Instructor Insights

On Students’ Emotional Responses to Emotionally Triggering Topics

In this section, Mitali Thakor shares her insights about teaching a course in which content triggers different emotional responses from students.

"What I’ve come to realize is that there are different ways of engaging in self- care and, for some people, approaching a topic academically is a way of caring for themselves and understanding the issue more deeply."
— Mitali Thakor

Unknowable Sources of Secondary Trauma

In 21A.445J Slavery and Human Trafficking in the 21st Century, students worked in small groups to complete a final project. One group gave its final presentation on the use of trigger warnings in gender studies syllabi. Drawing on their experiences in the course, which included viewing explict material, they observed that, as a group, none of them were affected in the same way by the same issue. Watching a documentary about trafficking in the food industry was triggering for one of them, while reading about sexual violence and comfort women was triggering for another, while a story of war and refugee migration was triggering for yet another. They pointed to the fact that instructors can never be certain about what is going to be a source of secondary trauma for students when they process and read class material.

Communal, but Not the Same

I appreciated the discussion these students prompted because it showed that they had thought deeply about the content of the course and that they were feeling topics from the class, not just abstractly, but personally. Their project also highlighted the fact that, although we enjoyed a very communal environment in the course, we weren’t always on the same page in terms of our responses to the different materials and topics. In fact, I got a lot of push back on some of the material. Students said things, like, “this is really graphic” and “this is really unnecessary.” Some students felt particularly uncomfortable when we discussed sex work.

Debate as Self-Care

To work with, rather than against, this discomfort, we ended up having a staged debate on the different views of sex work. Students had the opportunity to research and structure organized arguments on the issue, rather than spouting off whatever came to their minds. They were encouraged to also pick a debate perspective that they didn’t actually hold, which I think was good. In this way, they were able to really live the arguments of the other side, to a certain degree. There were actually four sides, which also made the debate more nuanced. I think it was a good way of channeling and processing some of the feelings they were having around the topic.

What I’ve come to realize is that there are different ways of engaging in self-care and, for some people, approaching a topic academically is a way of caring for themselves and understanding the issue more deeply.

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