A lot of people have been writing about (not) including content notes/trigger warnings on their class syllabi. An inordinately large number of writers have come out against the idea, and the issue has reached headlines as student groups have pushed for their use and administrations grapple with whether or not to implement such guidelines. This hubbub, and the pushback, was surprising to me – especially given how small the request is. I’m amenable to their use, and I see no reason to not use them – they don’t have to impinge on academic freedom, change course material, or feature prominently – but they could help students deal with sensitive material.
That’s why I was very happy to see Angus Johnston’s piece in Inside Higher Ed address how he plans to use content notes in his courses from now on. I appreciated not only his direct demonstration of how he planned to use them, but his effort to move beyond merely avoiding triggering post-traumatic episodes and towards creating a safer space for learning – something all educators should want to do. He writes:
These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.
Shortly after reading this, I wrote on social media about my own miniature experience with this type of warning. When I was student teaching a few years ago, I showed my students Atomic Cafe, a documentary about the nuclear age. It includes a scene showing footage of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, and I had forgotten how graphic it was. Some students in my first class were caught off-guard by the footage, and I don’t think they got much out of the rest of the film. I gave my subsequent classes notice, both at the beginning of the video and right before the scene, and I think that helped prepare them.
This is a small example, but is exactly the kind of thing that can help make students aware of the course material without constraining the curriculum at all. Be sure to read all of Johnston’s piece, as I think it’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, as well this follow-up post from his friend on disability and access in education.