How not to write a trigger policy


There has been much press about the growing movement to mandate (either as formal requirements or as “strong encouragement”) the addition of trigger warnings to syllabi. I think that we ought to resist allowing colleges and universities to set trigger warning policies, though I am supportive of the use of such warnings by individual faculty members. I have used such warnings myself over the years, though never specifically under the description of “trigger warning.” Here, I will not defend the stronger claim that we ought to resist such policies; instead, I want to highlight the profound failures of the actual proposal that has been put forward.

Before I get into it, I want to add that faculty and staff might also be subject to triggers, especially once we move to the categories of institutionalized oppression and structural violence (e.g., racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.). If faculty are to be bound by a policy designed to minimize the harms of this kind of violence, then administrations ought to be so bound as well. Administrators should also “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression,” and so perhaps their exploitative contracts with adjuncts and other non-tenure track faculty should come with trigger warnings as well. After all, if the psychological harm triggered by representations of structural violence deserves a warning, so too should the actual structural violence perpetrated by the institutions themselves.1

The document

Since much of the debate online has focused on the now tabled policy implemented by Oberlin, it seems important to take that policy as a guide to understanding the difficulties in setting such policies.

The policy was published on Oberlin’s Office of Equity Concerns site. As a part of the “Policy on Discrimination and Harassment,” there is a “Sexual Offense Resource Guide,” and the trigger warning material appears under the heading “Support Resources for Faculty” in the “Prevention, Support, Education” section of that guide.

In that context, the policy on triggers is a small section of a much longer document that has important information for faculty about the frequency of sexualized violence and how to handle students presenting with problems associated with being survivors.

How not to make a trigger policy

There are two problems with the policy that I want to focus on; they are problems with the policy as a policy. Essentially, the policy is utterly ineffective in guiding faculty action: it neither adequately identifies the phenomena faculty are to be aware of nor does it provide sufficiently useful guidance to faculty for handling potential triggers.

What faculty are supposed to be aware of

The first problem with policies about trigger warnings is that the specification of the objects of such warnings—triggers—and their causes are so diffuse as to preclude this policy from providing actual guidance to faculty. Although this material appears in the “Sexual Offense Resource Guide,” triggers aren’t limited to sexual or intimate partner violence, and, as we’ll see, they cover a wide range of matters. I’m not being willfully obtuse here for the sake of making an argument. Consider what the policy says under the heading “Understand triggers, avoid unnecessary triggers, and provide trigger warnings” about what a trigger is:

A trigger is something that recalls a traumatic event to an individual. Reactions to triggers can take many different forms; individuals may feel any range of emotion during and after a trigger. Experiencing a trigger will almost always disrupt a student’s learning and may make some students feel unsafe in your classroom.

Note that we’ve moved away from concerns specifically about sexual violence to any trauma. As we’ll see in a moment, this isn’t because the policy introduces the concept to apply it to the case of sexual violence. Even so, there is nothing actionable in this definition—and indeed that it may not even be correct. The problem isn’t that triggers (in the relevant sense) bring to mind a traumatic event in any old fashion, but rather that they bring strong or damaging responses. Telling faculty that triggers bring to mind a trauma and that reactions to it vary isn’t edifying; it doesn’t help faculty either identify or understand the behavior that they are to attend to.

Matters don’t get better as we add to the account:

Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.

It is good for us to be “aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression”—indeed, I think we ought to destroy such institutional structures, and I do what I can on that front. However, I also don’t think this is a particularly helpful piece of guidance to faculty members. The phenomena here are really way too complex to effectively codify, and this attempt to codify it is particularly unhelpful. First, the issue is trauma, not violence—precisely because (pace this document) not all forms of violence are traumatic in this sense. There might be consensual forms of violence that are cathartic, some violent events might be sufficiently trivial as to not traumatize, and many things can be traumatic without being violent (say, accidentally seeing one’s parents having sex).

Further, listing modes of institutionalized forms of oppression and privilege—especially with the unhelpful addition of an “and other issues” caveat—without offering anything like an explanation of what you mean is utterly unhelpful in the process of reforming classroom practice. The structural analysis of oppression is surely the correct one, but it is not exactly the default view that can be assumed to be shared by everyone. At a minimum, some guidance as to how these categories are best understood and how they function is necessary to ensure that faculty who are unaware of these things might be able to comply with the policy.

But even granting an understanding of that conception of oppression and privilege, just what course of action is recommend by the policy is a bit opaque. Let’s take racism as an example, since I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. My field, philosophy, has a disproportionate amount of men—but it has an even worse race problem, in that it is likely over 90% white. In particular, recent statistics suggest that fewer than 125 out of 11,000 members of the American Philosophical Association are black. This is pretty clearly—to me, at any rate—an instance (or at least a consequence) of Western racism’s denigration of non-white cultures and the erasure of non-white experiences. Forget the potential triggers in Chinua Achebe’s representations of colonialism in Things Fall Apart—a typical philosophy syllabus is an instance of colonialism. This sort of erasure is a form of structural violence, and a syllabus that features exclusively white thinkers could reasonably trigger a student to recall troubling memories of past racist experiences in the classroom—or even of ongoing experiences on campus.2 Is this the sort of thing that calls for a trigger warning? And, if it is, shouldn’t the solution be undoing the colonialism rather than noting that it is colonialism?

Given the foregoing, faculty are being instructed to be aware of “anything that might cause trauma,” and that is a rather more ill-defined task than the policy lets on. So, we cannot isolate what we’re trying to protect our students from by reference to the kind of thing it is (beyond that it is traumatic). Okay, perhaps we can figure out what we’re supposed to be concerned with by reference to the kind of thing that does the triggering—that is, by identifying the triggers themselves.

Anything could be a trigger—a smell, song, scene, phrase, place, person, and so on. Some triggers cannot be anticipated, but many can.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Remembering what a faculty member is

At this point, I think it is necessary to remind people just what a faculty member is. A faculty member is a scholar of some sort—an expert in some field of inquiry. Outside of a few mental-health fields, none of us receive training in dealing with mental health issues or structural violence as a part of our graduate work. Rather, we learn how to inquire about and express our ideas. If an institution wants to address the mental health needs of its students, that should be handled by actual mental health professionals using best practices—not by people whose expertise is pre-Socratic philosophy or physical cosmology or mycology. If faculty are to be involved, then we need adequate and accurate information as well as paid training. Given that at best 33% of faculty are in tenure track positions, I’m not holding my breath. Indeed, this raises an even deeper problem: even if faculty are consulted in formulating these policies, non-tenure track faculty don’t generally have a vote, and they are more likely to be overburdened in terms of numbers of classes and students and less likely to have commitments from institutions about long-term employment or support for professional development. I feel like there’s a point in here about structural violence, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

What faculty are supposed to do

But, I digress. Let’s suppose that we can reasonably well identify potentially triggering material. The advice on how to proceed is equally problematic. The opening gambit is this:

Remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.

I cannot speak for every faculty member ever, but I am having a difficult time imagining that there is a general problem with faculty assigning material for class that “does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Are there physics faculty requiring students to watch The Bunny Game? I would have thought that faculty generally followed a rule that material for the class per se should contribute directly to course learning goals; I know that I always have way too much material to cover in any class. But philosophy, especially as I practice it, may be different from other fields, and so a surprising range of material can “contribute directly to the course learning goals.”

My suspicion is that what is being suggested here is not “directness” but rather “uniqueness”—that is, faculty are to avoid triggering material when it isn’t strictly speaking required, perhaps because other, non-triggering material would suffice. We can see why this might be what the policy is getting at by considering the next item in the policy:

Sometimes a work is too important to avoid. For example, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.

I think this bolsters the reading of the previous “recommendation” as saying that triggering material is by default to be avoided—it is to be included only when it is “too important to avoid.” However, no guidance is provided about what would make a work “too important to avoid” other than the single example of Things Fall Apart, made without reference to what sort of course one might assign it in. Things Fall Apart is unlikely to be related to the learning goals of a class on atmospheric science, for example. Is it too important to avoid in a first-year composition course?

The key failure in this part of the document is that it does nothing in the way of offering guidance for faculty in understanding how to asses the material in their classes. After all, part of the answer to the question of whether a text is “too important to avoid” is the question of whether the class itself is sufficiently “important” to warrant using it.

Here’s an example of what I have in mind: suppose, as is the case, that I’ve surveyed the depictions of violence in cinema for years, and so I want to offer a course on that material. I would be willing to say that a large portion of that material isn’t “too important to avoid” in the sense of being “a triumph of” cinema; indeed, some of it will be from quite low quality films that, aside from prurient interest and this particular class, nobody has any reason to watch. Nonetheless, the films might be important to this class. Are such films “too important to avoid,” especially given that the course’s subject matter itself might not be centrally important to film studies or philosophical approaches to film? Is this policy recommending against offering the class? I pose these not as rhetorical questions, but as genuine ones.


I’ve not argued here that policies of the sort under consideration are “wrong” or “bad ideas” per se; rather, I’ve argued that the policy is of no help at all to people who want to do right by their students. After all, I’ve worked quite a while in understanding structural violence in many of its forms, and I don’t think that I understand how to follow the policy in question; I fear for my friends and colleagues who lack even that background knowledge. A proper policy needs a clearly articulated goal, an actionable specification of the problem, and effective guidance in how to implement the policy. This is not a proper policy.

  1. I’ll leave aside the question as to whether their job ads for tenure track faculty should come with trigger warnings about the elitism and classism built into the hiring practices of elite institutions in academia. 
  2. Before my well-meaning fellow philosophers get on my case about how they aren’t racist or white supremacist, let me ask the following: take a look at your syllabi, and ask yourself how different they would look in terms of the racial composition of authors if you “were really” racist or white supremacist. If the answer is in the ballpark of “they’d have about the same number of non-white people” (which I’d wager is close to zero), then you should rethink your view of white supremacy.