How do trigger warnings fit into the classroom lesson plan?

By Ruxandra Looft

Looft is a lecturer at Iowa State University. Find more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter @ruxandralooft.

I’m teaching a Germany current events class at my university this semester. In broad strokes, we cover topics such as media, politics, environmentalism, and identity. The goal of the class is to break away from clichéd images of Germans as Lederhosen-wearing beer-slinging Oktoberfest attendees to a more complex and thoughtful understanding of what it means to be “German” or to live in Germany today.

We had just wrapped up our media unit and had begun discussions about German politics and Germany’s political parties when the colossal #Aufschrei Twitter campaign reached our eyes. What started as a sexist comment from Rainer Brüderle (member of Germany’s Free Democrats Party) towards a female journalist became the catalyst that inspired media consultant and activist Anne Wizorek to speak out and organize German women’s complaints of sexual harassment in bold and candid tweets earmarked with the hashtag #Aufschrei (outcry).

The movement quickly organized to include a website, a Twitter account (@aufschreien), and the sister hashtags (#EverydaySexism, #AlltagsSexismus, #outcry). Feminists all over the world added their tweets to the conversation. A grassroots movement at the intersection of media, politics, and feminism was born. I couldn’t wait to talk to my students about it.

But as I compiled links for required readings in preparation of our discussions, I found myself increasingly at odds about how much and how explicitly to talk about sexism and sexual harassment. (This powerful yet harrowing post by Rebecca Solnit in the Tom Dispatch in particular made me question how much and how freely to link to relevant material). When writing about these topics, one can preface articles with trigger warnings cautioning readers about the content ahead. A reader living with trauma caused by the personal experience of the content presented is given the agency to read or not read the words that follow. To remain present or to remove herself from the situation.

But what happens when a student is trapped in a classroom where a discussion brings up terrible and traumatic memories? How can a student easily and subtly remove herself from that moment?

I have thought about prefacing our discussions with a trigger warning introduction to the class but I question how effective that would be. By saying that we are going to discuss topics of a sensitive nature that may make some people uncomfortable and offering students the chance to leave, aren’t the very students meant to be spared then singled out and isolated in front of the entire class? While well intentioned, that offer seems useless at best and marginalizing at worst.

The other option? Steering clear of volatile topics in the classroom and playing it safe. But by not talking about harassment, the sorry state of gender equality, and the heroic efforts put forth by activists seems akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There has to be a better way. But how does one work trigger warnings into the classroom lesson plan? How does a teacher effectively and sensitively negotiate topics that require trigger warnings and how are escape options presented in a sensitive and appropriate manner to students whose past traumas follow them into the classroom?

I’m still working on how to best integrate volatile topics into my courses. On how to strike that balance between fostering an atmosphere of openness and willingness to tackle difficult subjects while watching for the cues and signals that relate someone’s discomfort and pain. Most importantly, I’m still searching for that verbal equivalent of a written “trigger warning” with which to give my students the agency to walk away when needed.


[Cross-posted at Shakesville]

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5 Responses to “How do trigger warnings fit into the classroom lesson plan?”

  1. Sarah

    As a former student of your university, it was wonderful to read thoughtful content from you! I never took your class but still live and work in Ames.

    I wonder if it would be possible to have far advance notice of the content. I know that I’m more able to deal with triggering content in movies if I can read about the content before I watch it in a parents’ guide sort of thing. An announcement or note in the syllabus well before the topic is presented may take away the imminent nature of it. Give the students time to consider their boundaries or approach you without singling themselves out.

    It’s not a perfect solution, admittedly. When the time comes for the topic to be discussed in class there may be students who are conspicuously absent. But I have personally found that advance warning and knowledge of what the content might be makes me more comfortable.

    • Ruxandra Looft

      Thanks, Sarah!

      I think that advanced warning is always a little more difficult to manage in a current events class when topics come up more spontaneously as news stories unfold. But I agree with you that a note in the syllabus might work well, even just a general content warning noting that we will like touch on triggering or volatile subject matter. I think for future courses, I will plan this more into my original introduction to the class as well as think of ways that students can opt out of those classes that might be triggering. Thank you for your input!

  2. Brad


    1st: Start with a discussion with the class about the concept of how best to apply a trigger warning to a live class. Solicit ideas from students, discuss.

    Step 2: move class out of the classroom, walk to the womens’ resource center, or the nearest equivalent to discuss resources available to help those in need.

    Part C: inform students that the next topic in the syllabus involves similarly sensitive materials, and that participation is not mandatory for those uncomfortable with that particular topic. Walk back to classroom and those who need to be absent can drift off unnoticed.

  3. Dave

    Firstly, I admit to being inexperienced both in terms of teaching, and in dealing with trauma, so I offer this simply to expose the inside of my head, not to pretend to have expert advice or anything.

    One thing that occurred to me was simply trying to foster an atmosphere of openness in the classroom – having an open discussion with the students about the fact that there may be some content in the class that could be traumatic for some of the students, and that you will mention it if it is going to come up in class, but also to try to encourage the students to be open towards each other – to allow a student to remove themselves from class with no speculations attached (a person could easily find it emotionally difficult to listen to a story about rape without having been raped, after all), but also to encourage them to allow fellow students to remain in the class and react emotionally without judgment and hopefully with acceptance.

    I don’t know… I’m not exactly sure how to achieve that, or if it’s even feasible. It’s a really tricky issue, for sure.

  4. Wendy_Smith_III

    Sorry for writing in so late, but if you’re still reading, one of my old professor’s handled this by e-mailing the whole class ahead of time about triggering content & letting us know that it was okay to not be there. This worked really well since we had large class and it wouldn’t be obvious who was missing.


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