For most of my time at Chico I have taught a course in Freedom of Speech. For the last few years I incorporated a mini-unit on the Innocence of Muslims trailer/movie that inspired worldwide riots in 2012. I would usually let my students know in advance we would be watching the movie since it was the source of such outrage and controversy. In addition, to start each semester I would let students know the topics in the class were controversial by definition and even assigned a rating of “NC-17” to the course in order to give students fair warning. While I was not familiar with the concept to start, I was providing my students with a trigger warning.
Providing the trigger warning was a mistake.
The mistake was not the warning itself, it was making an uninformed decision about whether the warning was appropriate. There are good reasons for warning students in advance about topics which might compel distress. There are also good reasons why mandated warnings are a threat to academic freedom and the intellectual development of students.
I am not going to tell you about your obligation to protect your students from controversy, or expose them to unpopular ideas. I am not going to tell you about how you are ruining the academy by giving your students advance warning about material that might recreate trauma from assault or war, nor am I am going to tell you about your complicity in violence by failing to do so.
I am going to pass on the same advice you likely give your students. Do some research and make an informed decision about trigger warnings rather than simply trusting that what you are doing is right.
For some further reading check out these pieces.
Huffington Post blog on balancing warnings with good content.
Washington Post piece on trigger warnings and guest speakers on campuses.
New Republic essay or trigger warnings and mental health.
US News Debate Club on trigger warnings.