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Most Professors Fear, But Don’t Face, Trigger Warnings

Among critics looking for examples of coddling on campus, no action has been ridiculed more than the “trigger warning,” in which college professors caution their students that the class will discuss a subject that could produce a painful emotional response. But the criticism may have outpaced the pro-trigger-warning activists. A new report says that almost no professors are being asked to provide the warnings.

In order to roughly gauge how common trigger warning policies were, and to find out how professors felt about the possibility of being asked to include them, the National Coalition Against Censorship partnered with the Modern Language Association and the College Art Association (professional associations for scholars of literature and art) to poll their members during the spring of 2015.1

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Almost none of the more than 800 members who replied to the survey said their school required trigger warnings. Only 0.5 percent of respondents said that their institution had adopted such a policy. (About a third were unsure whether their school had a policy in place, which would suggest that the policy, if it existed, wasn’t particularly well publicized.)

If professors provided content warnings, it was most likely to be because they chose to do so. A third (34 percent) of professors said they had warned students about the content of their courses once or twice. An additional 11 percent said they had given warnings several times, and 12 percent gave them regularly.

The vast majority of professors surveyed (85 percent) said students had never asked them for trigger warnings. Thirteen percent of professors had gotten a request once or twice, and only a tiny proportion of professors polled said they received trigger warning requests several times (1.4 percent) or regularly (0.3 percent). The professors reported even fewer student movements; 93 percent of professors said they were not aware of any student-led efforts to adopt a trigger warning policy at their school.

Students may not be making many requests of professors personally, but they are broadly in favor of trigger warnings. A survey commissioned in September by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale found that 63 percent of students favored professors using trigger warnings, and only 23 percent opposed the practice. (The survey asked about “use” but did not ask respondents how they felt about requiring warnings.)

Although very few professors who responded to the National Coalition Against Censorship survey had experience with trigger warning policies, most said they were worried about the effect warning policies would have on their classroom. Professors who said they would expect a negative effect on classroom dynamics from trigger warnings outnumbered those who said they would expect a positive effect (45 percent to 17 percent). The pessimism was even more pronounced when professors were asked about the effects trigger warnings would have on academic freedom. Nine times as many professors said the effects would be negative as positive (63 percent negative, 7 percent positive).

In other words, even though more than half of the professors surveyed had voluntarily used content warnings, and 12 percent used them regularly, most of the professors remained worried about trigger warning policies being imposed by their college, rather than being able to give less formal warnings as they saw fit.

Footnotes

  1. The survey is not a scientific sample of college professors as a whole.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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