When Auburn University students picked up their fall syllabus for a Fundamentals of Engineering class, the first thing they saw was a bright red trigger warning, cautioning them that the class would include not only tough math concepts but also “work, energy, stress, quiz, grade.”
Don’t worry. It was pure satire.
“It was just a lark,” says Peter Schwartz, the professor who has put the mock trigger warning at the top of his syllabus for the past two semesters. “I didn’t have anything better to do that day. I see all this stuff with trigger warnings, and I just said, ‘Gee, what would one look like if I did one for this class?’… I don’t believe in them. I think they’re a joke.”
But nationwide, trigger warnings are being taken seriously, with 63 percent of students favoring them in a recent Yale survey.
In 2015, an Auburn biochemistry student wrote a letter to the editor to the Plainsman, expressing outrage that the college publication hadn’t issued a trigger warning for a story and accompanying image about sexual harassment on campus.
“Not only did you have no regard for how this may affect or trigger survivors of any type of sexual misconduct, but within your title or the article itself you listed no trigger warning for the topics you discussed. … You may have unknowingly caused survivors to be triggered back to their experiences,” wrote senior Chloe Chaudhury.
Auburn’s spokesman did not respond to Heat Street’s media inquiry by deadline about Schwartz’s syllabus and trigger warnings on campus. But Apryl Alexander, who spent three years working as a psychology professor at Auburn, said the university has had no formal policy on trigger warnings.
A specialist in violence and victimization, Alexander says she’s used them periodically in her psychology classes. She estimated that as many as one in four of the students sitting in her class have experienced a trauma, citing veterans as one example.
But Alexander adds that it’s not appropriate to avoid sensitive topics because they may be triggering. Instead, she says she usually offers a brief warning before delving in, telling students they’re free to leave but also encouraging them to stay and participate in the discussion.
“I think what’s going on now is people are getting away from the initial purpose of trigger warnings,” Alexander says, citing concerns about censorship. “I would like for us to have more dialogue about why they were created, what their purpose and intent is, and not to go overboard on what I can or cannot discuss in the classroom and what students can or can’t handle.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.