Dear Faculty: The Importance of Content Notices

Dear faculty of Amherst,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. With constant encouragement from my professors to pursue even the most complicated of questions, I am writing with a proposal regarding the engagement of potentially traumatic material in courses. Traumatic material comes up often in courses, whether it’s discussion of oppressive systems or gruesome depictions of violence (often the two intersect).

For the purpose of this letter, I will discuss sexual violence specifically as an example for my reasoning. I choose to use this issue as a case study after engaging with it in my three years working in the Women’s and Gender Center. But the points I make are easily applicable to material that engages with other forms of trauma. The specific topic of sexual violence is simply a starting point. I urge you to consider applying this approach to any material that may engage forms of trauma from which your students are healing (bullying, suicide, racial violence and police brutality, homophobia, gendered violence, etc.).

For the issue of sexual violence, for example, my proposal is twofold: 1) I am proposing that professors issue content notices on their syllabi for all required class materials that reference sexual violence and 2) if more than 50 percent of the required class materials reference sexual violence, a content notice is put in the course description available during pre-registration.

I recognize that this proposal is controversial given the contentious debate in the last five years around content notices on college campuses (most of this debate has employed the politically charged phrase “trigger warning”). I also recognize that this issue is complex, and my proposal is one of many possible ways to deal with teaching traumatic material. To clarify why I think this idea is important, I will respond to four commonly raised questions and concerns about content notices.

A content notice, in the context that I am proposing, might look like this: “This material contains content pertaining to sexual violence.” This is just an example; a content notice is important because it communicates the presence of sensitive material, not because of its exact language.

In the moment, issuing a content notice allows survivors of trauma to prepare for a potential trigger of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is not a matter of “being too sensitive” — trauma specialists and psychologists alike have provided scientific support for the existence of triggers or external stimuli that provoke the sympathetic nervous system and activate what is often referred to as a fight-or-flight response.

The fields of psychology and social work have also produced extensive studies detailing strategies PTSD patients can use to respond to triggers. This takes time and energy: it can mean practicing deep breathing in the moment or stepping out of the room. Alternatively, it can mean going to a friend’s room after class to vent, spending the afternoon reading a book or taking a nap instead of studying. Without responding appropriately to a trigger, the body cannot return to normalcy, and the fight-or-flight response becomes prolonged. For this reason, issuing a content notice would allow survivors to anticipate the time and energy this process takes.

There are two possibilities of how students will be impacted by content notices: students will either be unaffected by the presence or absence of content notices, or they will make use of them and rely on them to engage in class.

Let’s consider the first group, who would be able to think critically about the material either way. Amherst prides itself on its commitment to both academic excellence and academic honesty. It would be unlikely for an Amherst student to use a content notice as an excuse not to finish their homework. And if some students do, I am confident those students would find another excuse to slack off even without content notices.

Now let’s consider the second group, those who would be grateful for the presence of a content notice. Without that notice, they may be caught off guard and, as a result of their body’s response to a perceived danger, unable to really learn from the material. With the notice, they could be more prepared to use a coping strategy to remain calm while engaging with the course material, or they may choose to skip the assignment altogether. Even if they choose not to engage at all, I argue that they aren’t missing out on anything. Learning cannot take place when we are absorbed by a physiological response to danger. In the same vein, if a student would have such a response to a majority of the course material, they may preemptively decide that the course is not right for them. What’s more, a PTSD response to a trigger can be long-lasting — if an assignment prompts a PTSD response, completing that assignment may impact not only the student’s experience in the class, but also possibly the remainder of that student’s classes for the rest of the morning, day or week.

Lastly, to use the issue of sexual violence as a case study, content notices are popular among students. A recent poll put out by Amherst College students asked 135 students to agree or disagree with the following statement: “I, or somebody I know, would be positively impacted if this were a policy: professors state on the syllabus which required readings or videos will reference sexual violence.” 104 students agreed. The demand for content notices is real, and for good reason.

Healing from trauma is no easy feat — PTSD can be all-consuming. Let’s look at the healing process from sexual violence on campus as an example: some survivors have undergone therapy, trial and error with medication, changing dorms, switching classes, Title IX adjudication processes and criminal investigations. Survivors spend hours, days, weeks and months trying to make sense of what happened to us and then trying to explain that to those in our lives. We have spent time arguing about why we should be believed, why other survivors should be believed and why what happened to us was wrong.

Moreover, attending Amherst College — or any college — after being sexually assaulted is very difficult. Each dining hall swipe, registered course and selected room is a gamble of a potential encounter with an assailant. This constant fear can be draining. And this college’s small size makes it even trickier. Many of us have had classes not only with our rapists but also with people who have raped our friends. Sexual assault is rampant on college campuses. Survivors are your students, your advisees, people whom you are proud of and have mentored. The sad truth is that the majority of rapes go unreported, and as a consequence, the presence of rapists is all-pervasive in campus life.

This is neither unique to nor the fault of the college, as we have seen throughout history in all pockets of our society. The college, however, is not exempt from addressing this issue, especially since the size of the student body can exacerbate the problem. Needless to say, survivors are never — in any sense of the word — coddled in their experiences at Amherst College.

The most common argument against content notices claims that they inhibit free speech. Let me be clear: I am not asking for professors to stop teaching about traumatic material. Returning to our case study, to learn about the world without regard to sexual violence would be an incomplete story. As a historian, feminist and strong believer in the liberal arts, I am commited to teaching and learning the full story (to the fullest extent that it is possible). In the same way a syllabus lists the required readings and assessments for a course, a content notice simply provides more information, enabling students to make more informed choices.

In this way, content notices are in keeping with the philosophy of an open curriculum. On the Amherst College website, the section on the open curriculum reads, “Our curriculum offers flexibility and independence … Students take full responsibility for their intellectual growth, in the same way they will take responsibility for important choices later in life.”

The open curriculum allows students to assess their own interest and academic limits, and tailor their intellectual growth according to their own needs and abilities. It would make sense, then, that the University of Chicago, known for its core curriculum, has led the movement against content notices in recent years while Brown University has come out in support. The feeling of joy that comes from free and open learning is one of the best gifts Amherst College gives its students. It allows us to pursue a passion and stretch our perspectives. Without content notices, this is impossible for survivors.

For these reasons, I urge you to put this policy into action in your courses, not just for sexual violence, but for any potentially traumatic material. I recognize this is a tall order, and a subjective one as well. The question of what material to flag is really complicated, as so much of what we study is traumatic. The care and compassion you demonstrate for students is evident in your classrooms, meetings, office hours and invitations to your homes for meals. I ask that you extend that compassion specifically to your students who are survivors of trauma by making reasonable and appropriate decisions about what material would require a content notice and considering what healing processes your students may be going through, not just from sexual violence but other forms of violence and institutional oppression as well.

Thank you for your consideration. If you have questions, I would be happy to talk with you in person. Otherwise, if you are curious about this issue, I encourage you to contact the Center for Teaching and Learning, which has more resources on how professors can grapple with this issue.