‘I want to know what I’m getting myself into’: Content warnings at UBC

This article contains mention of sexual assault, colonialism and residential schools.

The sentence you just read is a content note, more commonly known as a content warning, sometimes abbreviated to “CW.” It’s a heads-up about potentially traumatic topics to come, including but not limited to abuse, sexual violence, racism, self-harm and suicide.

For The Ubyssey and many others, content warnings are common practice. However, they’ve also been the site of a decade-long firestorm of backlash. In UBC classrooms, they’re an ongoing negotiation.

Dr. Shannon Leddy, a Métis educator in UBC’s department of curriculum and pedagogy, incorporates content notes and other aspects of trauma-informed pedagogy when educating future educators.

“There will be students in your class who have experienced trauma by the time they arrive in your classroom,” she said. Teaching with the wellbeing of those students in mind is called “trauma-informed pedagogy.”

However, simple courtesies like content notes — let alone broader considerations of how to effectively and empathetically teach about traumatic content — remain inconsistent in classrooms at UBC.

What’s in a name?

People on the Internet have been arguing about content warnings for around a decade now, with a 2019 Vice article describing the related discourse as a “cultural battle.”

While the terms content note and trigger warning are often used interchangeably, some experts draw distinctions. A content note simply identifies the sensitive topics ahead. A trigger warning goes further to suggest that the content may cause anxiety or psychological distress, and advises readers to proceed with caution, if at all.

“I would say they’re intended to be the same thing, but the distinction is the semantics,” said Alicia Oeser, head of UBC’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO). “But either way, I think the intended meaning behind it is to give notice to the person who is reading the document that there is going to be material coming up that can be difficult for someone.”

Some right-wing commentators have argued that content warnings coddle audiences and leave them unable to cope with difficult topics. Other critics go so far as to frame content warnings as an attack on free speech, under the assumption that a mandated content warning dissuades educators from discussing some topics at all.

However, to Oeser, Leddy and other practitioners of trauma-informed pedagogy, these criticisms miss the point completely.

“As somebody who has experienced trauma, I don’t like the idea that I need big flashing warning lights that something’s coming,” said Oeser. Rather, a content note is a simple heads-up that can make people feel more supported in engaging with challenging content on their own terms.

According to Leddy and Oester, trauma should just be addressed with intentionality.

“[Trauma-informed teaching] does not mean that we avoid difficult topics, particularly in thinking about truth and reconciliation,” said Leddy. “Truth has to be at the forefront ... But that doesn’t mean we can shy away from it.”

No time to prepare

According to Oeser, the goal of content notes is “so that those of us with lived experience have a chance to either take a deep breath and prepare for [trauma-related content], or at the very least... we’re not caught off guard.”

Psychological studies are inconclusive about whether or not giving people warning to mentally prepare for sensitive content actually decreases their anxiety responses. Still, many students and trauma survivors say that they appreciate them.

“As someone who has spent the last year in [intensive] therapy, being able to prepare ahead of time for something that may trigger you is invaluable for helping you control your response to it when it ends up happening,” said Bella Munson, a former UBC history student.

In one of Munson’s courses in her first year, the professor didn’t give her that opportunity. Students were assigned to watch the film A Clockwork Orange, which includes a graphic rape scene, with no warning beforehand.

“It was very triggering and I stopped halfway through the movie,” said Munson.

Munson said that while many female students in the class discussion said that they would have appreciated a warning, the professor didn’t seem to understand or care.

“I don’t necessarily need time [stamps] for specific bad things, but I would like to know what I’m getting myself into,” said Munson. “I really hated that experience.”

“I would have liked the chance to opt out, or honestly, give me another option,” she said.

Content notes on campus

According to several UBC students, use of content warnings and other forms of trauma-informed pedagogy remain relatively rare.

Third-year geography major Emily Ash Cutajar said that she has only heard a professor use a content warning once. Similarly, third-year environmental sciences major Nasya Moore said that the majority of her courses lacked content warnings, specifically surrounding the topics of the Holocaust and genocidal violence against Indigenous peoples.

Moore said that as a Nisga’a and Leq’a:mel woman, she is very familiar with the settler-colonial traumas which have shaped her family history. While she’s generally comfortable discussing the topic, she finds that educators using graphic imagery of abuse at residential schools with no warning in a classroom setting isn’t the best way to teach.

“Not offering an actual content warning, or adequately communicating what you’re going to share or what images you’re going to show … does read as disrespectful to me, even if I haven’t personally felt offended,” said Moore.

SVPRO also works on expanding consent education on campus, including content warnings. A gradual outreach process to departments and deans sparks discussions on consent culture and trauma-informed teaching.

“We’re not just coming in and saying, ‘Here’s statistics on sexual assault,’ we’re actually coming in and saying, ‘Think about all these dynamics that are happening all the time,’” said Oeser.

“‘What does that look like in your classroom? What are ways you can mitigate that?’”

Inconclusive psychology vs. inclusive pedagogy

The issue with trigger warnings is that psychologically, there is no empirical evidence that they work. A preliminary study by Harvard University PhD student Benjamin Bellet showed that they may even cause slight harm by priming people for distress.

Bellet was invited to give a UBC talk in June of last year called “Trigger Warnings: Controversies and Conclusions,” which is available to watch online, through the Confronting Hegemonic Ideas speaker series put on by Dr. Robinder P. Bedi’s Research, Education, and Service Lab.

Bellet is a clean-cut young white man from Tennessee who served for five years in the US military. His talk emphasized empirical evidence, with an undercurrent of suspicion towards the progressive campus “orthodoxy.” Essentially, he’s everything you might expect of an anti-trigger warning crusader — down to his study being quoted on Fox News in 2019.

However, at the end of his talk, Bellet revealed something surprising: He uses content warnings in his own teaching.

“For me personally, I place very high premiums on being able to have open connections with students, so I do give pro-resiliency warnings, but without the expectation that they will be clinically-beneficial,” said Bellet.

A “pro-resiliency warning” performs the same function as a content warning, but additionally attempts to explain to students why learning from the potentially triggering content could be useful.

There’s no psychological evidence that warnings work to increase resiliency. But, there’s also no evidence that repeatedly exposing students to graphic content increases their resiliency either. Rather, it can be upsetting for students like Munson to see graphic images of rape in a classroom setting — especially when the distressing content’s educational value is unclear and for students who have experienced related traumas firsthand.

To most students and educators, to warn or not to warn is not a clinical psychological question. It’s an issue of transparency and trust in the classroom.