Content warnings, or trigger warnings, can be an effective way to help students engage with disturbing material. However, what one student may find completely benign may deeply disturb some of their classmates. While there are certain themes which many of us students may agree justify a content warning, there is no way for professors to anticipate what exactly might trigger each student. The line between when and when not to provide a content warning is impossibly gray. It is partly for this reason I believe instating a college-wide content warning policy is ill-conceived. Fair policy must be first, unambiguous and second, enforceable.
If Lewis & Clark were to declare one type of trigger explicitly worthy of a mandated warning, would this implicate other people’s triggers as less deserving? I support the use of content warnings under many circumstances, especially when I perceive something as brutally violent, but I see no way to clearly delineate what objectively requires content warnings.
I believe there is a personal thoughtfulness to the giving of content warnings which institutional policy would sever. Professors, in theory, teach courses that they are both interested in and knowledgeable on. Likewise, they choose course material they believe is significantly important to the subject and worth imparting. A policy of mandated content warnings would depersonalize a professor’s relationship to both their material and students.
Furthermore, I wonder how such a policy would be enforced. Would there be repercussions for not providing content warnings? If so, who would adjudicate these and what would they look like? Threats of punitive action may intimidate professors away from broaching uncomfortable, but often critically important, topics. Alternatively, it could compel professors to provide content warnings not out of care for their students, but out of fear of retribution. There is no department at LC that I trust to objectively determine what the threshold for mandatory content warnings would be, or the associated punishments.
Instead, I think professors should be cognizant of their authority, consider the mental well-being of their students and provide content warnings when they deem them applicable to help prepare students to engage with possibly distressing material. Content warnings are a healthy and integral part of the conversation between students and their professors and should remain that way. When a student believes a professor has not provided adequate notice for disturbing material, they should communicate that with their professor. In turn, professors should provide a welcoming environment for such discourse. Building a safer and more respectful community requires not punitive action, but dialogue.