How Widespread Are Trigger Warnings Really?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The great back-and-forth between Lukianoff/Haidt and their critics of “The Coddling of the American Mind” continues. From reader Alan:

That “trigger warning” article was pretty weak on examples. A lot of profs have been forced to explain themselves to pushy students and admins, but is there a single example of a brave prof who actually stood up for their curriculum only to be shut down by the PC brigade? Grow a spine, guys. This isn’t actually a problem.

Another reader piles on:

As a faculty member at a community college in Washington state, I can attest to having experienced and being frustrated with helicopter parents and over-entitled kids, but my God, there is no such thing as college policy that dictates we have to issue trigger warnings. Instructors complain about whiny students, but we wouldn’t survive if we didn’t have thick skins and weren’t able to handle student complaints one way or another. We are in the business of teaching and learning—we know we have to pay attention to how students are absorbing/applying the lessons we prepare.

How many colleges actually have trigger warning policies? Can the authors of this article provide empirical evidence that this coddling they describe is a widespread issue? I sincerely hope and encourage you to follow this article up with more careful journalism.

A follow-up from Lukianoff:

As I said in a previous response, I think people are being unfair to professors when they think that professors are just concerned about “whiny students.” Student complaints can come with real consequences for someone’s livelihood, and unfortunately, administrators are too quick to investigate or punish professors for the claim that they offended students.

I mentioned a few examples earlier. But here’s another example that shows just how easy it is for professors to get in trouble because of student complaints.

In 2007, Brandeis University professor Donald Hindley, a nearly 50-year veteran of teaching, was found guilty of racial harassment after a student complained to administrators that Hindley discussed the word “wetbacks” in his Latin American politics class. Hindley was discussing the phrase in order to explain its origins and criticize its use, yet he was found guilty without a hearing and without even knowing the specific allegations against him, and the school placed an administrative monitor in his classes.

As for the question of how common trigger warning policies are, it’s important to note how sudden the explosion of trigger warnings in the popular consciousness has been, let alone the idea of implementing trigger warning policies.

I think one of the defining events that pushed campus trigger warnings into the spotlight was in 2014 when Mireille Miller-Young, a feminist-studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, assaulted pro-life student protesters and stole and destroyed their signs. When questioned by the UCSB Police Department, Miller-Young used the justification that “she felt ‘triggered’ by the images” on the posters. Just a few months before the incident, I and many others who work in the field of higher education had never even heard of the term “trigger warning.”

The first time the notion of a campus trigger warning policy truly caught the public eye may have been when Oberlin College released its 2014 policy advising faculty to remove triggering material when it didn’t “directly” contribute to learning goals and to “strongly consider” developing a policy to make “triggering material” optional. The Oberlin policy was tabled after it received faculty backlash, but a student at George Washington University wrote an op-ed defending the policy and recommending that the GWU Faculty Senate consider implementing a similar one. Things came full circle in the spring of 2014 when the student senate at UC Santa Barbara passed a resolution calling for mandatory trigger warnings on course syllabi.

Because the controversy surrounding trigger warnings is so new, there’s not much hard data out there about it. The National Coalition Against Censorship recently helped the College Art Association and the Modern Language Association administer an online survey to their members to gauge trigger warning use. Although the study provides some interesting insights (more than half of respondents had at least once voluntarily provided students with trigger warnings), the groups stress that the survey is unscientific. Trigger warning use on campus is certainly something that needs to be studied more in the future, and we’d love to see more data as well.

But as noted by an earlier, I am an old man, having graduated from law school way back in 2000, so I asked my research assistant, Haley Hudler, who graduated from a small liberal arts college in 2013, about her experiences with trigger warnings:

While in college, I took a variety of humanities classes, including several women’s studies and gender studies classes where we discussed sensitive topics like sexual assault, abortion, and genital mutilation. Although I had several professors acknowledge that we would be discussing challenging material, I never once heard the phrase “trigger warning” or “triggering” from any faculty or any of my fellow students.

The first time I saw the phrase “trigger warning” was nearly a year after I graduated, when a then-current student used it when sharing an article about campus sexual assault on Facebook. I had to look the phrase up on Urban Dictionary. When I talk about trigger warnings with fellow 2013 grads, many have never heard of them and struggle to understand the concept. Those who are familiar with trigger warnings generally do not remember hearing the phrase used during our time on campus.

However, when I shared Greg and Jon’s article with current students at my alma mater, I was intrigued by not only how many rushed to defend trigger warnings but also how many consider them a common courtesy. I think this is what explains why trigger warnings have been generating so much discussion and debate— people are mystified by how quickly they are gaining prevalence on campuses. The fact that just two years removed from campus a phenomenon most of my fellow students did not even know existed has become a practice many consider a matter of basic decency is fascinating.

The NCAC’s recent survey on trigger warnings found that 13 percent of professors said they had received requests from students for trigger warnings. About 11 percent said students in their classes had complained to them or to administrators about their failure to use trigger warnings. Some might argue that these percentages sound too small to indicate a campus trend, but when you take into account how low those percentages likely were just two years ago, it does seem that this is indeed a rapidly growing campus practice.

Indeed, campus trigger warnings appear to be a very new phenomenon, but are already becoming widespread. Just by doing a simple Google search we were able to find trigger warnings appearing even on policies related to how you file and adjudicate a Title IX claim at schools including Swarthmore College, Brandeis University, and Tufts University. If students are already being warned that policies about sexual harassment involve discussion of, well, sexual harassment, we might want to ask ourselves what we mean by the term “trigger warning” in the first place.

Can you think of more examples? Email and I’ll post any substantiated ones.