The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s University Health Services has issued guidelines asking professors to include “trigger warnings” about potentially traumatizing material in their syllabi — presumably to protect students’ mental health.
More specifically, Health Services wants professors at the prestigious school to provide trigger warnings before exposing students to reading assignments, films, or discussions related to sexual assault, violence, identity-based discrimination and harassment and other “emotionally triggering materials.”
Health Services also asks professors to consider offering alternative reading materials if a student finds class materials too traumatizing, and to issue a statement informing students about resources available to address “gender-based violence”.
It’s unclear what medical research or guidelines Health Services is relying on for its belief that “triggering” related to race and gender issues could cause mental health problems in Wisconsin students.
When contacted by Heat Street, a University spokesman appeared to backtrack on the Health Services request, saying the guidelines don’t constitute an official University recommendation. Instead, the spokesman said, they were published to provide information for faculty who are already interested.
“UW-Madison takes no position on the use of trigger warnings and they are used solely at the discretion of faculty,” said John Lucas, the assistant vice chancellor for university communications. “UW-Madison faculty are aware that this information is used at their discretion,” he added.
As for concerns that “trigger warnings” represent an implicit threat to free speech, Tim Higgins, a member of the UW System’s Board of Regents, said the University wants students to have the best possible opportunities to explore ideas on campus.
In 2015, the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents passed a resolution expressing its commitment to free speech, explicitly saying that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
But trigger warnings aren’t without their defenders at UW-Madison. Last year, for instance, one professor wrote a letter to the New York Times defending her use of them. She said five of her students had recently been raped, including “one [who] sits at the back so she has walls behind her, close to the door in case panic overwhelms her.”
Guidelines for trigger warnings are OK as long as they’re a recommendation, not a mandate, Higgins says. “But it could have a chilling effect on speech if it’s misinterpreted, and we will monitor that,” he adds.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.