A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Weepy Rhetoric, Trigger Warnings, and the Work of Making Mental Illness Visible in the Writing Classroom

Sarah Orem, Smith College
Neil Simpkins, University of Wisconsin-Madison

(Published December 16, 2015)

“In a sense, the predicament is to understand what kind of community is composed of those who are beside themselves.” - Judith Butler, Undoing Gender

Warning for: #ableism #suicide #trans violence #racism #mental illness #violence #death

Within the span of a few months, from late 2013 to mid-April 2014, a cascade of op-eds began appearing in web magazines and newspapers decrying the threat of a new public enemy: trigger warnings, textual tags attached to a variety of media that alert readers and viewers that the ensuing material could spur a mental health crisis. In response to emerging student requests for professors to use trigger warnings in classrooms, journalists suggested trigger warnings “structur[e] public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities” (Jarvie) and “bubble-wrap students against everything that might be frightening or offensive to them” (Times Editorial Board). While rhetoric and writing scholar Kathleen Livingston favors trigger warnings, deeming them “one part of a larger practice of consent,” English professor Karen Swallow Prior worries they constitute a form of “empathic correctness” arising from the “sensitivity cultivated within an entire generation of overprotected kids.” Likewise, Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis complains that trigger warnings belie undergraduates’ desire to remain “cocooned from uncomfortable feelings.”

Trigger warnings have long been used in feminist-, queer-, and disability-activist settings online, but the public discussion of trigger-warned syllabi came specifically on the heels of the ratification of Oberlin College’s 2013 Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act. In response to the act’s publication, Oberlin’s Office of Equity Concerns issued a list of “Support Resources For Faculty,” delineating strategies for meeting the needs of student survivors of sexual violence (“Support Resources”). The document—nonbinding due to its status as a list of recommended resources—encourages faculty to implement trigger warnings in order to make classrooms more accessible to students with PTSD. Subsequently, students on other campuses called for trigger warnings in their own university syllabi. On February 18, 2014, undergraduate Philip Wythe wrote in Rutgers University’s Daily Targum that trigger warnings offer a “compromise” between the desire to support trauma survivors and the need to protect civil liberty. A few days later, on February 25th, 2014, the University of California-Santa Barbara’s student senate issued resolution #805 calling for faculty to “list trigger warnings” on syllabi to aid students with psychiatric disabilities (A.S. Senate).

In the crossfire of student advocacy for and faculty critiques of trigger warnings, the writers of this article were left feeling disoriented. We are both rhetoric and writing scholars who live with chronic mental illness. We both write about our disabilities in academic as well as informal and online contexts. Years ago, we met in a corner of the Internet where trigger warnings are de rigueur, and our friendship formed as we discussed how best to balance therapy, medication, doctors visits, and mental illness with the demands of academic life. We believed that navigating academic careers while mentally ill demonstrated our resilience, but as journalistic and scholarly op-eds on trigger warnings populated our computer screens, we learned that the opposite conclusion was being drawn by some: only recently, we participated in a highly public online conversation about trigger warnings in which a fellow academic declared that “PTSD is the new ‘my dog ate my homework.’”

At that moment, we felt compelled to question: How does online writing about trigger warnings rhetorically construct mentally ill students and scholars? How do mentally ill persons intervene in such discourses? And what work could trigger warnings perform in the writing courses we teach?

Because they call attention to the emotional pain of students, trigger warnings tap into longstanding assumptions about mental illness—namely, that mentally ill persons are merely malingering, dwelling unnecessarily with emotional pain, and in need of toughening up. A mental illness like depression is, according to psychotherapist Julia A. Boyd, regularly interpreted as a personal fault—a propensity to be “lazy” or “unmotivated” (15). Meri Nana-Ama Danquah concurs in her memoir Willow Weep for Me, a narrative exploration of her psychiatric illness, that mental illness is not typically “looked upon” as “legitimate” (144).

In a curious rhetorical maneuver, rather than contesting assumptions about the sensitivity of mentally ill persons, Oberlin’s trigger warning recommendations ask faculty to pay more attention to students’ feelings. “Be sensitive and supportive,” it advises. Offer “emotional support and validation.” Understand the “range of emotion[s]” present “during and after a trigger” (“Support Resources”). Perhaps trigger warnings lean into pathologizing discourses about mental illness in order to find productivity in them? Such is our proposal: we argue that trigger warnings function as what we term weepy rhetoric, a mode of crying through text. Pouring out difficult, messy emotions in academic spaces, trigger warnings function as reverse discourse, reclaiming damaging assumptions about the mentally ill. In what follows, we will show how trigger warnings work to make mental illness[1] visible by revealing the interrelation of physical and psychological injury. Then, after reflecting on our own experiences with trigger warnings, we will chart some strategies for employing them in composition pedagogy.

TW: Textual Weeping

Trigger warnings operate through written, printed, or digital text and, as such, are an inherently “graphic” and visual mode of communication (Bernhardt 168). Mental illness, however, is typically understood as an invisible phenomenon—a disability that is not easily legible on a body’s surface. Therefore, individuals who “experience emotional distress” are sometimes accused of not being truly “sick,” writes Anna Mollow, and are assumed to be “merely malingering” (285). Within higher education, the claim to mental illness can meet special resistance from what José Muñoz sees as a scholarly imperative to “insis[t] on the need for a rigorous deployment of evidentiary procedure” (8). Because trigger warnings work to reveal a cluster of bodily symptoms that are characteristically invisible, their proponents ask others to accept as legitimate something that can lack visible evidence.

Often, when we mentally ill disclose our disability, we do so knowing that others may believe we are exaggerating our emotional pain. This critique is evident in Jack Halberstam’s widely circulated blog post “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.” In it, Halberstam encourages young generations of activists to focus more on “systemic” oppressions rather than “individuals and their woes.” Comparing trigger warning advocates to cultural feminisms of the 1970s and ’80s, Halberstam goes so far as to describe both groups as a “messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.” Halberstam’s essay is a sincere attempt to think through the difficulties of moving from personal experiences of pain and discrimination to coalitional politics. Yet at the heart of his essay is a claim that mentally ill persons are “weepy”—wallowing in pain.

Are students who ask their professors to use trigger warnings weepy? In its colloquial sense, “weeping” refers to sadness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the adjectival term “weepy” describes a particularly negative emotional experience in which one feels “mournful” or “maudlin” (“Weepy, adj.”). Oberlin College’s “Support Resources” begins with such an expression of sadness:

The statistical evidence about the impact of sexualized violence on college students is sobering. According to the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), almost 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) have experienced rape. [...] In an Oberlin class that contains 20 students, we estimate that there may be about 2 to 3 students in the class who have experienced some form of sexualized violence.

Explicitly underscoring student suffering by describing the “sobering” pervasiveness of rape, Oberlin’s “Support Resources” situates trigger warnings within a “mournful” rhetorical context.

In its verb form, “weeping” constitutes “a visible and audible display of emotion” (“Weep, v.”). The performance of sadness articulated via weeping includes both corporeal and emotional sensations. Weeping “manifest[s] the combination of bodily symptoms (instinctive cries or moans, sobs, and shedding of tears) which is the natural, audible, and visible expression of painful [...] emotion.” As a noun, a “weep” refers to the excretions of the human body: “an exudation, percolation, or sweating of moisture” (“Weep, n.”). The adjective “weepy” also refers to the ickier aspects of the flesh: “exuding moisture, damp, oozy” (“Weepy, adj.”). The concept of “weeping” therefore illustrates how physical and psychological symptoms of pain emerge coterminously.

While physical pain and injury are often seen as visible phenomena, mental or emotional distress is often understood as invisible, as we have just remarked. Weeping, therefore, is a dramatic performance of making visible the complex interrelation of emotional and physical, visible and invisible pain. It is a concept rooted in the embodiment of emotional pain.

Trigger warnings evoke Joshua Gunn’s notion of “the cry”—communication that draws “the auditor’s attention to the role of the physical body […] as well as the fact that the body is easily fucked with” (24). By requesting a trigger warning, a student necessarily testifies to a history of experiencing pain, whether arising from sexual assault, physical violence, mental illness, or some combination of the three, and indicates that these impact her continued daily life, both mentally and in the material space of the classroom.

A trigger warning, we suggest, weeps. It is weepy rhetoric—a method of calling attention to pain through language, while foregrounding the interrelation between emotional pain (such as mental illness) and physical pain (including assault or sexualized violence). Visibly displaying through text a history of surviving physical and psychological injury, a trigger warning (TW) is itself a Textual Weeping.

Reclaiming pathologizing notions about the over-sensitivity of the mentally ill, a trigger warning is a form of reverse discourse - a political strategy whereby a marginalized group speaks back to power in the same terms that have historically been used to oppress them (Foucault 101). Thinking about trigger warnings as a form of weepy rhetoric maps the complexities of how mentally disabled persons are simultaneously denied rhetorical agency and afforded particularly rich rhetorical tools by virtue of being dis/abled (by psychiatric difference as well as by pervasive discrimination). Weepiness has a double edge: it is a characteristic pejoratively applied to trigger warning users as well as a powerful rhetorical tool that opens new ways to move through the discourses that surround us.

Because the boundaries between “acceptable” pain and disabling pain are not always easy to draw, using weepy rhetoric can be dangerous. According to Catherine Prendergast, mental illness “supplants one’s position as a rhetor,” denying “rhetoricability”—the rhetorical force a particular rhetor’s communication holds—to the mentally disabled (“On the Rhetorics” 47, 56). For Jenell Johnson, mental illness stigmatizes rhetors, marking them as having “kakoethos, or bad character” (461). The more apparent a mental disability becomes to others, the more the mentally disabled rhetor loses rhetorical force and credibility.

In op-eds by humanities faculty, mental illness is frequently construed as simple discomfort instead of a true disability. For example, the Inside Higher Ed article “Trigger Warnings are Flawed,” written by seven women and gender studies professors, conjectures that students ask for trigger warnings because they want a “guarantee” that they “will not experience unexpected discomfort” in classroom settings (Freeman et al.). Likewise, poet and author CAConrad’s contribution to Entropy magazine’s roundtable “On Trigger Warnings” questions the degree to which PTSD constitutes a disability at all. “In the end,” Conrad writes, “whether we consider PTSD a disability or not I’m not seeing how trigger warnings is [sic] the answer” (Milks et al.). Linking mental illness with discomfort lends those with mental illness bad character; in these cases, students with mental illness are seen as a malingering force lessening the quality of classroom instruction.

Some faculty evince frustration with the chronic nature of mental illness and trauma, which cannot always be immediately resolved or addressed. The authors of “Trigger Warnings are Flawed” suppose that faculty members are “not trained to handle traumatic reactions” and recommend that professors direct students concerned about being triggered in the classroom to “independent campus offices that handle documentation, certification, and accommodation plans” (Freeman et al.).[2] Rhetorically relegating mental disability to the purview of separate campus mental health centers, this article constructs mentally ill students as unmanageable by the average professor.

After a large amount of popular and scholarly pushback, Oberlin retracted its trigger warning recommendations in April of 2014. But, following Catherine Prendergast’s call for composition instructors to take seriously the writing practices that our students bring us (“Fighting Style”), we view the public and scholarly debate over trigger warnings as an opportunity to look more closely at what these tools might be able to do (or are already doing) for the disabled students that we teach and for ourselves as well. The process of weeping is painful, but it is also healing. Wounds weep when they heal. Just like a mending sore leaks pus and fluid, a trigger warning brings into the world (via text) the nasty, painful histories that someone who might use a trigger warning has lived through while allowing mentally ill students to find a way to navigate the world around them. Trigger warnings ask us to consider how reading and writing make the body and mind vulnerable together. 

What if we, as composition scholars, embrace the messy emotions that trigger warnings highlight through written, print, or digital text? To explore this possibility, we will reflect on our own experiences with trigger warnings (or the lack thereof) in classrooms and digital spaces through two narratives. In doing so, we follow Shayda Kafai’s recommendation that those who “theorize madness” are well-served by writing “in the first person” and by “claiming self-knowledge.” In the first narrative that follows, “Performing Vulnerability,” Sarah Orem reflects on what it’s like to be inside a rhetoric classroom that does not employ trigger warnings. The second narrative, “Writing on the Edge,” documents Neil Simpkins’s experiences using trigger warnings in a digital community whose users are frequently at risk for suicide.

I. Performing Vulnerability

The year I passed my comprehensive exams and began writing my doctoral dissertation, my OCD symptoms worsened to the point that I was completely housebound. I would, eventually, recover. I would, eventually, finish writing and defend my dissertation. I distinctly remember, during my recovery process, having a conversation with a colleague who complained that they dreaded students with disabilities enrolling in their courses. My colleague worried aloud that students asking for disability accommodations “don’t look disabled, a lot of the time.”

Asking for accommodations when you don’t look disabled (or disabled enough) is hard. So when I was a student I didn’t ask for them.

I remember one particular instance when I wish I had asked for a trigger warning as a student. I’m thinking of a semester in which I signed up for a graduate seminar titled “Performative Rhetorics,” which was led by a big-name professor who I desperately wanted to impress. The course explored theories of performativity by John Searle, J. L. Austin, Judith Butler, and Jacques Derrida, and each week, one student was required to present a short paper applying the course readings to a text of their own choosing. Roughly halfway through the semester, a student delivered a paper on “the rhetoric of the suicide letter.” I hazily recollect that the presentation used theories of rhetorical performativity to unpack David Foster Wallace’s fiction, but I couldn’t say for sure. I simply don’t remember. I do remember that the paper incorporated graphic descriptions of how someone might commit suicide.

Having OCD means regularly experiencing “intrusive thoughts”—unwanted, unexpected, and distressing thoughts that fill my mind without my control. My intrusive thoughts revolve around the fear that I might hurt myself if I lose control of my mental faculties. Clinicians call this variant of OCD “Harm OCD.” People who have Harm OCD are not violent, but instead have “frequent powerful doubts on the theme that something they have done or will do will lead to harm” for themselves or others (Penzel 302). My disorder has led me to perform elaborate daily rituals to assure myself that I am not on the verge of going “crazy” and hurting myself, even though I have no history of suicidal ideation. 

As I sat in that graduate seminar, listening to another student detail the ways someone might kill themselves, my mind overtook me. I wasn’t “out” as a person with a mental illness, so my classmates and the professor would have been bewildered if I had bolted for the door or run crying into the bathroom, which is what I wanted to do. I panicked, caught in a loop of irrational thoughts: What if I hurt myself? What if I kill myself? Is this discussion a sign that I’m going to hurt myself? I spent the class, mentally, somewhere else, struggling to hold on against an onslaught of electrifying fears. It took me days to come down from the panic attack and begin eating again (I lose my appetite when I am very triggered).

Though I missed out on the discussion of Wallace’s literature, I did get a practical lesson in Judith Butler’s theory of vulnerability: how the shared nature of social life makes all individuals vulnerable to one another. According to Butler, being embodied implies experiencing “mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others but also to touch and to violence” (21). Butler concedes that vulnerability is often difficult and painful to experience. I certainly didn’t like it. My initial reaction to being triggered in class was to soldier on through the pain. In the intensely competitive atmosphere of a PhD program at a Research I institution, I believed I had to toughen up. I eschewed any display of weakness (or, weepiness).

But Butler also defines vulnerability as a powerful state to inhabit. To acknowledge the vulnerability that permeates life is not to be “resigned to a simple passivity or powerlessness” (23). Rather, such acknowledgement can uniquely enable acts of empowerment and agency. Though I saw myself as weak, I was also powerful in other ways. I’d survived clinically “extreme” OCD and gone on to graduate study. If I had asked the professor for a trigger warning, I would have simultaneously disclosed the vulnerability I experience when in the middle of a trigger and testified to a history of surviving with a mental health disorder. I would have also taken the risk of making my illness more visible to my peers. What would it mean to view a student’s request for the use of a trigger warning not as a desire to “avoid discomfort,” but instead as a testament to having survived abuse, psychiatric illness, or violence?

Butler insists that contemporary politics should seek to “sustain” various “precarious lives across the globe,” and I view trigger warnings as one such device that can “sustain” students who live with psychiatric illness (23). If the professor or the student presenting their paper had offered a trigger warning by saying “trigger warning for suicide” verbally or offering a heads-up via email ahead of class, I could have skipped class that day, or even just that specific paper presentation. Potentially, I would not have had to cope with the panic attacks that derailed my studies for days after the class was over. Granted, by missing class I would have missed out on the day’s lesson, but I missed the lesson anyway. I don’t remember it—I was far too deep in the throes of OCD ruminating and panic.

Trigger warnings can help mentally disabled students navigate the kairotic space of the classroom—especially a writing or rhetoric classroom such as the one I occupied. As Margaret Price describes, kairotic spaces are “characterized by all or most of these criteria”:

  1. Real-time unfolding of events
  2. Impromptu communication that is required or encouraged
  3. In-person contact
  4. A strong social element
  5. High stakes. (61)

The predominance of kairotic spaces in academic life particularly affects how well both students and faculty access higher education. Kairos in Price’s construction can be disabling, or at least marshaled by non-disabled individuals to create inaccessible spaces. Many classrooms incorporate all of these kairotic criteria, particularly in the writing- or reading-focused classroom. Students are expected to attend real-time discussion of works regularly, where they have in-person contact with both their peers and the person assigning them a grade. Students’ ability to perform socially in the space is usually tied to a participation grade that can directly impact their final grade. Writing, literature, and cultural studies classes often fulfill a general-education requirement, and failing the class would mean needing to retake the same or a similar course. As such, the stakes for these classrooms are high.

Trigger warnings can help mitigate some of the issues that students with mental illnesses, such as myself, might have in maneuvering through a classroom’s kairotic space. With trigger warnings, a student who might experience a flashback or panic attack from a graphic depiction of rape or suicide can allow that event to unfold in a place of his or her choosing. In class, the student would be prepared for conversations to potentially center on this triggering element. The student’s ability to navigate in-person contact and the social element of the classroom may be increased if he or she is aware of where the conversation might lead. And because students are typically discouraged from leaving the classroom mid-lecture, trigger warnings signal a professor’s awareness that a student might need to briefly excuse themselves from the room to experience a trigger in private.

II. Writing on the Edge

To be transgender is to live a life knowing many of your Internet and in-real-life trans friends will die. It means being seen as at risk for suicide—or, on the other end, as expendable. The first time I attached a trigger warning to my personal writing occurred when, at an awards banquet, the mother of a young trans person who had committed suicide at my college commended me for staying alive. She noted that she pitied me for the struggle I would face being trans. That evening, I wrote on my blog:

At the time, I was also struggling with the most severe period of incapacitating depression and suicidality thus far in my life, and others around me—including fellow transgender friends in my corner of the Internet –were too. So in the title of the post, I wrote “tw for suicide.”[3] 

In my years of personal writing in digital spaces, I have found that trigger warnings often serve as inventive devices, inviting authors to compose more expressive, visceral writing. Trigger warnings frequently function as the “starting point” of a post where writers position themselves in relation to their audiences. Writers with mental disabilities often use trigger warnings to write complexly about their mental state—even suicidality. In some cases, these warnings work in personal narratives to focus the power of pain; trigger warnings in the most personal of writing spaces sometimes replace the titles of posts where writers narrate their everyday experiences with mental disability. For example, in a post I wrote in 2013 describing how graduate school was both driving me mad and giving me life, the title of my blog entry is simply a trigger warning.

Though I wasn’t thinking about why I titled this post with a trigger warnings at the time, titling it as such signaled the content of the post (depression/suicidal ideation) and allowed me to write more frankly about my experiences. It allowed me to weep, openly.

The inventive power of trigger warnings has been harnessed in some writing classrooms, particularly creative writing classrooms. For example, Andrea Lawlor has found that trigger warnings can catalyze invention and creation when used collaboratively. In a roundtable facilitated by Entropy Magazine, she explains:

The last time I worked with students who wanted to use trigger warnings, in the Trans*/Queer Writing Group […] one of my clever students created an anonymous collaborative document on the web (http://collabedit.com), so people could anonymously list things for which they wanted warning. We compiled our list, which was fairly short and comprised of pretty common categories (sexual violence, suicide, cutting, etc.), and people mostly did offer warnings when they included representations of these subjects in their pieces—which they did! including self-identified survivors, who sometimes wrote pieces which very graphically depicted some of the things on the trigger list[.…] Trigger warnings in a workshop might allow student writers to write in MORE compelling, more honest, more powerful ways about our world, which includes trauma. (Milks et al.)

In Lawlor’s classroom, students and the professor decided together if they were to use trigger warnings and what they would warn for. This collaborative approach helped open up conversations about how we write about trauma and how others experience what we write.

Trigger warnings are a tool that writers could use to navigate the “embodied writing” that personal narratives so frequently constitute. As William Banks describes, personal writing can replay violent experiences, which, “once inscribed on the body,” are “difficult to erase and, as such, may control the readings we do of ourselves, our experiences, and others” (25). In many composition classrooms, we ask instructors to teach narrative writing and expect students to write personal narratives that explore their lives; Tara Wood has noted that requirements to write personal narrative that do not take into account experiences of disability may force students to write essays that reproduce the trope of “overcoming” disability or to “[re-enforce] the ‘normal’ body” (38). Trigger warnings can help instructors frame conversations about disability and traumatic experiences, de-emphasizing the “colonizing” effect that assigned personal narratives can have (Wood 38).

Trigger warnings are a way, particularly with narrative writing, to help make our writing more accessible to people with mental disabilities, whose bodies and minds continue, like a palimpsestic document, to be inscribed with layers of violence. Elizabeth Brewer, Cynthia Selfe, and Melanie Yergeau have argued that we must work to create “cultures of access” around writing, both in how composition and rhetoric scholars write to each other in academic contexts and in how we teach students to write (Yergeau et al.). They note that we should teach students how to make their writing “easily readable: by ensuring that they are in a digital form accessible by screen readers (and not simply a PDF with a single image unrecognizable to optical character scanners), by offering aural forms of such texts, or by providing large-print versions of such texts” (153). By using a trigger warning, a writer acknowledges that their narratives can cause bodily and mental pain. Beyond our responsibilities to our readers, trigger warnings may allow broader access to writers as they open a wider range of experiences to draw from in narrative.


If weeping, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entails the “exudation or dripping of moisture generally,” then weeping represents a practice that produces tangible matter which touches, rubs up against, or leaves marks on the surrounding landscape (“Weeping, n.”). Weeping on a friend’s shoulder in a moment of sadness leaves a wet splotch of residue on their shirtsleeves. When we weep we leak onto the persons, things, and environments around us. Likewise, trigger warnings allow student writers to impact the classrooms they move through by calling attention to difficult emotions. To reveal how trigger warnings grant students more authorial, creative power, the rest of this essay will outline concrete strategies for employing trigger warnings in rhetoric and writing classrooms.

Some professors, such as the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom, have voiced fears that student trigger warning advocates are attempting to exert control in the classroom. To the extent that trigger warnings in higher education might, in the committee’s words, “interfere” with “the choice of course materials and teaching methods,” these concerns are not unfounded (Committee A). But is it strictly undesirable for students to shape their own learning practices? For theorists of feminist pedagogy, who have long been suspicious of hierarchical models of education, the goal of college instruction should be precisely to “recognize and encourage” students’ “capacity” to “theorize and to recognize their own power” (Weiler 34). Trigger warnings work to equalize the traditionally hierarchical relationship between professors and students in the classroom.

With her permission, we offer a trigger warning statement authored by Tekla Hawkins, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, as an example of the way trigger warnings can situate students and professors as equal participants in a writing classroom. Hawkins’s policy statement was used in an undergraduate course taught at The University of Texas at Austin titled “Visual Rhetoric.” On the course website, under the heading “Course Policies,” Hawkins writes:

This course uses trigger warnings as a matter of standard practice.

Triggers are words or phrases that can cause extreme reactions. These reactions may range from anger or embarrassment to full panic attacks. Giving trigger warnings is required in many online communities, and is becoming more common in public spaces. Common triggers include but are not limited to: addiction (of any kind), self-harm (of any kind), child harm, sexual assault, and racism.

Behind the link below[4] are some comments that might be triggering. As you can see, these are comments that might occur in casual conversation (as they are examples from on campus), and yet can still be harmful to others. Phrases and subjects you might be more familiar with as upsetting are descriptions of alcoholic behavior in a novel, victim blaming in a news story, or of course active threats of any kind. When addressing these kinds of topics in writing, put warnings near the top of your page or in the subject line. When addressing these kinds of topics in conversation, you can warn by saying “warning for racism” or something similar before you go on. This may seem odd at first, but becomes normalized very quickly.

As in any humanities class we will be discussing texts that contain material about the hard questions faced by any culture; this is what makes them worth discussing. In general, triggers are the result of personal experiences. It is easy to be kind, and reactions to personal experiences are nothing to be ashamed of. [...] It is impossible to plan or warn for every exigency, but as a group, we can be sensitive about potentially sensitive discussions.

In this trigger warning statement, Hawkins acknowledges her responsibility as an instructor to accommodate students. She asks students, “as a group,” to actively participate in creating a classroom that is inclusive to mentally disabled students. She and her students might make errors in this mutual project (“it is,” she remarks, “impossible to plan or warn for every exigency”), but what’s important in this trigger warning statement is not that mistakes are made but that the class engages in a good-faith effort to consider psychiatrically disabled students’ needs. This statement also notes the power of casual and formalized language to shape attitudes towards mental disability. As Elizabeth Brewer notes, if “attitudes toward disability” represent “an integral part of what disability studies scholars are writing about when it comes to accessibility” (Yergeau et al.), then Hawkins’s statement helps students develop reactions to disability that are thoughtful and nondiscriminatory.

Hawkins’s course policy statement also underscores that trigger warnings constitute a writing practice which originated in online spaces. Trigger warnings are always in some way informed by their digital origins, and as such, debates surrounding the use of trigger warnings in university classrooms are tied to concerns of technological innovation and digital media production. Alex Reid speculates that social media’s ability to “enable a wider audience” of readers for scholarly discourse might help “deterritorialize” academic thought and allow for a more “heterogeneous” group of individuals to consume it. Reid suggests that digital media holds the capacity to make scholarship more “accessible.” Though he does not explicitly mention disability, we argue here that Reid’s insight can be read as a disability insight. Trigger warnings’ position as both an accessibility tool and a textual practice that emerged from the Internet offers an imperative for scholars to study disability and digital media together.

Reid concedes that, despite his vision that digital scholarship could allow for a more accessible public of readers of scholarly work, many academics are cautious with the “crowded space[s] of social media” for “fear” of being “exposed” or challenged. Student groups who argue for the inclusion of trigger warnings on university syllabi are harnessing a digital practice in order to critique academic norms and make academic spaces more accessible. To some extent, the blog posts we examine in this essay that speak against student-led accessibility efforts seem to desire a return to the traditional “scholarly identity and authority” that Reid sees digital scholarship potentially challenging. Trigger warnings do allow students to challenge professors’ traditional authority. They represent a site where students are rejecting a passive role in the classroom.

Another concern persistently voiced by faculty is the fear that trigger warnings will censor course content relating to topics of race, gender, or sexuality. The seven authors of “Trigger Warnings are Flawed,” for example, believe that if trigger warnings become “mandat[ory]” on college campuses, “faculty of color, queer faculty, and faculty teaching in gender/sexuality studies, [and] critical race theory” will be the likely targets of attempts to censor course material, putting such faculty at risk for administrative censure and attack (Freeman et al.). Such concerns have merit, especially in climates where faculty have drawn criticism for speaking openly against racism, homophobia, or class stratification.[5] Efforts will have to be made, therefore, to distinguish between moral or personal objections to reading specific course content and the fact of a text being difficult to access because of a disability issue.

Because trigger warnings point, unflinchingly, to pain and hurt, they position users as performing the wrong affect for the classroom, collective, or digital space; they defy the drive to be pleasant or decorous. Sara Ahmed explains that minority subjects—women, queer people, disabled people, and people of color—are often expected to appear happy, embodying “lightness, humor, and [shared] energy” (43) in order to cover over histories of oppression (87). Since trigger warnings frequently mark pain that is explicitly gendered or racialized, like rape or police violence, they perform the kind of work that Ahmed suggests is forbidden by dominant systems of oppression. Undoing interlocking oppressions, according to Ahmed, involves the work of “speak[ing] out about … unhappiness” (60) and “expos[ing] the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced, or neglected under public signs of joy” (65). Trigger warnings might, therefore, be more oriented to the intersectional than they are given credit for.

We believe that trigger warnings or assignments that take being triggered into account can balance the needs of disabled students with the teaching of race, sex, and gender. Typically, trigger warnings are an additive and not a subtractive phenomenon: professors add a “TW” to their syllabus or give a vocal trigger warning in class rather than excise material from a syllabus. Moreover, the institutional origin of most calls for trigger warnings undercuts fears that they will become “mand[atory]” on “college campuses.” For example, while UCSB student resolution #805 encourages a university-wide “mandate” to include trigger warnings on syllabi, the lack of policy-making authority held by this particular student organization attests to the fact that resolution #805 would not be mandatory at all (A.S. Senate). At the end of the document, the authors of the resolution concede that they are “urg[ing]” for a policy change and intend to broach their demands with the university’s Academic Senate—a group of professors who do hold policy-making power. The push for trigger warnings in this instance represents bottom-up student activism, not top-down institutional authority.

As an example of the ways in which professors can take triggering material into account while still teaching topics including race, sex, and gender, we turn to an assignment authored by Patricia Roberts-Miller, Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at UT-Austin. In her course “Principles of Rhetoric,” Roberts-Miller requires three major papers. For each paper, she gives several possible topics that students can write on. Each topic includes material relating to race or gender. For example, the first assignment asks students to: “Use a concept from Jasinski [...] in order to write a rhetorical analysis of one of the following texts. Focus on one or two specific strategies in order to argue for your interpretation of the relationship between rhetorical strategies and authorial intention, historical context, intended audience, or impact.” Roberts-Miller offers the following topics that students can explore:

David Walker’s Appeal To the Colored Citizens of the World. Walker was a black abolitionist who wrote a text condemning slavery and arguing for self-defense. People in the South were terrified of this text, and called out the militia simply because copies of it were found.

Pickup artists. We looked in class at Steelball’s website, and discussed the audience and interpellation—that, whatever Steele’s actual audience, his intended audience is mildly misogynist, stuck in the 80s-90s, entitled, and determinist in human relations; he interpellates that audience to see themselves as simply needing more confidence, more misogyny, more entitlement, and more faith in determinism. How rhetorically different are more recent pickup artist sites such as http://www.puatraining.com/?

Ruth Benedict, “Races of Mankind.” Benedict wrote this initially as a pamphlet for soldiers explaining what was wrong with Nazism (it’s common for troops to be given such material). It was outrageously controversial, and pulled from circulation by southern Senators and members of Congress who objected to its criticism of racism. Yet, by modern standards, it feels fairly racist. What rhetorical concept explains Benedict’s strategies and the outcome?

In our conversations with her, Roberts-Miller described designing the architecture of this assignment so as to avoid triggering students. The assignment given above requires students to grapple with anti-black racism, misogyny, sexualized violence, or anti-Semitism. However, as Roberts-Miller explains, if a student finds a particular topic especially difficult to write 1250 words on, they can choose a different one. Roberts-Miller’s assignment therefore broaches racism, violence, and sexism while giving students multiple options for how they approach these topics. The assignment does not censor but, instead, puts each student in charge of her own education.


In our experience, many professors and faculty members are already doing the kind of work performed by trigger warnings—briefly notifying students that what they’re about to read or watch might be graphically violent. The language of the “trigger warning,” as we see it, explicitly frames this kind of notification within a disability context. If we, as educators of English, writing, and composition, truly hope to include psychiatrically disabled students in our classrooms, we must listen closely to these students. We must take seriously their stated needs, especially given the fraught nature of claiming disability and accessing accommodations.


[1] In this article, we will use terms like “mentally ill,” “psychiatrically or mentally disabled,” and “Mad” to refer to persons who live with mental illness. We use “mentally disabled,” in the manner of Margaret Price, to indicate people with a wide variety of mental illnesses and cognitive disabilities who are rarely brought together in medical contexts but who often find solidarity together in everyday life (2). “Mentally ill” denotes a kind of impairment that produces “suffering” as well as societal discrimination (Mollow 288, 287). The term “Mad,” capitalized, refers Mad Pride, a “psychiatric disability activist” movement (Lewis 115).

[2] If a professor does feel uncomfortable supporting a student in the middle of a trigger, using trigger warnings seems to be one way to ensure that the student doesn’t have a traumatic reaction during their class.

[3] We want to briefly note the importance we see in asking for consent to use personal blogs as a source for academic writing. As such, we have decided to reflect on our own online writing rather than selecting examples from our Internet networks.  

[4] At the bottom of her trigger warning statement, Hawkins includes a link to a separate page that contains phrases common to student parlance that might be triggering.

[5] For example, English professor William S. Penn was suspended from his post at Michigan State University after critiquing racism in the U.S. Republican party in 2013; in 2012 theologian Tina Beattie was dis-invited from appearing for a lecture at the University of San Diego because of her advocacy for gay marriage; and in 2013 College of the Mainland in Texas fired tenured political science professor David Michael Smith because, many speculate, of his vocal support of employee’s rights. 

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