Dr Ian Burrows Defends Trigger Warnings

Isabel Sykes reports on Dr Ian Burrows stance on Trigger Warnings.

Isabel Sykes
6th November 2017

Writing for The Guardian on the 31st of October, Dr Ian Burrows, a teaching associate for the faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, defended his use of trigger warnings for lectures concerning sexual assault.

On the 19th of October, The Guardian told its readers that Cambridge students had been given trigger warnings on their timetables regarding a Shakespeare lecture that “could be upsetting”, leading to criticisms that universities were being overprotective of students. Dr Burrows’ article responds to this and similar reports from The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and others.

Dr Burrows said that he issued the warnings to prepare students for detailed discussion of how sexual assault is presented in drama, in recognition that this may be difficult for people who had experienced sexual assault or abuse. The warnings specifically related to lectures on Sarah Kane’s 1995 play Blasted and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Dr Burrows stressed that he did not intend to shield or censor students but to inform them that he was going to talk in-depth and at length about challenging issues.

"Trigger warnings are nothing to do with censorship; they are a basic courtesy"

Dr Ian Burrows, Teaching Associate at the University of Cambridge

He criticises The Daily Mail article headlined ‘Alas, poor snowflakes’ which expresses concern that trigger warnings risk sheltering students from the world’s problems. In response to the article’s conclusion that “many believe this has led to censorship”, Dr Burrows said that “trigger warnings are nothing to do with censorship; they’re a basic courtesy.”

The article emphasises the purpose of the warnings as not only preparing students to critically discuss sexual assault but to prepare those who have been victims of assault or abuse themselves. He writes: “a warning like this one might also allow a victim of trauma to prepare themselves for the discussion, rather than being abruptly and unexpectedly confronted with it. What is the justification for forcing that shock upon a student?”

A spokesperson for the University of Cambridge has said that “it is not a policy of the English faculty to have such warnings” and is “entirely at the lecturer’s own discretion”.

Newcastle University also has no university-wide policy on trigger warnings, but the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics offers guidance for studying sensitive topics. A Newcastle University spokesperson said: “This guidance was introduced in response to student feedback and is intended to help students who may have concerns about the content of particular modules consider how they can best prepare themselves to study challenging material in a way that is appropriate to them.”

“All module leaders provide information in advance about the content of modules and students are encouraged to take responsibility for managing their own engagement with difficult material safely and in an appropriately supported context. Module leaders, personal tutors and the Student Wellbeing Service can all provide support and guidance with this process.”

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