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Some College Classes Need a Warning Label

The student government at the University of California at Santa Barbara set off a bit of a firestorm recently when it passed a resolution to mandate that professors use “trigger warnings” on their class syllabi.
Would you leave in the middle of a lecture? Photographer: Oktay Ortakcioglu via Getty Images
Would you leave in the middle of a lecture? Photographer: Oktay Ortakcioglu via Getty Images

The student senate at the University of California-Santa Barbara recently set off a bit of a firestorm by passing a resolution requiring professors to issue "trigger warnings" to protect students from potentially upsetting content. The idea is pretty simple: Professors would write notes on their syllabi to alert students on which occasions a course's material will be, say, sexually graphic. Students could then excuse themselves from class without being punished academically. (The resolution needs to be passed by another committee of faculty and students to go into effect.)

Although the students intended for the warnings to help students who had endured terrible events in their lives, the Los Angeles Times editorial board called the policy an "attack on academic freedom." I understand that concern, but my own experience suggests that the student senate is right -- advance notice of graphic material can help students make appropriate personal decisions without undermining the freedom of professors to teach.

In 2011, during my sophomore year at Northwestern University, I took a popular psychology class called "Human Sexuality" to fulfill a science requirement. Although I knew in advance the course's material would probably be graphic, I figured that since it was taking place in an academic setting and at a university I trusted, I'd emerge the better for it.