Should students get trigger warnings for difficult subjects?

The issue of whether lecturers should give advance warning to students that they could study emotionally challenging material in lessons has been discussed by Dr Susan Deacy and Dr Fiona McHardy, both Principal Lecturers in the Department of Humanities, in an article for a leading education magazine.

Posted: 3 December 2015

In the article, published today (Thursday 3 December) in Times Higher Education (THE), Dr Deacy and Dr McHardy reflect on their research on teaching sensitive subjects in Classics. The pair spoke to a number of professionals working within disciplines that face similar issues, such as psychology, art therapy, criminology and education, who all agreed that it was an essential part of a university education to present challenging material that was relevant to the curriculum.

In the article the pair discuss the potential difficulty in providing trigger warnings as this would require an assumption to be made about which subject matters students may or may not find difficult. They also reference the possibility of a ‘placebo effect’ where by drawing attention to the potential for trauma could result in causing more students to be traumatised than otherwise would have been.

The article is concluded by a call for a higher education sector-wide collaboration on supporting students who experience traumatic reactions to topics they are studying, including the offer of welfare and counselling services.

Dr McHardy is the recent recipient of the inaugural Teaching Literature Book Award. Her co-edited book, From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficulty Topics in the Classics Classroom, provides advice and techniques on dealing with topics students can find troubling, illustrating them with examples from her own teaching practices at Roehampton. The advice given in the book is now used as an example of best practice by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) guide on embedding equality and diversity in university classrooms.

Dr Deacy is Roehampton’s latest National Teaching Fellow. Her award was based in part on her research into the field of teaching challenging subject material. Dr Deacy has led a research project funded by the Higher Education Academy into the most appropriate ways for academics across the UK to teach sensitive topics to students. Her findings are now starting to be used by teachers in other subject areas, including criminology and education.

Roehampton is ranked in the top 20 universities in the country for Classics (Guardian University Guide 2016) and students continually score the quality of teaching highly - giving it 94% in the 2015 National Student Survey.

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