Over the last couple of years, I have read a decent amount about using trigger warnings in college classrooms. A trigger warning is a statement that alerts people about sensitive subject matter that could cause them distress. The idea is that individuals should evaluate their past experiences in light of the upcoming content and consider if and how they wish to proceed.
While I’ve read the different thoughts on having trigger warnings in syllabi, or even put out in advance of a particular class, I had not given them much thought. The use of them simply hadn’t applied to me. There are a variety of opinions on the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms. Some consider them silly and others argued that they resulted in students not having to engage with sensitive, and emotionally difficult, content.
However, trigger warnings, if used well and in a thoughtful manner, are intended to alert students to potentially emotional content but not in a way that requires them to disengage from it. It’s in this camp that I have found myself in when planning a class.
The Emotional Response
One of my classes is getting ready to read Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. There comes a point in the book where I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the foster care system and it’s role in how students experience education. I found a great talk by Molly McGrath Tierney on Rethinking Foster Care.
The thing to know about me is that I used to be a foster parent. I did it for three years. It was
exhausting work, and the system is horrible. It’s horrible for children, and it also doesn’t work for foster parents. As a member of this system, I was given access to stories for why children were in foster care. I had to read files that told me — in very vivid details — what the abuse was that they experienced. Keep in mind, I have never experienced any abuse of this level. I simply read it.
And as I watched Molly’s talk, I found myself crying. Crying because suddenly I started to remember these horrible details I had read. Crying because it dredged up for me awful memories of having been a participant in that system. Crying because I was remembering painful events.
What About My Students?
I still wanted to include the video in my class. Having watched it and dealt with my emotions I figured I could handle it. However, I realized that I had no idea if any of my students had been a part of the foster care system. What if they had been? What memories might this stir up for them? It’s the kind of thing that can catch you off guard.
So I left a note — a trigger warning if you will — above the video. It reads:
NOTE: If you were ever a part of the foster care system, this may be a sensitive video to watch. I encourage you to watch it in advance (it’s only 11 minutes). If you have questions or concerns about viewing it in class, please let me know.
Notice I did not say that students should not watch the video or engage with the content. I think they should. I’m not asking anyone to share personal trauma in class. I may or may not share that I was a foster parent. We’ll see how it plays out. Honestly, I may not be in a place where I want to deal with talking about it. However, it might be that someone in my class could do with some advance warning. Watch it. Process it. If you still think you can’t handle it during class, let me know.