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U of M debate: OK to warn students about potentially ‘disturbing’ class curriculum?

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The controversial topic of "trigger warnings" has reached the campus of the University of Minnesota.

A story in USA Today explained trigger warnings require students to get a heads-up when explicit, offensive or possibly traumatic material appears in an assignment, lecture, article or work of art. They've been debated on a number of U.S. campuses.

"The goal of the warnings appears to be very idealistic," the story said, striving to protect survivors of violence or sexual abuse from disturbing content from a traumatic response.

MPR News reports a student-government panel at the University of Minnesota is reviewing a policy that would encourage faculty to warn students, both in class and on the syllabus, about material that could cause traumatic reactions. Student leaders also want professors to assign alternative materials to students and not hold them accountable for the material they say could trigger responses that include panic attacks.

The resolution's author, political science sophomore Abeer Syedah, hopes the U's faculty senate will implement its own policy encouraging the use of warnings. She envisions a short warning, such as: "Trigger Warning: Description of sexual assault, accounts of self harm and depression, discussion of suicide."

The Wake, the university's student-operated magazine, covered a September panel discussion that focused on the warnings.

A story headlined, "Trigger Warnings: Censorship or Courtesy?" included a comment from Angela Carter, a Ph.D. in feminist studies at the U. She said that "to be triggered is not to be offended; it is an unconscious reaction to past trauma." Carter likens the trigger warnings to the accommodations made for disabled individuals.

An editorial in the Minnesota Daily took on the issue last April.

"For students suffering with PTSD or other psychological disorders, trigger warnings make sense," said the editorial, written by the campus paper's editorial board.

"But there’s an important difference between trigger warnings for diagnosed illnesses and trigger warnings that allow any student to skip class when the material in lecture includes discontenting or graphic material," it continued, adding, "universities are not safe houses for students, and they should not protect students from uncomfortable or emotionally provocative lessons. This student-driven proposal seeks to shield other students from duress, and though it may be well-intentioned, it has no place in a community of intellectual growth."

The MPR story noted that "critics say it's not a university's job to protect students from disturbing material," but added that with large numbers of combat veterans and refugees from war-torn countries arriving on campus, the momentum for the warnings is growing.

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