By Dr. Alyxandra Vesey, Journalism and Creative Media
I will never forget the first time that a student came up to me after class to request content warnings for course screenings. In my nine years of teaching college, I have received negative feedback from students who objected to what I screened for class. Some have disagreed with the subject matter on political or religious grounds by walking out of the classroom or voicing their disapproval in course evaluations. From time to time, they grew annoyed or impatient with content that exists beyond their comfort zone as viewers. I usually take such pushback in stride, because I know why everything is on my syllabus. Every reading, lecture, screening, or assignment helps scaffold their education. As a professor, you must have a conviction for what you screen.
When I build syllabi and lesson plans, I ask myself: How will this text illustrate or build upon a course concept? How will this text productively challenge students’ expectations? What can I reasonably show a room full of college students without telegraphing my own discomfort? What texts will they relate to? What texts will help them see the world from a different perspective? What texts might they struggle with upon first viewing but appreciate as they advance in their studies? If I can’t answer these questions for myself or stand behind a text, I search for something else to show them.
She wanted to know which movies from my screening list contained gun violence and extended battle sequences because she was a mass shooting survivor…
But this request was different. The student wasn’t raising moral objections or defining her personal taste against my syllabus. She wanted to know which movies from my screening list contained gun violence and extended battle sequences because she was a mass shooting survivor and she wanted to be able to prepare herself in the event that some shot, sequence, or story point reactivated her trauma. She came up to me at the end of a long teaching day and raised a question I never considered before.
When this happens, I always try to make it clear that I’m thinking on my feet: “Why don’t we try this and if it doesn’t work let me know so we can try something else. Sound good?” It helps establish and maintain trust by demonstrating that education is multi-directional and not a set of decrees exclaimed from on high. In the moment, I walked her through the syllabus and I pointed out which movies had guns and/or gun violence in them to the best of my recollection. I also recommended that she queue up the trailers on YouTube to see if any of the content bothered her and to let me know so we can come up with alternate screening options. It was the best strategy I could come up with at that moment.
… I typically don’t issue trigger warnings.
I should note that I typically don’t issue trigger warnings. This is obviously a point of contention within the academy, and I’m not here to issue a ruling on best practices. Again, a good professor must stand by their curricula and philosophy. But I have my reasons. First, I dislike the term’s evocation of gun violence. Nearly 250 mass shootings have taken place in the United States this year, and there will be more until comprehensive gun safety legislation is passed in this country. Removing metaphorical language that evokes armament is my small rhetorical gesture toward removing weapons from our culture. Furthermore, I don’t like to assume that students will be distressed by what I show them before they see it for themselves. This is why I prefer to offer framing comments before a screening or a lecture clip that gives students context for what they’re about to see, and guiding questions to help orient their reception and direct class discussion. This is also why I insist upon setting 10-15 minutes aside after an in-class screening so that students can verbalize what they saw and how it relates to course material and process what they experienced. I also insist upon addressing students by their first name so that I can acknowledge their humanity and they can learn to recognize themselves and their classmates as individuals instead of an anonymous mass fed through a roster.
Your students can teach you too.
This exchange broke my heart, but I think it made me a better teacher. I was impressed with the student’s emotional maturity. It took a lot of courage and self-awareness to tell a professor what you need, particularly when you’re in a room full of strangers. I was humbled that she trusted me enough to take her concerns seriously. But I remain devastated by my certainty that I will continue to receive this request. The longer we teach in a country without gun control, the more mass shooting survivors we will educate and mentor. I want my students to feel safe when they’re in my care. I also want to feel safe while I’m teaching them. I struggle to modify curriculum while knowing that anything I add or amend to cannot deter mass shootings as a public health crisis as comprehensively as legislative action. But I respond and adjust because learning is a process that helps us understand, anticipate, and imagine a future world fairer and safer than our current circumstances. Your students can teach you too.