We all know about academic “trigger warnings”: advance advice to students that they may encounter things in a lecture or course that disturb them. I’m not opposed to such warnings in toto (I’d tell students, for example, if I were going to show gruesome photos or videos in class), but I don’t think that these warnings should allow students to avoid necessary course material, for exposure to a distressing but common situations is the way to get over it. Proper warnings allow students to prepare for things that they find disturbing.
Now, though, those triggering issues are said to include “bones”. As the Oct. 25 issue of The Times (UK) reports:
You may think that it comes with the territory, but archaeology students have been given permission to walk out of lectures if they feel they may be traumatised by the sight of skeletons.
Tony Pollard, a professor of conflict history at the University of Glasgow who co-presents the BBC TV series Two Men in a Trench, said that he issues “trigger warnings” before displaying images of human remains in lectures.
He dismissed suggestions that students were being mollycoddled and insisted that it would be irresponsible not to give individuals the chance to opt out of seeing graphic images.
. . . Writing in The Conversation journal, Professor Pollard said: “Some of the material I refer to in my classes is disturbing, with images of the dead appearing regularly.
“Students are a diverse group and some of them might have suffered domestic abuse, violent attack or trauma in war. In these cases, such exposure might trigger flashbacks or aggravate recently suppressed trauma.
“It is only common sense to provide these individuals, and those who just can’t stomach images of dead bodies in shallow graves, with the option to walk out of the classroom.”
Professor Pollard added that as a student he had been disturbed by graphic images from the First World War. “I think back to the mass graves of Australian soldiers buried by the Germans at Fromelles in 1916. Although the remains were skeletal they were still upsetting, with many of them exhibiting the trauma caused by a machinegun burst or grenade blast,” he said.
“This doesn’t make me or my students a wuss or mean they need to man up. It makes me a human being and one sensitive enough to deal with the remains of the dead in a professional and respectful manner.”
It looks as if the Times’ assertion that it’s the “sight of skeletons” that is the stimulus may not be correct, for the images from World War I may include dead bodies, not just bones (see the Times’s headline below). And I agree with Professor Pollard on one count: it’s fine to give advance warnings that bodies (although perhaps not bones) will be shown. I dissent, however, on issues like “eating and drinking”, as “triggering” subjects have expanded to include nearly everything. And I disagree that students should be allowed to walk out. If they’re warned in advance, and have an aversion to the sight, they should be given independent counseling to deal with the issue. But on no account should they be able to walk out of an entire lecture that includes the disturbing images. If that’s the case, they should be told in the first class so they can drop the course.