In the six months before I first went to university, I was trapped in a suffocating strait jacket of depression. Going to the University of York was like breaking out of a dark cocoon and coming blinking into the light; it was an opportunity to start afresh, and to discover myself in a new skin: that of early adulthood.
My undergraduate experience was filled with the usual ups and downs of friendship drama, broken relationships and exam stress, as well as a few extra features such as chronic illness, but I was in general quite fortunate: I adjusted well to living away from home, I found friends, and in those three years my life was fairly free of deeper traumas.
This is not the case for many students, of course, as I know from my own teaching experience. I wrote a short article for History Today, which is published here. In it I argue strongly that trigger warnings facilitate, rather than limit, discussion in the classroom, and that they can give a voice to marginalised students.
The UK’s student body is more diverse than it has ever been, and with that diversity comes a more complicated set of personal histories. Using trigger warnings is only a small part of a greater effort that needs to be made by academics to create truly intellectually democratic classrooms. This means abandoning the academic egotism that declares we are absolute monarchs of our lecture halls, interested in teaching only what we find intellectually relevant, and instead requires us to listen to our students’ needs.
A lot of this issue, in the end, boils down to respect. There’s a curious element to the discussion of trigger warnings: those vehemently against them claim that they worry about infantilising students by using them – but then they adopt a paternalistic model of teaching, where they decide what is best for their students. I’ve seen several people point out that the psychiatric discourse on treatment of PTSD is divided on the subject of trigger warnings, and smugly say that they aren’t proved to work as a therapeutic measure. But we are not qualified mental health professionals, and the idea that we decide to omit trigger warnings because we think that will make students stronger and more resilient is both alarmingly egotistical and depressingly patronising. In the main, the call for trigger warnings has been led by students. If we truly accept that these young people are in fact adults, worthy of our respect, shouldn’t we listen generously to their grievances and work with them to create a mutually satisfying classroom environment? I like to think that’s a good way to show respect, rather than deciding that Professor Knows Best.