Content warning or spoiler?
You know the drill: On the first day of class, you go through some less-than-stellar icebreaker, you try not to fall asleep as the professor reads the syllabus, you count the minutes until you can be let out early. Depending on how long the professor spends on the syllabus, you could leave ten minutes early or thirty minutes early or an hour early.
Some instructors — in my experience, two graduate students and one tenured professor — spend extra time discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion; accessibility; Title IX; and mental health, all of which I appreciate, because have you seen the standard LS&A blurbs on these issues? They’re scant, one-paragraph descriptions that barely scratch the surface of these concerns. Some instructors don’t bother to add the bare minimum into their syllabi at all.
And on the opposite end, you have the professors who go out of their way to tell you about why they didn’t add something onto the syllabus, namely, content or trigger warnings. This happened once my freshman year in a history class and once this semester in an English class. In my history course, after the professor went on a short rant on how trigger warnings coddled students, a few people in the class argued with him, which eventually turned into a thirty-minute discussion on trigger warnings. In my English course, the professor explained he didn’t add content or trigger warnings to the syllabus because they would spoil the books we would be reading.
Of course, you can’t avoid harrowing topics that have already occurred in history or that have been published in print forever. People respond to triggers differently, too; it could be a smell or a color, rather than the name of the subject itself, that pulls the person out of the moment and into an anxiety or panic attack, or worse.
But that doesn’t mean that content/trigger warnings shouldn’t be present in syllabi. To the argument about how they insulate students from hard-hitting topics: it isn’t like content warnings make it mandatory that students avoid the topic (although I recognize that some students will take advantage of this to just skip some readings; but don’t we do that already anyways?). Rather, they’re supposed to function as warnings, as the name suggests, to be aware that a particular week’s reading or lecture will touch upon an issue that could be mentally harmful for the student. If the warnings are meant for those who have already experienced the trauma at hand, then the coddling argument becomes a bit porous, since students who have undergone trauma are far from having been insulated, and have experienced something that can’t be taught in a classroom.
As for the argument about spoilers in the English classroom — the content warning doesn’t have to go into great detail about what happens in the book. It could be as general as “this novel touches upon issues of racial and sexual violence,” which is something you might already find in a summary or book review. If you’re really concerned about spoilers over students’ mental health and well-being, then you could go even more general than that and say, “this novel touches upon issues that may be disturbing or triggering for some students.”
I recognize that it’s a nuanced, complicated topic and a hard one to balance, too. But content or trigger warnings benefit all students, especially those belonging to marginalized groups who often experience disproportionate amounts of systemic and individual violence and oppression, namely, students of color, low-income students, LGBTQIA+ students, students with disabilities, undocumented students and students practicing non-Christian religions. If we’re to make the classroom a truly inclusive and accessible space, then I think including content warnings is one step forward in that direction.