Trigger Warnings In College Appear Common, NPR Survey Finds : NPR Ed Giving a heads-up about potentially objectionable content seems to be common teaching practice. That's one of the findings from our unscientific survey of more than 800 faculty members.

Half Of Professors In NPR Ed Survey Have Used 'Trigger Warnings'

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A couple weeks ago the University of Chicago sent an unusual letter to its incoming freshmen. It said the school does not support teachers giving students trigger warnings to alert them of potentially difficult or offensive class material. Now, that letter fueled an ongoing national debate about free speech on campus and whether such warnings have any place in the classroom.

Our NPR Ed team did a survey last year that got responses from more than 800 faculty members at colleges and universities across the country. They've crunched the numbers, and NPR's Anya Kamenetz is here to talk more. Welcome back, Anya.


CORNISH: So let's take a step back for a moment and talk about where this term trigger warning originally came from.

KAMENETZ: It comes from the psychology of posttraumatic stress disorder. So individuals who have been through for example sexual assault or combat - they may have outsized emotional responses to potentially harmless words or images and that might be up to and including a panic attack. And the use of trigger warnings and that phrase really gained currency on the internet. But I had pointed out, you know, we use a form of trigger warning here on the air at NPR as well just to warn people, give them a heads up that something difficult might be coming.

CORNISH: We usually just call those content warnings. We say, you know, there's something here that you should be aware of, right?


CORNISH: Now, this debate about trigger warnings actually predates that letter we mentioned from the University of Chicago. So what's it really about?

KAMENETZ: Well, it seems to be one of these ongoing controversies. You know, on the one hand, you've got academic freedom, the nature of liberal education. On the other hand, you have the very strong feelings of student activists in the Black Lives Matter movement speaking out against sexual assault and what's been portrayed in some circles as an overindulgence of political correctness. Although I should point out that trigger warnings are just as likely to be requested, at least anecdotally, by conservative students who object to, say, sexual material in the class.

CORNISH: All right, so looking through the survey, do you guys have an example of how a teacher might use a trigger warning in the classroom?

KAMENETZ: Yes. There were a lot of really interesting examples. One professor said, I had a bunch of Native American students who - if they view a picture of a dead person, they may have to go through a ritual of purification. An example that came up more than once was depictions of lynchings - so you know, photographs of an African-American who was killed. And someone else mentioned the notion of female genital mutilation being very difficult to talk about in detail without giving students a heads up.

CORNISH: And so what happened when these professors used these trigger warnings?

KAMENETZ: Most of the time it really didn't seem like a big deal. The professors I talked to said at most a student might excuse him or herself for a few minutes, but none of them said that they had ever had a student try to skip out on an assignment, let alone a whole class because of disturbing material.

CORNISH: In the end, what surprised you about this survey, about the findings?

KAMENETZ: Well, I feel like the trigger warning debate has been framed so often as an academic freedom issue or one of chilling effects, but in our survey, two-thirds of professors said that the main reason they used a trigger warning was because they thought the material needed one. Less than 2 percent said that there was an administration-wide or even a department-wide policy on trigger warnings, and only 3.4 percent said that students had requested them ever.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz talking about trigger warnings on campus. Anya, thanks so much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Audie.

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