Faculty members debate use of trigger warnings in classrooms

Assistant professor of philosophy and women’s studies Amanda Roth has used trigger warnings in her classeswhen dealing with sensitive material. In her gender and sexualities course (pictured above) Roth provides a trigger warning before delving into discussion on sexual violence. 

The implementation of trigger warnings has become increasingly prevalent over the last few years. Geneseo currently has no policy about the application of these warnings in classroom settings. 

Faculty members are left to determine whether they would like to use trigger warnings, according to Vice President for Student and Campus Life Robert Bonfiglio. Interim Provost and professor of English Paul Schacht said that he believes that Geneseo does not have any specific guidelines due to the various cases that occur when dealing with trigger warnings.

“I don’t know if you could write a policy that would help you figure out how to navigate and negotiate these individual cases,” Schacht said. “What I do know is that the right thing for students and faculty to do is to be open to talking to each other and listening to each other and finding ways to work together that are based on respect, empathy and a recognition of what our shared goals are.”

If a student comes to a faculty member and explains that they are generally uncomfortable with the required course material, Schacht said he believes offering alternative assignments could be problematic.

“Writers, historians and literary writers write about things in order to call attention to them, often in order to make us—the readers—feel like we’re living through that experience,” he said. “So we’d be in a bad place if every time we assigned stuff that made people feel uncomfortable we had to offer an alternative assignment.”

With the decision to enforce trigger warnings left in the hands of the faculty, each take their own approach in administering such warnings. 

Assistant professor of philosophy and women’s studies Amanda Roth said that she believes that in some cases the controversial nature of a course can be self-evident in the titles of the courses themselves, citing courses she has taught on pornography and abortion as examples. Roth also explained that some faculty members may be hesitant to apply such warnings in their classrooms because they could take away from the power of a literary work or a film, but that she does implement them in her own classes out of courtesy for her students. 

“Because I teach women’s studies courses, most of those courses involve some discussion of sexual violence—often a lot of discussion,” Roth said. “What I tend to do is if there’s a particular unit or if there’s a particular book or film, I usually will mention something.”

Adjunct lecturer of philosophy Charles Hertrick said that he believes that a general warning during the introductory class session and a caveat note in the syllabus are sufficient in making students aware of the nature of the course content.

“I do not think it would be possible to avoid all controversial topics with the humanities,” Hertrick said. “I also think part of it is the experience of reading the text directly, confronting the text and wrestling with the text.”

 Professor and Chair of the philosophy department Theodore Everett echoed similar beliefs, explaining that it is the professor’s responsibility to fully explain the content of the course. At the same time, Everett said that his classrooms must be open to free speech.

“If controversial material appears in the course, I expect everyone to take it in the spirit of inquiry, and feel free to argue either way about it, but not expect it to be suppressed,” Everett said.

Faculty believe that students’ reservations and complaints are to be taken seriously with this topic, expressing that they are available to assist them in handling the material.

“It is my job to advocate for the students,” Bonfiglio said. “So if a student came to me and said they wanted a particular warning in a particular class, I would be supportive of them.”

News editor Annie Renaud contributed reporting to this article.