Trigger warnings could be required in syllabi

By: Marcus Dieterle, Editor-in-Chief and Grayson Tummings, Contributing Writer

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Towson University’s Student Government Association is advocating for the University Senate to pass legislation that would require professors to provide trigger warnings to alert students about lessons that contain potentially distressing material.

SGA is urging the University to require professors to either mention sensitive subjects in their syllabi, or notify students at least 48 hours in advance of the class that will be covering the potentially triggering content.

The University Senate was set to discuss the trigger warning initiative on Feb. 19. The meeting did not occur in time for The Towerlight’s print deadline, but we will continue to provide updates.

If the University Senate votes and passes the trigger warning legislation, it will then go to TU President Kim Schatzel who will be able to approve or veto the policy.

Jennifer Ballengee, the chair of the University Senate and an English professor, said that while she understands SGA’s desire for trigger warnings, she also sees the value in exploring uncomfortable topics.

“I think that we can learn from discomfort, so I worry that trigger warnings coddle all of us into blocking out terrible things,” Ballengee said. “As a professor who teaches literature—even ancient works like the ‘Iliad’ contain scenes of terrible violence and references to rape—I see the classroom as a safe and supportive environment in which we can confront those difficult, even traumatic, events and work through them together.”

SGA President James Mileo acknowledged that discomfort can elevate classroom discussions, but he wants to make sure the University is “no longer conflating trauma with discomfort.”

“The difference between discomfort and trauma is that there is a physiological response to trauma which does not allow for students to learn,” Mileo said. “It disrupts the learning process, whereas discomfort enhances the learning process and encourages learning.”

Without trigger warnings, Mileo said students who have experienced traumatic events may be unprepared to participate in those discussions and can actually be forced to relive their trauma.

Students like freshman forensic chemistry major Dyllon Collier believe that it is important that Towson works to take care of the mental health of their students.

“There are a lot of people who undergo a lot of stress in college,” Collier said, “This isn’t high school. It’s not always easy. As suicide is becoming more common in universities, offering help to students would be a very good thing to do.”

Similarly, freshman marketing major Cameron Williams believes that because of the amount of stress that comes with being a college student, it is crucial that colleges take care of their students through things like the trigger warning initiative.

“In college, when people are always stressed about things and going through a lot all the time, it will definitely be good for them to know that there is always someone to talk to and that people on campus care about what they’re going through,” Williams said.

Collier said that by passing this initiative, it would also be a good way for Towson to attract potential students who want to go to school in an inclusive environment.

“If certain people are looking for programs and people that care about their students’ well-being, it will give them a positive boost,” Collier said.

Richard Vatz, a member of the University Senate and a rhetoric and communication professor, believes trigger warnings could hinder academic freedom at Towson.

Vatz said he doesn’t have an issue with making students aware of certain topics, but that making trigger warnings mandatory goes too far.

“I have often let my classes know when a troubling topic will come up, but when I do, I often fear that I create a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad reactions,” he said. “There is no case in which a university should make trigger warnings mandatory. Part of our mission as professors is to prepare students for life after graduation. Who is going to trigger warn graduates in the rough workaday world about uncomfortable topics coming up?”

Ballengee said she also worries the sentiment behind the SGA’s motion will be lost in their word choice of instituting mandatory trigger warnings.

“To ‘require’ faculty to put something on a syllabus potentially violates academic freedom,” she said. “If the motion were ‘encouraging’ or even ‘urging’ faculty to include warnings on syllabi, some of the resistance that some faculty have to the notion would probably diminish.”  

On Feb. 15, the day after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Vatz discussed the shooting with his advanced communication classes.

“There is often no time to warn students of discussion topics,” Vatz said. “There was no problem, as my students are adults and can and must be able to handle difficult issues in a university classroom.”

But freshman pre-nursing major Sabrina Mohabir said she recognizes the effect that viewing potentially triggering media can have on one’s mental health.

“If someone has gone through something that they recognize as a traumatic event, it can definitely affect them,” Mohabir said. “Mental health not only affects someone’s mental well-being, but also their actions as well.”

While Mohabir believes many students would benefit from having the trigger warning initiative in place, she also said students who experience difficulties with their mental health often go to their friends for support rather than a professor or a counselor.

“When my roommate has a mental breakdown, she realizes that she can find comfort in her friends and family,” Mohabir said.

Vatz said he wishes more TU community members were aware of the trigger warning issue that is currently in front of the University Senate.

“The lack of student and faculty and administrative and staff awareness that the Senate will be voting on such a contentious material issue is an abrogation of responsibility of the Senate and the Student Government Association.”

Ballengee also said she wishes there were more conversations between faculty and students about the trigger warning issue.

“I worry that the motion may cut off that conversation before it has really begun,” Ballengee said. “It is too easy for people to ‘take sides’ over issues like this, hewing to ideological principles rather than listening and learning and hopefully coming to a consensus.”

Ballengee commended the SGA leaders for their commitment to creating an inclusive campus, but she worries they and other students do not realize that faculty share that commitment.

“The current SGA leadership has an admirable commitment to social justice and diversity, which often produces lively dialogue in the Senate,” Ballengee said. “However, sometimes I wish that they recognized that most faculty are also deeply committed to working on the same issues, pushing for justice and inclusiveness with just as much passion. I think we could all learn from talking and listening more to each other on the Senate and on the TU campus as a whole.”


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