University Senate postpones voting on trigger warning proposal

By: Sophia Bates, Staff Writer

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Editor’s note 2/28/18: The Towerlight previously reported that 10 senators voted in objection to the proposal itself.  That report was incorrect. 10 senators voted to object the postponing of the vote on the proposal. We apologize for this error.

The University Senate debated and discussed the Student Government Association’s proposal to mandate the usage of trigger warnings on Feb. 19.

The mandate would require professors to notify their students about sensitive material covered in class, whether by email or in the syllabus.

The Senate’s vote was as follows: 10 senators voted in favor of postponing the issue, 10 senators voted against postponing the issue. One senator abstained from voting, and due to the tie, Senate Chair Jennifer Ballengee voted to postpone the motion until the March meeting.

The discussion within the session started with SGA President James Mileo introducing the proposal, the goals of the initiative and the ideas behind it.

“As you all have read the motion, it is to have faculty members provide trigger warnings to flag potentially graphic material that may distress students that have previously experienced trauma,” Mileo said. “This comes out of our belief that students who experience mental health issues, such as PTSD, panic disorders and any acute stress disorders, or students who have faced traumatic experiences are deserving of a warning that a lecturer or guest speaker may aggravate those issues or experiences.”

Mileo added that this is not a way to excuse students from learning content, but a flag so students can mentally prepare themselves to be able to retain the information from the lecture.

Patrick Herbert, a representative for the health science department, opened the discussion, questioning if these mandated warnings would be needed too much in the field of health majors and classes.

“I look at the classes, especially Health 101, nutrition, violence prevention, disease classes and I think that some of these classes could be an entire trigger warning,” Herbert said. “There are topics on the list as well, that are not covered, that I think could be potentially triggering. Who gets to choose which topics don’t need warnings, and who’s to say where the limit is?”

Mileo responded, noting that the motion says professors could blanket the trigger warnings within the class syllabus, allowing students a mental warning for every session in that class.

Desiree Rowe, a representative for the mass communication and communication studies department, addressed the hesitations of faculty members and students within her college. Rowe acknowledged the 48-hour window of breaking news within communications and political courses.

“If I, especially as a junior tenure faculty track member, am not allowed to discuss breaking news in the classroom without fear of administrative reprimand because I did not give 48 hours notice, my teaching and the experience of my students is compromised,” Rowe said.

Rowe continued that she agreed with the spirit of the motion yet would vote no since resources for students should be a part of the culture, yet warnings should not be mandated.

Rowe also quoted scholar Roxanne Gay from her New York Times editorial piece, stating that “Rather than using trigger warnings, I try to provide students with the context they will need to engage productively in complicated discussions.”

Art and Design, Art History and Art Education representative Amanda Burnham agreed, noting that she gives trigger warnings to provide context for students to have these discussions. On the other hand, Burnham said there is trouble with the idea of having a consequence of not providing trigger warnings.

Joanna Maxwell, a representative for the nursing department, questioned student responsibility within the usage of trigger warnings.

“For example, if you were to give a trigger warning within the classroom and the students hearing it, if some were to walk out, what if the material were discussed on the exam,” Maxwell said. “They would be missing out on important, essential material.”

Maxwell added the idea of encouraging University-wide awareness on this issue, rather than mandating trigger warnings.

Cole Reilly, a representative for the elementary education department, also encouraged more understanding on this issue throughout the University.

“I want to encourage that as the possibility of something really great,” Reilly said. “I don’t know that everybody would be ready to have it next year, to know how to do it if they don’t fully understand it. I would really like something like that to develop.”

Multiple students from the SGA came to represent the proposal, including Director of Marketing Stephanie Brown, who sought to provide a student perspective.

“This teaches us [students] how to go into difficult situations and have those conversations,” Brown said.

Brown also addressed the cognitive effects of PTSD, including impaired concentration, impaired decision-making abilities, memory impairment and how these would affect students within the classroom setting.

Doug Ross, a representative for the management department, addressed the University as being a safe space for students and faculty, and the duty that faculty members have to students.

“As a faculty member, do I help students hide [from certain topics and material] or do I try to find a way for them to adapt?” Ross said.

Senior Keionna Rose said certain material could cause trauma to resurface.

“I think we all know topics that can induce trauma,” Rose said. “We don’t want faculty to baby students. If we can help students, then why not take that initiative.”

Rose reminded University Senate members that the blanket statement within the syllabus is an option to warn students at the beginning of the semester about the issues discussed throughout the course.

Burnham spoke again, questioning if a blanket statement would help.

“I would like to see other things happen, to learn more about how to do this well,” Burnham said. “I worry that if this were passed, and you are just good to go by just putting one sentence on your syllabus to be enough, that this doesn’t really do the job of a warning,”

Mileo closed the discussion, proposing that this would be the discussed within the next session in March.

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