Sorry, I can’t come to class today; I don’t feel safe

TW: Sexual Assault

One student’s experience with the lack of trigger warnings provided in class

A good learning environment should equal a safe space. As someone who has experienced trauma, you go through life avoiding triggers, as if running through a field of landmines. You spend hours, days, weeks, learning to strengthen your armor rather than focus on successfully avoiding things that will pry open that wound, because today’s society is littered with triggers. It is easier to develop thicker skin, than to ask people to respect you.

I have spent the last three years of my English literature degree wondering why it isn’t officially required for professors to include content/trigger warnings in their syllabi, as well as at the start of every class where the discussion will contain triggering content.

There are so many issues with academia, and power dynamics within professor-student relationships is one of the biggest ones. A student in a classroom becomes dependent on the professor in order to learn and expand their knowledge. It should be normal for professors to acknowledge these power dynamics. It should be normal for professors to cultivate a safe learning environment for their students by providing content warnings. It’s a question of respect; a question of simple accessibility.

The thing is, I should not have to out myself as a survivor to a professor, in order to ask them to provide a safe and inclusive classroom setting. It should be non-negotiable. It should be an expectation. I was told by someone at the Sexual Assault Resource Center at Concordia, when I approached them for help regarding this exact matter, that I lose nothing by sending an email to a professor about personal issues regarding lack of trigger warnings––that if a professor responded negatively, then it was a whole other issue of respect. But still, do I need to out myself?

Teachers must acknowledge power dynamics, use their power to better these situations, and not ignore them. By not acknowledging this issue, especially considering the current socio-political climate, they are in the wrong. They cannot stand by and claim to not be involved. They cannot not be involved. By not acting, they are perpetuating the stigma and shame associated with triggers. Calling people out, providing trigger warnings, establishing a safe learning environment––it’s the least they can do.

I should not have to be vulnerable and afraid to go to class. I have had to step forward and out myself as a survivor to so many of my professors in order for them to acknowledge this issue. That should not be required of me. People who don’t think trigger warnings are necessary can argue that I had a choice to stay silent, but by saying something, I was not only protecting myself, but also other survivors who did not wish to speak up.

It’s typical for professors in the English department to acknowledge the presence of violent, triggering content in texts studied, but rather than use that to warn their students, we’re told that literature studies is full of triggering content, and that’s what makes it fascinating. We’re told that we can’t have literature without the difficult content that comes with it, so we should get over it. Why is this normalized? I am not arguing against the presence of these texts in our classrooms, but rather arguing for a better way of handling them; a better, more respectful and inclusive way of studying them. This piece is not meant to attack anyone. I am simply trying to raise people’s awareness on this subject. I want to make people understand that these things exist, and they affect a lot of us.

If you are not someone who has experienced trauma, you lose nothing by respecting those who have. You lose nothing by providing safe, inclusive environments. Why wouldn’t you want to? Why is there even an argument against providing safe spaces?

Graphic by Ana Bilokin


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