How Do Trigger Warnings Fit into the Classroom Lesson Plan?

by Ruxandra Looft, a lecturer at Iowa State University. She can be found on Twitter as @ruxandralooft and editing/writing for the feminist news and advocacy site Flyover Feminism. She lives in Iowa with her partner, daughter, overzealous dog, and a garage full of bikes.

[Content Note: Sexual harassment; rape culture. Cross-posted at Flyover Feminism.]

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.

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