many grounds—Nabokov’s mastery of language, his use of an unreliable narrator, the cultural impact the book has had—whatever. Doesn’t matter. It’s an important book and you want your class to read it.

    But you also want to look out for the mental health of your students, because, hey, shouldn’t we all be doing that? So, on your syllabus, you put a blanket warning about some of the subjects you’re going to be covering in class. Maybe you put a warning specifically for Lolita; maybe for some of the other books that feature intense themes, too (because, let’s be real, if I had a nickel for every book in the English canon featuring violence against women I’d…certainly have some nickels).

    The class period before you’re going to start discussion, you hold up the class and you say something like this: “A fair warning for those of you who don’t know— Nabokov’s book features some pretty intense descriptions of pedophilia and sexual abuse of children. The book is told through the eyes of a predator and addresses the audience as if they were hearing the courtroom defense of his actions. If the topic makes you uncomfortable, or you’d for any reason like to talk to me about it, you can drop by during office hours or we can set up an appointment to discuss your feelings about the text.”

    There you go. You’re done.

    Now, if you’re a student in that class, and you have reason to be affected by a book dealing with those themes, you have a lot of options open to you. Some students might just be happy to have the warning—they have the information they need to mentally prepare themselves for what they’re about to read, and that’s enough for them. Others might take steps to protect their own health—they might set aside some time for decompression after reading, like a mental cool-down. They might make another appointment with their therapist, or with the campus Wellness Center.  They might just call their mom, or they might journal about what they’re reading, or they might watch cartoons to take their mind off of it afterwards.

    I’d say that for the majority of students (of the minority who need trigger warnings in the first place) these steps would probably suffice.

    There might be some, of course, who truly feel they can’t read the book, for the sake of their mental health. And in that case, it’s largely up to the policy of the professor. If that student goes to their professor and says, “I’m sorry, I think I’m too affected by this material to analyze it in class; I’m willing to substitute the book or do supplemental work to replace it,” the professor can either say, “I’m open to that, what do you think about substituting it with _________?” or they can say, “I’m sorry, Lolita is fundamental to this course and I don’t think you’ll get the full experience without reading it.” At that point the student might reevaluate, or they might just say, “Well, I think I might have to drop the class then.”

    And that’s…fine. Students drop classes for all sorts of reasons. And that particular student, if they’re so affected, probably would have dropped the class anyway, but under more duress and under much worse circumstances.

    Either way, “not reading Lolita” is not some sort of mortal sin that means you’ve cut yourself off from the realm of “true literature” and have destined yourself to be one of the many sheep-like masses who will never understand society on a real level…or whatever. You just didn’t read the book. How many other kids in that class will pretend to read Lolita because they didn’t have time? The world’s not going to end.

    Why I feel the need to lay this out is because the “end of the world” seems to be what a lot of doomsayers think is going to happen if college professors start implementing trigger warnings. That’s why there have already been a thousand Op-Ed articles (just like this one, sorry about that) and think-pieces about “self-censorship” and “PC culture” and “the death of the classroom.” The University of Chicago recently issued a letter to the student body with an ill-informed missive about how their school will not be a place for students to be “coddled” by trigger warnings and safe spaces. There’s a broad misunderstanding out there about a) what trigger warnings are, b) who they are useful for, and c) what people do with them.

    And to those of you who say they aren’t useful, that most students will never have need of trigger warnings even if faculty begin to use them on a wider scale—maybe you’re right. I would even say that most students will never need or use trigger warnings. But I also know this: you’re naïve if you think there aren’t rape survivors on your campus, in your classroom. You’re naïve if you think there aren’t St. Mary’s students with PTSD, with mental illnesses. And even if you, as a professor, only hear from one or two students a year who are helped by your 30 second warning at the beginning of class—isn’t that worth it?


    1. I was very happy to see trigger warnings. I have experience with PTSD and that extra time to prepare mentally to deal with things is so important and very welcome. The healing process is slow. We’re not asking to be coddled, we’re just asking for a little compassion. It’s nice to see people be more understanding of mental health issues! A positive step away from victim-blaming.