As campus-wide attention regarding sexual assault is increasing, professors whose lectures contain sensitive subjects are becoming more aware of trigger words.
As defined by Christine Szaraz, a prevention and outreach counselor at the Stony Brook University Center for Prevention and Outreach, a trigger word is a word that can cause “people who have experienced trauma to re-experience that trauma, things can trigger intrusive thoughts, memories, feelings.”
Triggers are not exclusively a result of sexual violence. Some causes can also be military combat, witnessing violence and being held hostage, to name a few.
Szaraz said she has been approached more in the past few semesters than in semesters past by professors who are trying to considerately handle this issue. She guest lectures in some classes to teach students the realities of rape and other gender issues that are commonly brushed over by campus officials.
Kathleen Fallon, an associate professor of sociology at SBU, has worked with Szaraz to educate students on serious topics. When dealing with possible trigger words, Fallon gives students as much forewarning as teaching tools allow.
“I try to give fair warning before the lectures are given,” Fallon said in an email. “I try to let students know in the syllabus, on Blackboard, and the lectures before. I hope to prevent students from coming, who might be affected—or to let them know what they will be hearing about, if they do decide to come.”
In her two years of teaching at Stony Brook, Fallon has not encountered a student who has been affected by a lecture of sensitive nature. In Fallon’s experience at McGill University in Canada, while lecturing about school shootings, a woman experienced post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Kylie Oradesky, a junior environmental science major who works in the Center for Prevention and Outreach, said she thinks the considerate introduction of sensitive topics is helpful. She noted the importance of recognizing that everyone has different words that may set them off and that acknowledging this can help people heal. As a student, Oradesky has seen the result of professor’s awareness of trigger words in her classes.
“I have been in classrooms where teachers have introduced topics of a sensitive nature, such as assault, rape, abuse,” she said. “We usually talk about what the problem is and have a discussion about it.”
According to Szaraz, opponents of the use of trigger words argue the trouble with giving students trigger warnings is that they can enable a victim to avoid their trauma to an extent that allows them to fall into a state of further poor mental health.
“It is important that we don’t infantilize victims,” Szaraz said.
She explained that instead, peers, friends, professors and counselors should put in the extra work and show they care by empowering those we know who suffer as a result of trigger words. Despite the opinion of those who believe avoidance at all cost is what is best, Szaraz said triggers can be anywhere.
Szaraz then took the perspective of a victim: “I can’t spend my life wrapped in bubble wrap avoiding the triggers. I need to learn skills to manage my reaction.”