First published in The Hindu,

27 May 2023

College is a time of seeking and searching. As students gain deeper insights into various fields, forge bonds with different kinds of people and craft identities as individuals, they are likely to encounter the harsher realities of life. While they may have been shielded, to a large extent, from discomfiting and disturbing information in school, students gain a more adult and uncensored perspective in college. However, given that mental health issues among young people are more widespread nowadays, should colleges offer trigger warnings before introducing disturbing topics like caste discrimination, domestic violence, genocides or psychiatric conditions?

I teach a hybrid course for educators who would like to upskill themselves. One of the lectures conducted online focused on mental health issues. Before launching into a discussion, I put up a slide saying that if anyone found the content disturbing, they may take a break and return after some time. The session went smoothly though I wasn’t aware if any participant needed to avail of a break.

Subsequently, during face-to-face classes with the same group, participants broke up into groups for an assignment that required them to write the script and perform a role-play. The topic revolved around emotional and behavioral issues that crop up in a classroom. After discussing in small groups, the class reconvened and each group performed a role-play. I didn’t notice that anything was amiss until I had a debrief session at the end.

One of the groups confessed that they had a very hard time as two members became very emotional while recounting their own personal experiences during the small group discussion. Though the group members felt they had a very productive exchange with each other, their role play didn’t capture the depth of their earlier discussion.

While I could have given a trigger warning at the beginning of the session, I am unsure whether this would have changed the outcome of the process. In an article in The New York Times, Katherine Rosman quotes Amna Khalid, a professor of history at Carleton College who believes that trigger warnings are “ineffective” in addressing students’ mental health concerns.

I also told the participants that as they were all adult learners, they could have explained what had transpired before performing the role-play. And, this would have been an excellent opportunity for the class to practice what we had been discussing—handling socio- emotional issues in a classroom as and when they arise.

Recently, Cornell University decided that professors need not provide trigger warnings to students. In the The New York Times article, Rosman reports that a member of the University’s “undergraduate student assembly” framed a resolution, exhorting professors to forewarn students about “traumatic content” in readings or class discussions, that was passed by the assembly unopposed. However, when it was sent to the administration for approval, the President of the University vetoed it, arguing that it violated fundamental principles of “academic freedom and freedom of inquiry,” two hallmarks of a robust education.

My take-home lesson is that we, as teachers, must be sensitive to the socioemotional needs of the students we teach. While we may provide trigger warnings ahead of time when emotional topics are being discussed, it is not possible for teachers to anticipate which issues press students’ hot buttons every single time. For in classrooms, as in life, we can’t always anticipate what is thrown at us.

Further, while professors and students must be sensitive to the emotional needs of others in a classroom, we need to create a conducive climate where people are also free to express their views. A rounded education is one that exposes you to multiple viewpoints, some of which can be discomfiting. But growth and learning often result when we process and try to make sense of disturbing facts or divergent opinions.

While mental health concerns should be taken seriously and attended to, students should not equate all negative emotions with trauma. Authentic debate, which can sometimes get heated, is an integral facet of the collegiate experience. What we need to do is agree to disagree respectfully and mindfully.