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UK universities issue ‘trigger warnings’ to warn students of potentially ‘upsetting’ material

Universities including Edinburgh, the London School of Economics (LSE), Goldsmiths, Stirling and Central Lancashire are pre-warning students of lecture material they think could be ‘disturbing’

May Bulman
Monday 10 October 2016 06:54 BST
A number of UK universities have adopted trigger warnings, prompting criticism from academics who claim it stifles intellectual debate
A number of UK universities have adopted trigger warnings, prompting criticism from academics who claim it stifles intellectual debate (Getty)

A growing number of UK universities have introduced “trigger warnings” to give students advance notice of any potentially “upsetting” material in lectures, in a move that echoes a fast-growing trend in colleges in the US.

Academics at universities including Edinburgh, the London School of Economics (LSE), Goldsmiths, Stirling and Central Lancashire are warning students of material they think could be “disturbing”, giving them the option of leaving the lecture room if they decide to. The warnings have been issued ahead of lectures on topics including Christianity, popular culture, history, forensic science, photography, politics and law.

The rise in the use of the measure – which has been applied ahead of exposure to war photography and topless models as well as discussion of underage sex, homelessness and religion – has been condemned by academics, who claim it could stifle intellectual debate.

Dr Naomi Wolf, feminist and recent university lecturer in Victorian sexualities, told the Sunday Times: “Trauma from sexual or other assault and abuse is very real, and ‘triggers’ are real for victims of abuse. But the place to process or deal with survivor triggers is with a trained therapist in a counsellor’s office, and not in a classroom or university context.”

Earlier this year, television presenter and Cambridge scholar Mary Beard argued students must not be shielded from difficult subject matters. “It would be dishonest, fundamentally dishonest, to teach only Roman history and to miss out not just the rape of the Sabines but all their rapes. We have to encourage students to be able to face that, even when they find they’re awkward and difficult for all kinds of good reasons,” Ms Beard told the Sunday Times.

Goldsmiths university advises undergraduates studying youth cultures that they can “take time out” in classes that examine the sensitive subject matter, warning the course examines issues that “might be sensitive for some” including underage sex, self-harm, drug use, homelessness, Aids, “queer lifestyles” and religion.

Meanwhile archeology students at University College London were reportedly told last month they could leave the lecture without being penalised if they find it too “distressing”, with lecturer Gabriel Moshenka claiming it was a necessary measure as the material might induce psychological trauma.

The trend echoes a wave of trigger warnings in universities acorss America, after some colleges highlighted material containing references to subjects such as rape, suicide, abortion and racism that might potentially upset undergraduates who had experienced traumas.

In May it was revealed undergraduate law students at Oxford University were being issued with trigger warnings before lectures containing material deemed too “distressing”, a move that prompted a wave of criticism. At the time, law lecturer Laura Hoyano insisted those who wish to study law “have to deal with things that are difficult", telling Mail Online: “We can’t remove sexual offences from the criminal law syllabus – obviously.”

In response the university issued a statement saying the university aimed to encourage independent and critical thinking but that it was “appropriate” to advise students of potentially distressing subject matter and that individual lecturers were free to either give or not give trigger warnings as and when they see fit.

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