Should this Headline Contain a Trigger Warning?

If you’ve recently found yourself sat in a lecture theatre talking about distressing or upsetting topics, then the chances are that you came across a ‘Content Note’ beforehand. Content Notes work in a similar fashion to ‘Trigger Warnings’, in that tutors hand out a list of the topics which will come up in a certain seminar, workshop or lecture so that students can be aware of any distressing content which they might face. But, while this policy of ‘better safe than sorry’ may sound like a universally good idea, Content Notes have been met by strong criticism across the academic field.

To try and figure out just why Content Notes cause such a rift between academics, LUU held an in-depth discussion in Room 6 of the Union on 31st October. Before any of the five speakers took the floor, the discussion opened with an informal Q&A session spread out across the many tables. With those in attendance chatting away with the same tenacity as they made their way through the ample selection of coffee and cakes, you could tell from the start that Content Notes were a topic fresh on people’s lips.

The first speaker was Dr Michelle Bentley, a Reader in International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Public Policy at Royal Holloway, University of London. Having previously taught modules on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, it’s fair to say that Bentley is well acquainted with triggering topics. Bentley began by eloquently explaining that trigger warnings are like marmite – not because they’ll ruin your morning toast, but because the mere mention of them splits opinion so severely. Challenging herself to understand why giving students trigger warnings was, in and of itself, such a triggering issue, Bentley conducted a study amongst her students. This study simply asked for qualitative and quantitive responses to whether students felt more comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics after receiving a trigger warning.

Unsurprisingly, Bentley found that students were similarly split when it came to the issue of Content Notes. While some students admitted that Content Notes made them feel more comfortable, some students said that it led to them being more likely to skip their lectures. Similarly, while concerns were raised that Content Notes would lead to censorship, others thought that these warnings would result in tutors being less likely to self-censure themselves during the discussion of sensitive topics. The majority of concerns seemed to revolve around the fear that trigger warnings infantilise student audiences, an argument supported by the fact that third-year students were more likely to react negatively to them than their second-year counterparts. Bentley, therefore, concluded that a pragmatic approach needs to be taken in the implementation of Content Notes, otherwise we’re going to find ourselves firmly in marmite territory for the foreseeable future.

Responding to Bentley, Matt Port, Welfare Officer at LUU, tapped into the most vocal concerns surrounding Content Notes emitting from the student bubble and the Union. Matt recognised that LUU is often perceived as an institution which deliberately avoids dialogue in order to prevent causing distress, but he reiterated that this was a consequence of LUU’s desire to ensure that concerns over wellbeing are ingrained into every decision they make, rather than actively shying away from debate. Ultimately, the call for the implementation of Content Notes was put forward at forum; it is a student concern and, at the end of the day, it’s about making sure all students at Leeds can “feel free to choose any modules or courses at Leeds without fear of it affecting our mental health.”

As an issue mostly confined to the lecture hall, it’s important to consider how Content Notes operate online, as well. This issue was given more clarity by Dr Polly Wilding and Dr Cathy Coombs, of the University’s History department. Over the past year, the pair have been teaching an entirely online module titled ‘Power & Conflict’. Because the module’s name doesn’t necessarily indicate any triggering content, and because the digital content needs to be extremely detailed so that students can learn adequately from home, the problem Wilding and Coombs encountered was that triggering content could be unexpected and difficult for students to simply avoid during their research. The online nature of the module also meant that staff couldn’t realistically respond to how students were engaging with the uncomfortable content unless students actively met with the module organisers to inform them of any problems. The pair finished with the observation that we need to distinguish between what is upsetting and what is traumatic when discussing trigger warnings; to be upset might in fact “encourage people to actually go out and do something about it.”

The next speaker, Dr Maria do Mar Pereira, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, opened up a fascinating and previously unmentioned side to the dialogue. Reflecting on the lecture theatre as a place of work rather than just a space of learning, do Mar Pereira argued that we need to consider the environments in which we discuss distressing issues just as much as we need to consider the content itself. To elucidate this point, she gathered two glasses of water on the desk; one of the glasses was almost full, the other glass contained barely any water. Pouring an additional amount of water into each glass, we saw that the same amount of water will have vastly different consequences on a student depending on how much stress they are already experiencing. The metaphor was crystal clear, and hers was perhaps the most pertinent question people took away from the discussion: “what can we do to get rid of the water in the glass?”

Tasked with summing up the preceding arguments, Dr Heather Logue reflected on her experience of using trigger warnings throughout her teaching. Logue refuses to believe that Content Notes are a form of infantilisation; in her eyes, she directly treats her students as adults by informing them of potentially distressing content and letting them decide whether they want to be a part of that discussion.

However, Logue did have a final worry: even if tutors are fully clued up on sensitive topics, are they accountable if their students fail to exhibit the same level of sensitivity? This worry reflected the mood of the room as the event came to close; there was a real sense that the informative and critical discussions had left just as many questions as answers, the very least of which was whether, by incorporating Content Notes into their teaching, lecturers actually fail to prepare students for a world in which trigger warnings are often at the bottom of people’s priorities. Either way, it seems that many more difficult discussions are going to have to be had before any solution presents itself.

Robbie Cairns Editor-in-Chief