In 2014, a US college created a policy requiring faculty to provide trigger warnings for students. This spurred a heated debate among faculty, students, and administrators across North America regarding the need for and efficacy of trigger warnings in the classroom. The present study sought to clearly define arguments put forth in this debate and to determine the distribution of these arguments across stakeholder groups. A content analysis of the comments sections associated with 16 online articles on the topic of trigger warnings (over 1,600) from two higher education journals (Inside Higher Ed; Chronicle of Higher Education) during the timeframe of September 2014 to October 2015 was performed using qualitative and quantitative analysis methods. These comments were categorized in a way that provided some insight to the tone of the debate and opinions from students, student survivors, professors, professor survivors, as well as many others who did not identify their role were gleaned. Further, policy implications and recommendations for best practices regarding the use of trigger warnings in higher education were drawn.
Findings concerning opinions against trigger warnings included concerns about academic freedom, infantilization of students, and unfair responsibility for professors; whereas findings in favour of their use included promotion of positive pedagogical values, recognition of human courtesy, and supporting student mental health. These findings will help to inform pedagogical practices that support survivors of trauma and empower students to determine their own exposure to potentially traumatic materials, particularly for social work learning, and lay the foundations for future research on specific best practices in higher education classrooms.