A confession: my first reaction when I learned about trigger warnings, also known as content warnings, I was against them, especially as a teacher. I couldn’t help it. I wondered if such a concept could spiral too far and eventually give an easy exit to students who had no need for them, and simply didn’t want to engage in whatever challenging topic at hand. In my classroom, we read and discuss writings about everything from body image to race, and of course those topics are sometimes controversial-- understandably a certain degree of self-care is necessary when tackling them--but there’s a big difference between self-care and running from the discussion. I feared having to use content warnings would make it easy for a student (or my readers) to claim the former when it was the latter. What kind of discussions would we be able to have if everyone is skirting the topics? Most importantly, one of the most profound truths I’ve learned in my teaching career is that children of all ages are much more resilient than we give them credit for; how would I balance respect for their autonomy and resiliency while respecting genuine health-related needs?
Of course that was my own gut-reaction to the idea. I’ve not only examined my own privilege and biases since first learning about content warnings, but also softened my stance on them. In my own nod to the need for these warnings, I issue a blanket content warning at the beginning of the course and release class schedules that list all the in-class activities and readings so that students can see everything we’re going to cover and have plenty of time to come to me for adjustments or engage with the material on their own terms before having to discuss in class. I still, however, haven’t found a balance of monitoring/regulating the writings they do themselves and share with their peers during workshops. The question became and somewhat still is, whether I should expect students to add content warnings to their own work, especially when we discuss more open-content genres such as memoir/personal essay. Currently I don’t because I also allow them to choose their peer review groups (so they work with those they’re more comfortable sharing things with), and I feel it’s setting them up to think content warnings are more of a thing in creative writing published works than it presently is, for better or worse.
Indeed, I wonder if these warnings should be added to written works, since we already do so with other forms of media like movies, or even in our everyday lives, like the “Caution: Hot” warnings on my cup of coffee. As my dad likes to say, there’s no such thing as common sense, so there’s also no such thing as common experience either. If we can prevent someone’s pain with just a short phrase-- a caution: hot!-- it doesn’t mean they will completely turn away from the content, it simply levels the playing field a little more. The person who enjoys their coffee scaldingly hot can disregard the warning on the cup, but the person who likes theirs warm can let it sit for a minute to get it just right. I temper this with a healthy expectation of readers (and coffee drinkers!) to be aware of what they’re holding, since it’s hardly fair to expect, say, a war story to not have mentions of war-related things such as injuries or even death, just as it would be too much to be upset when the regular coffee you ordered is given to you at a hot temperature.
This is also to say that content warnings and the awareness around the need for them should also serve as a reminder to writers of their responsibility as well. Some of the experiences they give their characters can be real for their readers, and therefore will have real effects. We must take care to craft stories that do not use these experiences in merely gratifying ways (looking at you, filmmakers who use women’s assault/death to motivate male characters to action, just to give one example), but instead reflect upon and explore how those experiences shape us.
Zyanya Avila Louis
Zyanya Avila Louis received her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College and now teaches in their First Year Writing Program. In her time working with students at Emerson, she as developed a passion for working with international students, multilingual students, and other diverse student populations, which is born from being bilingual herself. She loves writing and reading fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally enjoys poetry. Zyanya was born and raised in El Paso, TX and now lives in Quincy, MA with her fiance and her growing library of books.