ALJASSAR: Trigger warnings not welcome

Trigger warnings in academia can negatively impact students’ relationships with literature

In order to alert students of course materials containing potentially traumatic topics, professors around the nation have begun placing “trigger warnings” on course syllabi, a trend that emerged from the feminist blogosphere. In April, Oberlin College scrapped a policy that advised professors to provide trigger warnings after faculty members protested that the guidelines threatened academic and pedagogical freedom. Oberlin made the right move; trigger warnings do not belong in higher education.

Last month, The New Yorker contributor Jay Caspian Kang penned an article titled “Trigger Warnings and the Novelist’s Mind” in which he asserted that the use of trigger warnings in higher education harms “the sanctity of the relationship between the reader and the text.” Kang recalls a Columbia graduate school lecture wherein his professor said: “When you read Lolita, keep in mind that what you’re reading is about the systematic rape of a young girl.” Such caveats, according to Kang, strip works of art to no more than plot points.

I agree. To condense the novel into the subject of rape diminishes Vladimir Nabokov’s elegant prose saturated with irony, wit and wordplay. Pre-emptive trigger warning labels stand between texts and ourselves, encumbering our engagement with literature.

Introducing “An Encounter,” the second story of James Joyce’s Dubliners, with a trigger warning for child abuse interferes with our understanding of Joyce’s naturalistic portrayal of the early 20th century Irish middle class. In effect, trigger warnings present a danger to our treatment of literary canon. Attaching a trigger warning for scenes of sexual assault and abuse to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple makes it harder to take a raw, critical approach to the ways in which Walker explores race and gender in the 1930s American South.

And what if we extend the use of trigger warnings to other disciplines such as art history? Should an examination of Saturn Devouring His Son, one of the most distinguished pieces in Francisco Goya’s oeuvre, be slapped with a trigger warning for child violence or cannibalism? Surely not, as the warning would only distance the average student from the formal qualities of the canvas.

Here’s another problem: which artistic and literary works demand trigger warnings? In a course on symbolism, should the instructor warn students that Odilon Redon’s drawings of spiders might trigger traumatic memories for the small minority of arachnophobes in the classroom? Or do we stop at sexual assault and abuse?

What about triggers that are peculiar to certain individuals? Jessica Valenti, founder of the Feministing blog, recently wrote an article on trigger warnings in which she recalled a position in yoga class that sent her into a panic attack “because it so closely resembled a position [she] was in when [she] had an emergency C-section.” It would be impossible to prevent exposure to similarly specific triggers on a course syllabus, as any word or image can be a trigger. The problem with one-size-fits-all trigger warning policies is that they are rooted in universal assumptions about the reader and his or her reaction to a work of art. Rejection of those assumptions (and, consequently, trigger warnings) is something that feminist bloggers and academic leaders can get behind.

Upon hearing Kang’s anecdote, Feministing editor Alexandra Brodsky offered a barbed response: “What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you!” I imagine she and many others would share those words with me. It’s hard to adopt my position without appearing privileged and insensitive. I don’t mean to say that the concerns of students who have experienced trauma are marginal. What I mean to say is that, for the reasons I have outlined, there is no place for trigger warning policies in lecture halls. As an alternative, student disability centers should offer to accommodate students who have experienced trauma by making case-by-case arrangements with professors.

Nazar Aljassar is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

related stories