Discussing Traumatic Events and Sensitive Content
Far from being islands isolated from the world, classrooms can become spaces of intense personal and communal response to materials and events that may be tragic, violent, stressful, disturbing, or powerfully emotive in some other way. In these cases, it is important to provide a supportive, safe space for students to engage or disengage with the event or material in ways that respect their differing comfort levels, learning needs, and personal experience with the material or event in question. Always keep in mind your own comfort levels when planning or holding such conversations. Don’t hesitate to seek advice and support from a trusted mentor, peer, and/or the resources across campus (See list below).
If your course features subject matter or depictions that you anticipate may be emotionally disturbing in some way, you may want to issue a “content warning”–sometimes called a “trigger warning.” For some students with traumatic histories, such materials can cause reactions that prevent their participation and engagement in the class.
Contrary to some popular critiques, content warnings do not pre-determine or limit your choice of teaching materials. Rather, they enable students to engage with such materials while protecting their own wellbeing. As noted by Inclusive Teaching at the University of Michigan, “The inclusion of content warnings is neither restrictive (it does not label anything as off-limits to teach) nor coddling (it does not assume that students cannot handle the material); on the contrary, it treats them as adults who can and should attend to their own wellbeing with all available information.”
While it is of course impossible to predict what will trigger someone, there are some simple and easily implemented ways to give students a “heads up” so that they can have more agency over how they would like to engage with these materials. Even students without traumatic histories can find these warnings helpful for mentally or emotionally preparing themselves to engage with sensitive and difficult materials.
Some approaches to content warnings include:
- Provide a short “blanket statement” in the syllabus noting that your course materials will deal with certain disturbing topics. You might list of these topics: e.g., sexual assault, police brutality, suicide, etc. (For sample labels, see this document published by the University of Michigan). Indicate your approachability in addressing any obstacles that may arise for student learning as well as any relevant campus resources (noted below).
- E.g.: Some of the materials of this class feature sexual violence and police brutality. While I will do my best to make the classroom a safe, thoughtful, and empathetic space for us all to engage with such materials, I encourage you to approach me if you expect such materials will pose an obstacle to your learning and to take care of yourselves through campus and other supportive resources.
- Make an online document that students can separately access, if they wish, noting potentially disturbing material for each text or lecture of the course. Again, you can briefly list the topics that may be disturbing.
- Notify students verbally in class or over email about potentially disturbing material in an upcoming lecture or text (i.e. a few days before or the day before).
- Consider creating an anonymous Google Form where students can write in their concerns about disturbing or triggering course materials. While you may not get to know the identity of the student commenter(s), some students may only feel safe approaching you anonymously and you can, in turn, incorporate their feedback in deciding how to teach a particular section of your course.
In all cases, let students know they are welcome to approach you with any concerns about the material and that arrangements can always be made in these cases to support student learning. Usually, this simply means the student can, for example, skip a certain passage of a book or part of a film, or go on a short class break during a portion of a lecture. Students often also have their own ways of deploying coping strategies that do not need the instructor’s intervention. It is best to ask the student what changes they may need in order for them to safely engage with the material.
Finally, be sure to include information about relevant campus resources. These resources are listed at the bottom of the page.
Here is another sample written content warning from the GSI Teaching & Resource Center’s Professional Standards and Ethics course, designed in consultation with the PATH to Care Center:
Content Warning: This page contains information about training requirements for the prevention of sexual violence and sexual harassment. These forms of harm are too common, and we recognize that many people in our community have experienced them. If you have concerns about completing the requirements due to personal history, you may request to complete the training requirements in an alternative way by contacting a Confidential Advocate at the PATH to Care Center. You will not be required to disclose any details of your experience. We ask this request to be reserved for students impacted by sexual violence and sexual harassment and/or histories of trauma, violence, or harassment. You can reach an Advocate by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by phone (510-642-1988). Please use the subject line: Alternative to Required GSI Ethics Module.
Traumatic or disturbing events vary from national and international news stories that may have a deep emotional impact on students to local events on campus that directly impact students’ wellbeing like Covid outbreaks, active shooter alarms, and wildfire smoke.
These events may naturally arise as a topic of discussion in your class because of the course’s material; at other times, students may bring up the topic mainly because of the event’s currency and importance. While it is important to acknowledge that students may be experiencing difficulties during this time, you should also keep in mind that there may be some students in your class who might find it uncomfortable to hold a class discussion on the topic: perhaps a student or their family has been directly impacted by the event, making it deeply uncomfortable to discuss it in a more public setting. Consider your own preparedness as well – and never hesitate to reach out for help and advice from mentors, peers, and other resources across campus.
If you feel unprepared for a class discussion of an event, you may want to acknowledge the value of having that discussion but, in fact, defer discussion until you have a plan to manage it. In lieu of discussion, you could ask students to write briefly on the topic in class. You could then ask if students want to address the issue in the next class session, but if you find you are still not ready to manage the discussion, do not feel obliged to do so. Even observing a moment of silence as a class can be helpful.
If you do decide to initiate discussion of the event in the context of your course, there are several matters to take into consideration:
- Offer students the choice of opting out of the discussion – some may find the material too triggering or emotionally difficult to discuss in a class setting.
- Be sure to allow enough time so that you will not have to abbreviate a helpful discussion.
- Prepare for the discussion in advance. Consult Vanderbilt University’s Teaching in Times of Crisis for thoughts to consider.
- Create a direction and purpose for the discussion — that is, a clear framework or a connection to your class content and goals, or an acknowledgement of this significant event. It could be helpful to set some guidelines for the specific discussion before it begins.
- Expect the topic to stir powerful emotions. Be attentive to the human and emotional toll taken by the event (especially if tragic) and the impact of information disseminated by you and others. Although your objective may be to discuss the situation analytically, you can’t expect students to check their emotional responses at the door.
- Give students an opportunity to respond privately to the emotional impact of images and information (for example through writing) before moving on to process that information analytically.
- Urge students to speak for themselves and listen to each other, taking care to respect each other and the value of constructive discussion. (You might want to refer to your section’s community agreements, or set up specific guidelines for this particular discussion before it begins.) Understand that students will have varying reactions to the discussion, and some will prefer to remain silent.
- If you have established a strong classroom community, invite students to share resources that they have found useful during this time with each other. This not only offers students more avenues to pursue support but also emphasizes to students that they are surrounded by a supportive and robust peer network.
- Explicitly acknowledge the difference in types of comments made during discussion, distinguishing between emotional comments and informational or analytical ones. You can help students understand one another better if you assist them in seeing the different orientations of each other’s statements.
- Be sure to have a strategy for bringing the discussion to a close. Again, a short writing exercise might be helpful. You could also remind students of ways they might be of assistance or take action.
- If you want help in planning a class session or debriefing a session in which the topic came up, email the GSI Teaching & Resource Center and a staff member will contact you.
- In any situation, you can always direct students to the appropriate campus resources and groups that can support students during these times. Consider sending an email with these resources and/or making an announcement in class about them. (See resources below).
Adapted with permission from University of Michigan, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, Guidance For Instructors Leading Class Discussion on Hurricane Katrina.
You can find a full list and descriptions of campus resources in the Teaching and Resource Center GSI Ethics course, here.
1. Resources for Both Students and GSIs:
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provides brief counseling to students with personal, academic, and career concerns. Professional counselors can meet with students to talk about a number of concerns such as adjusting to school, deciding on a career or major, dealing with family or relationship issues, and coping with personal crises. All undergraduate and graduate students are eligible for CAPS services, regardless of their insurance coverage.
Confidential Advocates, 510-642-1988 or email@example.com
Confidential Advocates provide free affirming, empowering, and confidential support for survivors and those who have experienced gendered violence, including sexual harassment, dating and intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking, and sexual exploitation. Advocates bring a non-judgmental, caring approach to exploring all options, rights, and resources.
The Basic Needs Center serves as a resource hub for basic needs resources and services, and a space for students to create community and access coordinated support for their basic needs. Services at the Basic Needs Center include Case Management for students who need support navigating unstable housing (including homelessness and emergency housing needs), access to food (including CalFresh application support, Food Pantry access, and other food assistance), and more.
GenEq is a campus community center providing programs, services, and resource information about gender, sexual orientation, sex and gender identity, sexual and relationship violence, and bias-related incidents. It is a program of UC Berkeley’s Division of Equity and Inclusion.
The Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD) is responsible for ensuring the University provides an environment for faculty, staff, and students that is free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of protected categories including race, color, national origin, gender, age, and sexual orientation/identity.
2. GSI-Specific Resources:
Students may be referred to the Center for Support and Intervention when they are exhibiting concerning behaviors related to their personal, physical, and emotional well-being. You should feel free to call for consultation prior to submitting a Care Report if you are hesitant, have questions, or need immediate advice. After reviewing a Care Report, the Center for Support and Intervention brings select cases to the Students of Concern Committee, when appropriate.