Do Trigger Warnings Really Work?

May 24, 2023
real talk with susan and kristina podcast

In this episode, KJK Student Defense attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler talk with Professor Amna Khalid, an associate professor of history at Carleton College in Minnesota.  Topics they discuss include the impact of trigger warnings on education, why teaching history needs to be done in context, and some strategies on handling difficult material in the college environment.


Professor Amna Khalid:

Banished Blog:

Show Notes:

  • (02:36)  What is the real definition of a Trigger Warning?
  • (03:45)  Do Trigger Warnings really work?
  • (04:35)  How Trigger Warnings compromise learning
  • (06:26)  Why universities need to teach tough topics
  • (08:09)  What professors can do to teach tough topics
  • (09:49)  Do universities have a responsibility for students with mental health issues?
  • (11:39)  What Professor Khalid teaches in her classes
  • (15:18)  Why the “customer approach” to higher education compromises learning
  • (18:07)  How Professor Khalid handles difficult material in her classes
  • (19:41)  Why learning about history is important
  • (22:09)  Cancel Culture:  Is there a connection with Trigger Warnings?
  • (24:21)  What are the two biggest threats to higher education?



Susan Stone: Okay, listeners out there, I am gonna give you a trigger warning that we’re gonna talk about trigger warnings. So I expect some of you might, send in some comments. We want your comments. But frankly, we’re diving in on this sensitive topic, cuz I’ll tell you what, recently Cornell University rejected a resolution requiring faculty members to provide trigger warnings about classroom contact that students might find traumatic.

And I’m done with that. I agree. What about you, Kristina? 

Kristina Supler: I agree as well. as Susan, we have this conversation a lot. outside of higher ed, like in the real world, life doesn’t come with a trigger warning, does it? 

Susan Stone: I gotta, I wish it did. I wish it did. We’re seeing it and come into play in our practice when we’re trying to help students who’ve been accused of some form of misconduct or have hired us to help i. pursue their claim of misconduct. And we wanna talk to them and work through difficult subjects. Difficult subjects. They’re like, you’re triggering me. I’m like, dude, I’m your lawyer. I’m not your mommy. We gotta work through the materials. 

Where’s the grittiness? 

Kristina Supler: on that note, let’s jump in today we’re really pleased to be joined by our guest, Amna Khalid. Who is an associate professor of history at Carleton College in Minnesota.

Having grown up under a series of military dictatorships in Pakistan, Amna has a strong interest in issues relating to censorship and free expression. She speaks regularly on academic freedom, free speech, and campus politics, as well as at professional conferences across the country. Her essays and commentaries on these issues have appeared in various outlets, the Chronicle of Higher Education inside Higher Ed, and she hosts a podcast herself, an accompanying blog called Banished, which explores censorship in the past and present. 


Professor Amna Khalid: Thank you for having me. 

Susan Stone: Could you start with the definitions of what is a trigger warning? I think it’s self-explanatory, but just let’s set the terms. 

Kristina Supler: For people maybe who don’t know and what’s all this talk?

Yeah. So give us 

Professor Amna Khalid: the basics. 

Yeah. It’s a good question actually, because even for people who know, I think they get a little bit confused between what is the trigger warning and what is providing context. So a trigger warning is really just basically a label, if you will, saying whatever you’re going to see or read next is going to include certain things that might be disturbing. And then it’ll enumerate the things. It’ll say sexual harassment, sexual violence, racism, et cetera. 

And it’s the idea behind it in academic circles at least, or on university campuses has been that it prepares students who might be suffering from trauma to, to get ready for the difficult stuff and dive into it. And it’s supposed to aid their learning. So that’s the kind of, supposed benefit of trigger warnings. 

And that differs very much I would say from something like providing context. I teach difficult material. I always give my students a head up, heads up and I’ll say, we’re going to be dealing with difficult things. And I explain to them why they may be difficult. But it’s not this kind of standard trigger warning, suicide, trigger warning, racism, that kind of thing. 

Susan Stone: Does the trigger warning work? 

Professor Amna Khalid: Well, according to all the research, which there’s plenty of now, when they first came onto university campuses, there, there wasn’t much research. But according to the research that has been done, what’s been found is that A, they don’t work. Two in certain cases, actually, they can be, they’ve been found to be exacerbating the situation so they make things worse. 

And from an academic point of view, I think what I would say is what bothers me the most is that it reduces what could be a complex text or material that you put in front of students to just being problematic. And then all you are doing is dealing with or anticipating the problem that’s going to emerge.

So it really reduces the learning experience and flattens it out. 

Kristina Supler: So really what I’m hearing you say is that trigger warnings, the irony here is it’s compromising scholarship. Would you agree? 

Professor Amna Khalid: It’s certainly compromising learning. Yes. And I think it’s not very helpful for students. I think we live in a, in an age of entitlement where people feel, especially young people, and it’s not really their fault.

So I don’t want this to sound like kids these days. That’s not the idea. But we live in an atmosphere where they’ve been taught that they’re entitled to not be offended. And this really does come into conflict with what we are trying to do at college. 

College is a very different environment. We’re preparing young adults for full adulthood and as citizens of the country. And this kind of Molly coddling unfortunately, gets in the way of what a proper education should be equipping them with. 

Susan Stone: Amna, I grew up with, my parents are both first gen Americans, my grandparents, all four were immigrants escaping oppression.

My grandmother suffered a mental breakdown after she learned that all of her family was killed in the Holocaust. Nobody survived. So I grew up with my parents talking about the Holocaust at a very early age. I saw videos of the concentration camps. I think I was six years old when I saw my first Holocaust video, and of course, grew up thinking about Anne Frank, wondering what her life was like in the attic, knowing about me.

How do you and you yourself, grew up in Pakistan and that could not have been easy. How do we teach important history lessons so history doesn’t repeat itself? without getting into the nitty gritty. How do you talk about the Holocaust without talking about concentration camps? 

Professor Amna Khalid: You’ve said it.

How can you possibly teach it, and how can it possibly have the kind of effect that it’s supposed to have learning about the Holocaust? My colleague and I, we often say if you read about the Holocaust and you’re not disturbed, there’s something wrong with you. You’re a sociopath.

It’s meant to disturb you. So the point is that I think all of this is in, particularly when it comes to the study of history and literature, somehow you really can’t have the growth that you are looking for without contending with these kinds of difficult things. There’s no short circuit to it. And having said that, the other thing I want to say is that I really don’t like the way we now have this line.

It’s, it’s the battle lines are being drawn between faculty and students. As if we’re there to harm them. This language of harm is very, very destructive to the college experience, I’d argue. We much like the Hippocratic Oath, we don’t, we don’t come into our classrooms aiming to harm our students.

We are there for an education and, to give them an education. And the point is that much of the kind of growth that we want to contend with, much of the kind of history that is absolutely essential to know, like you said, there’s no way of doing it without actually confronting the difficult things head on.

Susan Stone: How do we talk about abortion? How do we talk about our own history of the Civil War? How do we talk about apartheid? Utah and South Africa. I don’t know how you talk about apartheid without getting into some difficult conversations. 

Professor Amna Khalid: One of the things I think that needs to be said is that I think like in all professions, I think there are bad professors. So let’s just establish that.

I think that there will be professors who don’t necessarily do things with the adequate amount of care. However, that is a minority, I would argue, and that doesn’t entitle us to change the way we do education entirely. And so for that reason, I’d say yes, you can’t talk about apartheid, you can’t talk about the partition of India without discussing the gruesome violence and the sexual violence that entailed.

You can’t teach about the Holocaust without actually talking about what gas chambers were and what the implications of, that you know, of the Holocaust has been for the rest of history. I. I really, I’m struggling a little bit because truly we can’t get away from it. I think we can teach with care and compassion.

I think we can teach and equip our students to, to confront these very difficult things, but we can’t take away the fundamental kind of distress that some of this material might cause. And in fact, that distress is what you need. It is our jobs. I tell my students, you should be leaving my class feeling immensely uncomfortable and uncertain.

It’s to cultivate that intellectual humility and to cultivate the capacity to deal with difficult things and understand them. that is the aim in a college classroom. 

Kristina Supler: Certainly through the Covid Pandemic, there has been a tremendous rise in mental health issues and I don’t think there’s any dispute that our country and the world is experiencing a mental health crisis.

What can universities and professors do to support students mental health and their wellbeing without compromising academic rigor? 

Susan Stone: Or organic discussion? 

Professor Amna Khalid: Well, one thing I’d say is I think universities do have a responsibility towards taking care of students who are suffering from mental health issues.

And that happens not so much in the classroom as it happens through counseling services and other kinds of auxiliary services that we provide on campus. Professors are not there to, we’re not trained. We’re just not trained to be therapists. It’s not that we want to be mean or anything. It’s just that we do not have the requisite skills.

Having said that, I think professors do have a responsibility. We talk about academic freedom. Academic freedom comes with academic responsibility. And one of our responsibilities is to introduce students to material in a fashion thatthat is in line with our disciplinary, professional ethics.

And those professional ethics require us to, to be mindful that we are dealing with young adults. You wouldn’t just spring things on them. How do we help? Having said all of that, I will also say that yes, we are in a time when I think we are facing a mental health crisis and sometimes I see certain students and I just think you are not ready for college yet.

Susan Stone: oh, preach. We talk about that, but on the other hand, tell us about the courses that you teach that can be particularly challenging from an emotional perspective. What is, what classes do you teach? 

Kristina Supler: What subject matters are you delving into? 

Professor Amna Khalid: Sure. So my expertise is in South Asian history, Indian history, 19th century mainly.

But I teach Indian history and South Asian history across, different periods. I also teach history of medicine, and most recently, in part because I feel students are not fully aware of what free speech means. I’ve started teaching a course, which is a global history of free expression. I can talk about that more. 

But first about the two areas I highlighted earlier.

South Asian history, I teach about colonialism in India. Some of those topics that come up, with regard to colonialism, how, issues of gender, were entailed, in, were part of the ways in which colonial rule worked. When we look at labor issues, those are all very difficult things to think about when we talk about racism in that context, when we talk about violence in that context. One of the places that it gets really tricky for me, is when I teach the partition of India in 1947 into two separate nation states, India and Pakistan. 

And that was one of the most bloody moments in world history. There were about 15 million people that were displaced. And I believe it is one of the largest migrations in world his, in the history of the world and very little is known about it in the American context. School context. And one of the things that the partition, one of the kind of key features of it was the very gross and very brutal degree of sexual violence that was enacted.

And most of it was on the bodies of women. Not exclusively, but most of it was on the bodies of women. And there’s a whole kind of, rationale behind why that happened. 

But as I teach that, we read some very distressing first person accounts of what happened. We read some very, s like secondhand accounts of what happened. And these are not easy to read. These are difficult readings. Sometimes we, when I teach about South Asia, I te teach about the pogroms that have happened in India since partition. 

And there’s been a lot of communal strife. We watch documentaries, which again have some first person narratives of some of the survivors of this kind of violence. And when I’m sitting there in my classroom watching these, what’s interesting is there are times when, and I’ve seen them several times, you know that they’re so disturbing that I too am distressed. And I have tears in my eyes. 

But the point is I can’t shy away from it and I have to confront it. It is through confronting things that we begin to think about how we can have solutions to them. Or how we can think about history not repeating itself. Similarly when I teach my history of medicine course, we talk about the kind of decimation of native populations in the new world. For instance, when Europeans first came through small pox. And we read some of the accounts of missionaries who were writing about what was going on, and then some of the kind of accounts that talk about manifest destiny and how these people felt that they were entitled to be in this land. 

Those are not easy things to read and they shouldn’t be easy to read. So that’s like giving you a sense of some of the material that I’m delving into in my classrooms, eh, history courses tend not to be places where we talk about very happy things. Occasionally, but the bulk of the material that we’re contending with is stuff that we find difficult. Things that we want to not happen again. And we want to dive into the full range of human experience for those, 

Susan Stone: But maybe this would be a mid-level approach that I actually could get behind. When you draft your course description and your syllabus I think it should be in the course description that this course is gonna contain highly sensitive material. And that you have to somehow give the consumer, because let’s remember, you do teach at a private college. They have the right to take your class or not take your class. And if they choose to take your class, you have the right to deliver your message within academic freedom. Would you agree with that on any level? 

Professor Amna Khalid: I. At most levels, but I want to just take a little bit of issue with, I think part of the problem, even though I do teach at a private liberal arts college, I think part of the problem in private colleges and public institutions is the neo liberalization of higher education and the corporatization of higher education, which has resulted in this customer approach and this consumer approach.

So when students begin to take that kind of customer approach, then it comes with the idea of the customer is always right. And this is where we see administrators bending backwards to try and accommodate their needs and what some people say, pandering to students. I don’t wanna say pandering to students. But I do want to say like jumping at every kind of little complaint that comes.

So when it comes to the syllabus and putting things in your syllabus, if you are taking a course that is called Plagues of Empire, and on the first day we go through the syllabus, which is what we do, and we talk about the topics that are going to be there, it really shouldn’t at college level be any mystery what we’re going to be diving into, right?

If we’re talking about colonial expansion in the new world, clearly we’re talking about disease, we’re talking about the decimation of people. This should not come as a surprise. And like I said, it’s not I believe strongly. N that we should contextualize what we teach. And a good history teacher does that.

A good literature teacher does that. We go through what exactly is coming up and how, and why I think the rationale of why we’ve included it is one that helps students figure out why they must contend with something. 

Susan Stone: But by the way, can I just challenge you on something though? Sure. I love a challenge.

This is Real Talk. And I’m not great at math. Did you know that Kristina? 

Kristina Supler: yes. Yes. I did 

Susan Stone: Not My thing. Okay. So when I was in college, if there was a class that required heavy math, I didn’t take it. And that I just wanna say I was a consumer. This isn’t high school. I had the right to pick my own major and pick my coursework. 

 Likewise in law school, I knew that there were certain areas of law that I was never gonna practice beyond the foundational year of one l. It was about me crafting an education that would fit the future that I want. Not everybody’s interested in history. But they might have a history requirement and maybe they’re not interested in Southeast Asia.

Maybe they’re interested in the history of chocolate. Now,I just think you do have some rights as a consumer when you’re paying that level of money. Challenge. 

Professor Amna Khalid: So let me just, break this down. It’s, I’m not anti-choice, right? There are, of course, as a college level student, you take whatever course you want to take, including the things that are required.

So to be very clear, my argument is not that you have to take every course and you must be okay, contending with difficult material, right? But when you, but there are certain things which are require requirements. Now, I’ll come to the requirements in a minute. On the first day of class, most of my classes, which are electives, I, I say to my students, this is the material and it’s not just the material.

I also tell them about my pedagogy. I say, this is how I teach. And that may not be conducive to your learning style. And I appreciate that. And my recommendation to you is, since this is an elective, don’t take this course if this doesn’t work for you. So it’s not that I’m saying everyone must be subjected to my way of teaching in the material that I pick come what may.

I think you do have a degree of choice as a student that you have to contend with. As a professor, you have to contend with the fact that students may or may not take your courses. And that’s fine. But once you enroll in a course, you also have to deal with the fact that the care, the syllabus is very carefully put together by professors for a pedagogical reason, for a particular learning outcome.

And just because you are upset by it doesn’t mean that you should be A entitled to opt out or too entitled to have an alternative assignment. There’s no alternative to teaching the Holocaust. You have to contend with what that is. And I had a student the other day saying, could we just have a reading that made this point without actually going through all of this?

And I was like, no, we just can’t. It doesn’t exist. And we know we, we don’t do that. 

Susan Stone: But I’m sure the people who went through the Holocaust wish they had an alternative reality. Right? Well, they just like, 

Professor Amna Khalid: Exactly, and that’s what I tell my students. I’m saying, if our ancestors, whichever context you’re thinking about, or people before us had to live through these things, had to live through colonial oppression, had to live through the Holocaust, had to live through civil war.

The very least we can do is read about it. Because in many ways that act of reading is about bearing witness to history. And we must not forget and we must make their suffering and their experiences relevant for our times today. Because it’s so easy to forget. And the biggest trouble, I think we’re facing in our times, is that there’s great historical illiteracy.

This kind of entitlement is actually, I would argue, born out of historical illiteracy. When people somehow feel that they’re entitled to not be upset, it’s like you clearly don’t know what the world is about, the bigger world beyond you. 

And it reminds me of James Baldwin, who has this quote, which is You have your own suffering and you think this is the worst it can be. I’m paraphrasing, I can’t, his words are far more eloquent. And then you read. And then you read and you learn that the world has so much more suffering. It’s about getting that perspective. 

And that’s what I think my business as an educator is to give my students that perspective, not just by looking at history. like I said, I worry that we’ve become historically illiterate. But also by placing our experiences in the wider global context. The US has a kind of exceptionalist narrative that has turned into an isolationist narrative. And I think at our own peril, we suffer. 

Kristina Supler: Amna, you used the word perspective and that makes me think, in our own law practice, Susan and I, in recent years, we’re doing a lot of work across the country with restorative justice and we’ve seen such a rise in cancel culture. oh my gosh, you took up 

Susan Stone: amazing. Bless Karen. it’s 

Kristina Supler: really, disturbing what we’re seeing in my opinion in terms of a rush to just judgment so often My question. For you Amna, is whether you think there’s any correlation, in the rise of the use of trigger warnings on college campuses and the dramatic increase in cancel culture as 

Susan Stone: well.

Oh my gosh, Kristina, I was thinking that very same question and that it is, it’s like the three monkeys hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. 

Professor Amna Khalid: So I’ll tell you, is there a connection? I think there is a connection. I’ll also say I wrote a an article, a kind of longish article with my colleague Jeff Snyder on Cancel Culture, which is on my blog Banished, which is precisely looking atdebunking the myth that there is no cancel culture.

People who challenge that, and I would ag argue it’s very real and it’s very alive. 

Susan Stone: Oh, we know it’s real. 

Professor Amna Khalid: And I think there is a connection. I think we, this kind of lack of, we’ve become so unforgiving. And we’ve become so, like there’s no room for mistakes. So I agree. There is this way in which we want to, it’s not about justice now. It feels like it’s about revenge. It’s aboutwanting blood. People are out for blood. Nothing kind of satisfies them. 

So I will say that I think there is a gross connection between these things. I think it’s of a peace, this particular way of sensitivity and then this entitlement to not be offended to the point that you will not even consider the intent of what you’re supposedly offended by and can demonst straight away.

So I have a huge problem with this kind of idea of inte impact and intent being divorced, such that you are so concerned only with the impact that it has on you to the point that you don’t even care how someone intended something.

And again, I would say that kind of breeds this kind of naval gazing and this self involvement and that divorces you from the rest of the world.

That divorces you from other people. So it makes it very difficult to build connections if you’re so self-involved all the time. 

Susan Stone: I just wanna give a plug. Because we could talk to you all day that you put some YouTube videos up with your buddy Jeff Snyder, one on trigger warnings and the difference, and another one on the difference between training and education. And they’re amazing. I really enjoyed them. Thank you. And this 

Kristina Supler: is, I enjoyed watching them as we got our thoughts in order and prepared for our dialogue with you today. And so I encourage all of our listeners to I love them. Check it out and check out your webpage to see your other materials there.

There’s lots of really interesting articles and videos and it was a real pleasure speaking with you today. 

Professor Amna Khalid: Thank you so much. And just before I go, can I say one more thing? Of course. Yes. Yes. As someone who is in the space of higher education, and education more generally, I think the biggest threat, I will recognize that there are threats to academic freedom and learning that are coming from within the academy.

So things like trigger warnings that try and curtail what you can and can’t say. But I think the biggest threat is coming right now from state legislatures. That are trying to Yes. Ban what you can and can’t study. If you ever want to have a conversation about that, I would be happy to come on again and talk about it. Because I think people need to understand why what is happening at the level of, state legislature is so wrong.

Susan Stone: that’s a whole other tune. Stay tuned. Stay tuned. Yeah. Cause we do wanna talk about, don’t say period. 

Professor Amna Khalid: Perfect. Yeah, we’re on it. Period. period. Okay. 

Kristina Supler: Don’t say gay. Don’t say gay. Gay. again, thank you so much and to our listeners, we hope you enjoyed today and come back for more. We’re gonna do another episode with Amna delve into these other big, interesting issues.