College is a time of seeking and searching. As students gain deeper insights into various fields, forge bonds with different kinds of people, and craft identities as individuals, they are likely to encounter the harsher realities of life. While they may have been largely shielded from discomfiting and disturbing information in school, students gain a more adult and uncensored perspective in college. However, given that mental health issues among young people are more widespread nowadays, should colleges offer trigger warnings before introducing disturbing topics such as caste discrimination, domestic violence, genocide, or psychiatric conditions?
I teach a hybrid course for educators who would like to upskill themselves and one of the online lectures focused on mental health issues. Before launching into a discussion, I put up a slide saying that if anyone found the content disturbing, they could take a break and return after some time. The session went smoothly though I wasn’t aware if any participant needed to avail of a break.
During role play
Subsequently, during face-to-face classes with the same group, participants formed smaller groups for an assignment requiring them to write a script and perform role play. The topic revolved around emotional and behavioural issues that crop up in a classroom. After discussing in small groups, the class reconvened and each group performed.
I didn’t notice anything was amiss until the debriefing session at the end when one group confessed that it had a tough time, as two members became very emotional while recounting their own personal experiences during the discussion. Though the members felt they had a very productive exchange with each other, their role-play didn’t capture the depth of their earlier discussion.
While I could have given a trigger warning at the beginning of the session, I am not sure whether this would have changed the outcome. In an article in The New York Times, Katherine Rosman quotes Amna Khalid, a professor of history at Carleton College, who believes that trigger warnings are “ineffective” in addressing students’ mental health concerns.
I also told the participants that, as they were all adult learners, they could have explained what had transpired before performing the role-play. This would have been an excellent opportunity for the class to practice what we had been discussing: handling socio-emotional issues in a classroom as and when they arise.
Recently, Cornell University decided that professors need not provide trigger warnings to students. In her article, Rosman reports that a member of the University’s “undergraduate student assembly” framed a resolution exhorting professors to forewarn students about “traumatic content” in readings or class discussions. This was passed unopposed in the assembly. However, when sent to the administration for approval, the President of the University vetoed it, arguing that it violated fundamental principles of “academic freedom and freedom of inquiry”; two hallmarks of a robust education.
My take-home lesson is that we, as teachers, must be sensitive to our students’ socioemotional needs. While we may provide trigger warnings when emotional topics are being discussed, it is not possible for teachers to anticipate, which issues will press a button each time. In classrooms, as in life, we can’t always anticipate what is thrown at us.
Further, while professors and students must be sensitive to the emotional needs of others in a classroom, we need to create a conducive climate where people are also free to express their views. A rounded education is one that exposes you to multiple viewpoints, some of which can be discomfiting. But growth and learning often result when we process and try to make sense of disturbing facts or divergent opinions.
While mental health concerns should be taken seriously and attended to, students should not equate all negative emotions with trauma. Authentic debate, which can sometimes get heated, is an integral facet of the collegiate experience. What we need to do is agree to disagree respectfully and mindfully.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. Email: email@example.com