9.10.5 | Libby Nelson
There are probably more articles on the internet arguing about trigger warnings on college syllabuses than there are actual trigger warnings on college syllabuses.
Only one college, Oberlin College, actually recommended that professors warn students about content that might be disturbing or traumatizing — and they eventually withdrew that policy.
But however infrequently they're actually used, trigger warnings have played an outsize role in the debate about what's been called "the new political correctness" — whether greater sensitivity to students' concerns about mental health and racial and gender equality has turned into a threat to academic freedom and open debate. Critics argue that warning students that what they're studying could be "triggering" will make professors less likely to teach sensitive material and render students too emotionally fragile to deal with the real world.
Underlying this, though, is a larger — and perhaps more consequential — debate, about the relationship between college students and their colleges. College students, particularly those who are in their late teens and early 20s, are expected to act like adults while being supervised like children; as the price of college goes up, they're also increasingly seen as paying customers, and they're starting to act like it.
Why trigger warnings started showing up in college
Trigger warnings have spread to college amid growing concern about how to handle sexual assault on campus. PTSD is common among victims of sexual assault. A 2007 study in Virginia found women who had been sexually assaulted were nearly four times more likely to develop PTSD than those who had not; more than 30 percent of women who had been assaulted as adults met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.
Studies estimate that about 20 percent of women experience sexual assault on campus. Those numbers are disputed, and not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to get PTSD. But it still suggests that college students are far more traumatized than many people might think.