Trigger warnings issued over sensitive lecture content

The Newcastle University Campus. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Sarah CossomThe Newcastle University Campus. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Sarah Cossom

Newcastle University has begun employing a policy of ‘trigger warnings’ and guidelines for lectures that will be covering ‘sensitive material’ such as rape, misogyny, war crimes and graphic images. This follows the lead of many American institutions, as well as UK universities including Goldsmiths, Edinburgh, Oxford and the London School of Economics.

University students studying topics that are distressing, are being given extra support in the way of deadline extensions, resits and approved absences from lectures to prevent detrimental effects on student grades and wellbeing. Whilst this policy has support across the staffing board, many critics have argued that this ‘mollycoddling’ of students is preventing them facing their problems and addressing these serious society-wide issues.

Dr Chris Haywood, a lecturer from the School of Arts and Cultures highlights this argument, stating that this policy “often gets polarised into two camps of being either overly cautious or not cautious enough” and suggests that it’s imperative to remember that the student experience should be the primary priority for any lecturer.

As the module leader for ‘Sex, Sexuality and Desire’, Dr Haywood has lots of experience in handling sensitive and uncomfortable topics, and always aspires to provide his students with a safe and open learning environment.  He concluded “creating the best possible experience for students, should in itself, produce an ethical practice” which proposes that the choice to use, or not use trigger warnings, should be made wholly with the students wellbeing, and university career in mind.

Third year undergraduates taking the Themes and Issues in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies module, encountered this “trigger warning” policy last week, during teaching on ‘engaging men in ending sexual violence against women’. 

The option was given to not attend the lectures, or subsidiary film screenings and seminars, due to distressing content regarding rape and sexual assault.

Prior to taking the session, lecturer Dr Clifton Evers outlined the content of the presentation and provided all students with a set of contact details for wellbeing and support services, also reiterating to those in attendance that they were free to excuse themselves at any time. He emphasized that the trigger warning for this particular topic was necessary, and that it was not a form of mollycoddling, but rather an awareness and level of compassion for his students.

“There’s always a possibility that there are survivors in my class, given that 1 in 5 women in the UK aged 16-59 have experienced sexual violence” he stated. These statistics alone show the prominent issue around sexual assault itself, and whilst Dr Evers admitted that it is of vital importance that students know and learn how to address these issues, he is a strong supporter of trigger warnings which “allow them to do so on their own terms”.

Victims of sexual assault and sexual violence live the rest of their lives with the trauma and fear of the original attack. These trigger warnings employed by Dr Evers were enforced to ensure that students that had personal experience with the topic, were not made to endure content that would possibly trigger extremely upsetting memories for them. Student wellbeing was his main priority when delivering the topic that he admitted, himself feeling some discomfort with presenting.

However, according to a 2015 report surveying members of The National Coalition Against Censorship, the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association, 60% of professors firmly believe trigger warnings are damaging academic freedom and stifling progress. The report also raised questions about trigger warnings preventing students from engaging with important topics, and how students can simply use these warnings as an excuse not to attend classes.

The use of trigger warnings in general has been of high debate over the last couple of years, mainly surrounding outlets such as film, TV and literature. It’s entrance and introduction to an academic environment, has proven controversial due to its seemingly restrictive nature on the learning process of students.  This argument revolves around the question of whether providing these ‘trigger warnings’ protects students from potentially harmful materials that could resurface traumatic past events, or simply drowns out free speech and learning.

Both Dr Haywood and Dr Evers addressed these concerns by agreeing that caution must be taken not to overuse trigger warnings, but also voiced the importance of student wellbeing, and of being aware of individual student histories, backgrounds and circumstances.

Sensitive topics, content and materials feature in academics, as well as wider life. Which is why sheltering students from uncomfortable or distressing materials has to be done cautiously so as not to prevent them learning how to cope with afflictive scenarios, but also with care, compassion and empathy.

Newcastle University has services in place for students who are struggling with a range of issues.

Lecturers are encouraging students who have been triggered by the contents of lectures to seek the support they need at student well-being.

These services can be accessed online, by telephone or on Level 2 of Kingsgate building located on the University’s main campus.

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