Trauma and Trigger Warnings in the History Classroom: A Roundtable Discussion
For the past several years, historians have discussed and debated the teaching of violent and traumatic subjects in the classroom; the need to protect students, including those diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from being traumatized in the classroom; and the use of classroom trigger warnings designed to warn students about potentially traumatic lectures, discussions, or images. These issues have been discussed in mainstream and academic publications (both print and online) and debated by historians and other academics on social media. While some historians have spoken up on behalf of protecting students through the use of trigger warnings, others have criticized and even mocked the idea.
The American Historian invited historians who study and teach traumatic historical events as well as historians who have written about trigger warnings to participate in a roundtable discussion about trauma and trigger warnings in the history classroom. The participants discuss their philosophies about teaching violent and troubling events; best practices for teaching such subjects; and the use of trigger warnings.
NANCY K. BRISTOW is a professor of history at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She is currently researching state-sanctioned violence against African Americans in the Black Power era and her current book project is an investigation of the 1970 police shootings at Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Mississippi.
ANGUS JOHNSTON is an adjunct assistant professor at Hostos Community College, CUNY. He writes about American student activism and other issues relating to education, social movements, and the role of the student in the university. He has written about classroom trigger warnings for Inside Higher Ed.
EDWARD T. LINENTHAL is a professor of history at Indiana University and is editor of the Journal of American History. He is the author of The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory (2001) and co-editor of The Landscapes of 9/11: A Photographer's Journey (2013).
MICHAEL J. PFEIFER is associate professor of history at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He studies the global history of lynching and collective violence. He is the author of Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874–1947 (2004) and The Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching (2011).
JACQUI SHINE is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley. She researches and writes about the history of media representations of police and the criminal justice system in the United States. She has written about trigger warnings for XOJane and has written on a variety of topics for The Atlantic and Slate.
KIDADA E. WILLIAMS is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University. She teaches courses in African American and American history and researches African Americans' traumatic injuries from racial violence after slavery. She is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (2012).
1. Do you believe it is possible for a student to be traumatized by a lecture, a discussion, or audiovisual material in a classroom?
BRISTOW: I have no doubt students can be traumatized by materials they encounter in the classroom. I am not talking here about students feeling uncomfortable, but about their experiencing actual trauma. A few years ago a student in one of my courses was diagnosed with what I believe is termed "secondary PTSD" as a result of their exposure to course readings. In another example, I have worked with a student whose existing PTSD became more difficult to manage after sustained exposure to a particular subject. Certainly this kind of trauma—a level that interferes with a student's well-being and their ability to learn in my classroom—is unusual. But as I approach my courses I keep this reality in mind, recognizing that for some students, particular subjects, images, readings, and discussions may be particularly difficult, or even inappropriate. To do so is to respect and acknowledge the different life experiences my students bring to the classroom.
PFEIFER: I think if students are not adequately prepared for certain materials in the classroom they might have difficult reactions/responses that are potentially unhelpful to the learning process.
WILLIAMS: I think grappling with difficult or new historical material, especially that relating to violence, can be disturbing or distressing to students. However, I don't think this is necessarily traumatizing, which I take to mean encompassing sudden, catastrophic events that psychiatrist Judith Herman describes as engendering "intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, [or the] threat of annihilation" and leaves survivors struggling to understand what happened to them and cope. Indeed, I have yet to see evidence that connects traumatic injury to a historical lecture, discussion, or audiovisual material that's separate from another, unclaimed experience that occurred in students' lives outside the classroom.
JOHNSTON: At least as important as the risk of inflicting trauma, moreover, is the possibility of reawakening past trauma.
It's worth remembering that the life stories of contemporary college students are more varied and complex than those of previous generations of undergraduates. Many of my students are parents, for instance, and some have experienced the loss of a child. A student in that position might well find a discussion of the lynching of Emmett Till or the death of Darwin's daughter emotionally challenging, even overwhelming.
Engaging with that reaction is properly an aspect of my role as a professor.
SHINE: I'm going to elide the question here, because I think it's the wrong one, at least in the context of the (somewhat spurious, it must be said) debate over the salience, meaning, and place of trigger warnings in the college classroom.
The question for me—or, at least, what motivates my thinking on this issue—is not whether it's possible for a student to be traumatized by material presented in a classroom. It's about the fact—not the possibility, but the very real fact—that people who have suffered from and survived trauma walk into classrooms every
The question becomes not whether I should or should not present material that might remind them of their trauma (which is the issue, not whether I as a teacher can traumatize through curriculum), but whether I have an opportunity or an obligation to make their personal, usually invisible, work of making it through the day easier by pointing out that we'll be covering difficult material.
LINENTHAL: I do not think we use the term "trauma" mindfully in public discourse. There has been an interesting transformation of its usage, from referring to significant physical trauma to—since the advent of the diagnosis, "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder"—referring to psychological injury. However, the term has come to be used in really sloppy ways: too often an inappropriate synonym for "troubled," "confused," "upset," and so on. It has become a part of what is an insidious therapeutic discourse eager to characterize people as patients. That
students—or others—may seek to inhabit a diagnosis they are offered does not necessarily mean that there are legions of damaged souls in our classrooms at risk of falling apart should we introduce difficult subjects. Of course it can be the case that some instructors are coarse, tone-deaf, and disrespectful to the power of difficult topics, insensitive to the need to provide helpful contexts for students. Of course we need to attend to students who, for whatever reason, do not have the emotional resources to engage certain subjects. However, it does the great majority of our students a serious disservice to treat them as too delicate to struggle with difficult issues. They are "students," after all, and a kind of "creative dislocation" should be part of evolving intellectual—and emotional—development.
2. Do you believe it is part of your job as a historian to make students appreciate, understand, or experience traumatic historic events? If so, how do you do that in the classroom?
JOHNSTON: It's my responsibility to teach students about incidents that were catastrophic for the historical actors involved—one can hardly teach history without discussing that kind of "traumatic event." But it's also my responsibility to teach about those events in ways that foster a productive engagement with the material.
Part of fostering such engagement is recognizing that the study of history cannot and should not be a sterile academic exercise. We study the human past our responses to historical events. We can ask our students to critically interrogate their own subjectivities, but we should not expect them to check them at the door. Our students are whole people, and they will always bring their own histories with them into the classroom.
LINENTHAL: Since among the classes I offer are a graduate seminar, "Memory of Catastrophe," and upper-level undergraduate courses, "The Holocaust and American Memory," and "The Bomb in American Life," of course I do! A focus on such events, subversive of many oft-held cherished assumptions about the nature of human nature, the messy relationship of good and evil, the difference between optimism and hope, makes historical inquiry a profound act of moral engagement.
For example, I ask students to confront the photographs taken by American GIs and others when they encountered and liberated several of the concentration camps. The photographs are important visual primary sources. I do not introduce them to manipulate emotion. Rather we talk about the difference between, for example, these "witness" photographs and so many other Holocaust photographs—in ghettos, at killing fields, and so on—taken by perpetrators. What does it mean to adopt, unwittingly, the gaze of a murderer? Do such photographs create a troubling attraction, a pornography of violence? Despite these dangers, are they still important primary visual documents? Sometimes, students have told me, the most difficult struggles emerge unexpectedly. For example, despite the fact that Claude Lanzmann's nine-plus- hour documentary film Shoah contains not a single photograph of a corpse, its relentless attention to place, testimony, and memory was more horrific than any visual image we saw in class.
My hope is that students emerge from these classes willing to acknowledge that "understanding" grows more difficult the more one knows, and that living with creative tension about so many of these issues is, perhaps, more fruitful than the urge to wrap it all up, to contain the power of these events through the illusion of resolution. I share with students my own enduring struggle with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that I think of the Bomb as simultaneously necessary and unacceptable, and I continue to explore what it means to live in and through that tension.
SHINE: Now I'm really feeling like a contrarian, because I don't think that I can make students do anything. But I do think that as a historian and teacher, I have the opportunity and responsibility to help students make sense of traumatic historic events (but not to experience them: I think attempting to re-create the affective experience of a historical trauma for pedagogical purposes—as when Hstry.co attempted to re-enact the events surrounding the murder of Emmett Till via social media some months ago—is muddy ethical territory).
PFEIFER: Yes, I think it is essential, for example, for students to learn about the significant role of racial violence (used by whites against African Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Chinese, for instance) in American history. Another example: I think it is important for students to learn about the role of violence and coercion in the Catholic evangelization of the Americas by the Spanish, while also learning about the rich mixture of Native, African, and Iberian cultures in the formation of Catholic religiosity across Latin America.
BRISTOW: Our work as historians is to reveal, to the best of our abilities, the realities of the past, and as teachers to help our students to engage those realities through the lenses of the people who experienced them. I cannot imagine teaching history without engaging those events characterized variously as traumatic, charged, ugly, or painful. To do so would be to fail as historians and as teachers. At the same time, this teaching requires sensitivity and care. As this comment reveals, I do not adhere to the idea that critical distance is always possible, or perhaps even advisable, in historical study. Embracing what Patricia Hill Collins describes as an "ethic of caring," I recognize the interconnection between intellect and emotion and the importance of empathy in students' learning. I expect that many of my students will have powerful and even emotional responses to the material I teach, and work hard to offer opportunities for them to voice these. My experience is that given the opportunity to be fully human themselves, students prove all the more able to engage with the people of the past, and with their classmates.
WILLIAMS: As a history professor who is African American and an African Americanist, I teach courses that cover some of the worst forms of human brutality, so yes, I believe it's part of my job to ensure students understand the histories relating to black people's violent subjugation. I do not shy away from difficult subject matter because if I did, there would be little space to accurately teach the history of my field. Nevertheless, I do remind myself that some of my students are encountering a more complex and violent history in my class than they have in K–12 or popular culture.
I realize that learning about these horrors might be difficult and make students sad, or angry, but most of them are fortunate enough they will not encounter chattel slavery, lynching and rape culture run amok, and racial massacres. The killings of unarmed African Americans by police and vigilantes do raise justifiable questions about whether or not we are facing a new nadir, however. If students have experienced rape or a racial killing (like those we discuss in my surveys and seminars), I believe we can ask students to differentiate their personal experiences from what they have read or heard about in class.
Talking to fellow Americanists, especially those social historians who research working-class people, immigrants, women, and ethnic, racial, and religious minorities, I know that I'm not alone in giving trigger warnings in higher education classrooms the skeptical side eye. When I asked a group of Americanists about warnings on syllabi, folks scoffed and rolled their eyes. One historian explained that he tells his students that his classes "are rated R" and gets on with the business of teaching modern U.S. history. Another joked that if universities decided to rate classes, our U.S. history courses would earn MA ratings and there seemed to be a lot of agreement at the table. I think we teach unvarnished American history the way we do because we help our students work through the complexities of the nation's strengths and flaws and hope they will become agents of change.
3. Do historians have a responsibility to protect students from potentially traumatic events?
PFEIFER: Not to the extent that disturbing events/materials are left out of the syllabus. Rather, such materials should be incorporated carefully, without overdoing it or sensationalizing, with adequate context, and with thoughtful facilitation of the conversation.
WILLIAMS: No, especially if such a move comes at the expense of historical literacy or accurate history. I think we need to be mindful of excessively graphic material. I also think we need to ensure our institutions have sufficiently staffed and resourced counseling services and make sure our students understand the resources available to them on campus. I would also be okay with students leaving class when we examine material that's too disturbing for them, just as they leave to answer their phones, use the restroom, or feed the parking meter.
JOHNSTON: We have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to ensure that students don't experience trauma in the classroom, and we can do that in a variety of ways. Among them are these: We shouldn't goad students gratuitously or capriciously. Shock for shock's sake is rarely pedagogically useful, and can alienate students in ways we don't intend. We should also give students notice if we know that upcoming material may be emotionally or psychologically challenging. And we should be alert to students' personal responses to material presented in class and be ready to engage with such responses where appropriate.
SHINE: Again, I think this question isn't quite the right one. I don't think that trigger warnings have ever been a controversial subject of discussion among academics. I don't think historians have a responsibility to "protect" anyone from even the most difficult truths of the past. I do think that we have an obligation to grapple with them and to teach and talk about them. Quite separately, we also have an obligation, not to keep our classrooms "safe," but, at minimum, to consider the conditions under which we ask students to think and learn and to consider how we ourselves create those conditions. It's a red herring to say that students are asking us to protect them in the classroom and are, by extension, impinging on our academic freedom. (If some students are, in fact, asking for that, I think it's possible to have a conversation that explains why we can't and won't do it without all of the hand-wringing and outrage. Part of free speech surely includes the right to have bad ideas said out loud, no matter your age.) Students live full lives outside of our classrooms, ones that sometimes include personal trauma. I think what some students are asking for here is a fuller consideration of that one fact.
BRISTOW: As teachers we are responsible for ensuring that all of our students have the opportunity to learn in our classrooms and to succeed at our institutions. For instance, while I must teach the history of lynching, I also want to recognize how difficult this subject can be for my African American students, particularly given the majority-white institution at which I teach. I cannot approach the topic of sexual assault without recognizing that one in five female college students will experience such an attack, or that transgender women of color are currently at the greatest risk of anti-LGBTQ violence. I cannot teach a novel on the Iraq War and not recognize that some of my students may have PTSD resulting from their own military service. To ensure all of my students have the opportunity to learn well in my classroom, I must be attentive to the particular histories they bring with them to our work. My sense of responsibility is enhanced by my determination to make my classroom a space welcoming to students from a range of backgrounds, and particularly to students from traditionally underrepresented and minoritized populations.
LINENTHAL: Historians have a responsibility to spark students' imagination, to convey a passion for the worlds they invite students to enter. They have a responsibility to help students develop the art and craft of discernment. Avoidance is not protection, it is intellectual and moral cowardice.
4. Is there a danger in not addressing traumatic events in the classroom?
JOHNSTON: This question can be interpreted in two very different ways.
If we read it as asking whether there's a danger in shielding students from the grim facts of history, the obvious answer is "yes." The history of our planet is in significant part a history of horrific events, and we do our students and our profession no favors if we minimize or misrepresent such incidents when we teach. If instead we interpret the question as asking whether
there's a danger in not addressing trauma that students may experience in the classroom itself, the answer—yes—remains the same. A student who experiences trauma in the classroom may withdraw or disengage from the session, the course, or even the college itself. The risk of losing students—smart, tough, capable students—as a result of inadequately addressing classroom trauma isn't hypothetical. It's real.
BRISTOW: Absolutely. To avoid the difficult or painful subjects in the American past would be to foster a kind of historical erasure that is not only antithetical to our craft, but also harmful to our students and dangerous to the nation's future. As James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, "To accept one's past—one's history—is not the same thing as drowning in it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought." Knowing our past is vital to building a more just future. Let me provide an example to illustrate. In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, 47 percent of white Americans believed that "race is getting more attention than it deserves." This response reflected the longstanding unwillingness of many in the white community to acknowledge and address the history of state-sanctioned violence against African Americans. While that history—of slavery, of lynching, of police shootings, of racial disparities in the criminal justice system—is potentially traumatic for some students, to avoid it would be irresponsible and would only encourage continued race-based injustices.
WILLIAMS: I think that not addressing the horrible things that occur in U.S. history results in a sanitized history and does a disservice to our students and the larger public. Also, I wonder, which horrible things would get a warning? Rape and other acts of extreme violence seem to be natural fits for trigger warnings. But what about war (we have veterans in our
classes), starvation, hunger, torture, horrible deaths (murder, lynching, massacre), domestic violence, sexual harassment, the structural violence of poverty, violent policing, religious persecution, suicide, mass incarceration and its impact on families, the insurgency against Reconstruction, psychotic breaks, cross/church burnings, and school bombings? This is the stuff of American history and some of these things are the basic facts of life for students in our classrooms.
LINENTHAL: It matters how one does this. Assaulting students with difficult materials without interpretive tools is not education, it is a seriously misguided conviction that the mere presentation of spectacle speaks for itself.
PFEIFER: Yes. That would produce a sanitized, unrealistic history that would not help students to accurately or meaningfully engage the sometimes disturbing world they are/will be participating in.
SHINE: Of course. Entire histories—long ones—emanate from traumas, from collective social wounds. Traumatic events underlie many historical arcs. (I'm thinking of the fact that the history of capitalism can't be properly told without speaking also of slavery.)
5. Do you use trigger warnings in your classroom or in your syllabi? If yes, why and how do you do it? If no, why not?
SHINE: I think it's considerate to warn people when you're about to show them something graphically violent or otherwise disturbing–not because they should decide not to see it, but because they'll be better able to.
LINENTHAL: No. It is clear from my conversations with many students over many years that my course outlines and introductory lectures clearly set the tone for a class. The balance of lecture, visual material, and class conversation makes it clear that I respect students' ability to engage challenging material, and they continue to do so in an admirable manner.
BRISTOW: I included something like a trigger warning for the first time in the spring of 2015, in the syllabus for a course on American culture and catastrophe. Because this course explores several painful subjects and traumatic events, and remembering my former student's difficulty, I included a brief "Note on Course Content" in my syllabus. It read:
"As you know, a course on catastrophe necessarily deals with several topics and sources that discuss, depict, and envision difficult subjects. I recognize that for some members of the course personal experiences may make a particular topic very hard to process, and even inappropriate for academic consideration at this time. If you are concerned about our engagement with a particular topic, issue or source, please come see me and we can determine an appropriate route forward. Alternate assignments can be arranged if needed, so please don't hesitate to open this conversation with me. Of course such a discussion would be confidential."
I included this statement to convey, from the beginning of the course, my determination to help each student navigate the course successfully, and my commitment to making the course accessible to all.
PFEIFER: Yes, I note in the syllabus if a film we are watching includes scenes of violence, sexuality, etc. I also announce this in class beforehand. If a PowerPoint lecture includes disturbing material, I announce this beforehand as well and also before showing a slide that includes a potentially disturbing image.
WILLIAMS: I understood and supported trigger warnings for moderating content in online spaces. However, when the discussions of them appearing on syllabi started popping up a few years ago, I initially scoffed and gave them the side eye. As the drumbeat got louder, I toyed with the idea of adding them to my syllabi but ultimately decided against it for the following reasons.
First, I do not necessarily believe in vicarious historical trauma (that someone could be traumatized by witnessing the injury or discussion of injury experienced by someone in the past).
Second, I know from personal experience and conversations with friends that virtually anything (smells, sounds, sights, feelings) can be a trigger. Given this complexity, triggers are also hard to predict for each person. For example, the shutter of cameras at a family reunion triggered my cousin, who disabled land mines in Operation Desert Storm. Also, I agree with Roxane Gay, who writes, "I don't believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others in ways that would be satisfying for anyone." With this in mind, I wonder, how do we anticipate all the ways our students might be troubled by historical material we teach? I do not think we can and do our jobs effectively.
Third, a lot of the historical sources historians use to teach history are often less graphic than the materials our students encounter in their lives outside the classroom (in families, entertainment, social media, news) that might trigger someone with PTSD.
Fourth, reading psychiatrist Sarah Roff's essay in The Chronicle ("Treatment, Not Trigger Warnings," May 23, 2014) reminded me of a point that's often ignored in the debate: students who are experiencing PTSD symptoms need treatment. She writes, and I agree, that universities (especially counseling and psychological services offices) can be good spaces for students to receive the help they need managing their emotional wounds. This isn't to say that psychiatry and psychology provide a cure for everything that could be hurting our students but it could be a step in the direction for helping them obtain some relief for their suffering.
JOHNSTON: For the last few semesters I've included what I call a Course Content Note in my syllabus—essentially a trigger warning, though I don't use the term. The current version of the note reads as follows:
"At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you are aware of particular course material that may be traumatizing to you, I'd be happy to discuss any concerns you may have with it before it comes up in class. Likewise, if you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to such material with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
"If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually to discuss the situation."
I have received no negative feedback on this note from students or from supporters of classroom trigger warnings, and I regard it as a straightforward and reasonable addition to my syllabus.