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Trauma warnings move from Internet to Ivory Tower

San Francisco -- It seemed like a modest proposal, or so thought Bailey Loverin, a literature major at the University of California, Santa Barbara: what if professors were prodded to give students a written or oral heads-up before covering graphic material that could cause flashbacks in those who had been sexually assaulted, survived war or suffered other traumas?

The idea proved popular with Loverin's classmates. Student government leaders at UCSB endorsed it. Faculty at other schools, editorial writers and online pundits had a different reaction, calling it “silly,” “antithetical to college life” and reflective of “a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm.”

“What I have heard from a lot of people who don't fully understand the issue is, 'Life is life. You are going to get your feelings hurt and you should just suck it up and meet it head-on,'” Loverin, 19, said. “But a girl just raped a month ago and sitting in a classroom for the first time again isn't ready to face that head-on.”

The uproar over her “Resolution to Mandate Warnings for Triggering Content in Academic Settings” has called public attention to the use on college campuses of “trigger warnings,” a grassroots phenomenon that had spread quietly from the Internet to the Ivory Tower.

This year, the University of Michigan, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, Oberlin in Ohio, Rutgers in New Jersey, Scripps in California and Wellesley in Massachusetts all have fielded requests from students seeking more thoughtful treatment of potentially troubling readings, films, lectures and works of art.

Trigger warnings are advisories often written in bold type and affixed to a post, tweet, YouTube video or increasingly, a class syllabus. Long a feature of feminist web sites and originally used to warn rape and abuse survivors, they are designed to give people who might be negatively affected a chance to opt out.

The topics students are asking to be cautioned about cover a broad swath of human suffering.

At Michigan, speakers at an English Department event on bias said trigger warnings were needed for racially offensive book passages. The UCSB student resolution suggests they are appropriate for portrayals and discussions involving “rape, sexual assault, abuse, self-injurious behavior, suicide, graphic violence, pornography, kidnapping, and graphic depictions of gore.”

“Classrooms have always been spaces where difficult, traumatic stuff got dealt with,” said Angus Johnston, an associate professor at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, New York, and historian of student activism. “What's different now is, partly as a result of this new ethos in the online world of trigger warnings, you are seeing people being willing to assert themselves and say, 'My emotional well-being does matter.'”

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