Tackling sensitive subjects in the classroom

(Sherry Han/The AQ)

Most class syllabi are pretty standard. Inside, you’ll typically find things like project outlines, important dates and the professor’s contact information. But what about classes that deal with sensitive material? Should warnings be put in place?

The concept of being exposed to all sorts of ideas is something most people can agree on, but it’s the way this is executed that students can have issues with. It’s not just a problem in university, but throughout a student’s time in school.

Olivier Hebert, a third-year student at St. Thomas University, recalled a time when he was younger and forced to sit through a movie on global warming, a topic that caused him a great deal of anxiety.

“I went up to my teacher and asked her if I could go to another class to do work or perhaps work on an environment-themed project instead of watching the movie but she said no,” said Hebert. “With no power to do otherwise, I sat through several classes having silent panic attacks at my desk with my hands clenched into fists so my knuckles were white.”

Hebert said that he wasn’t necessarily trying to avoid learning about the subject, but instead wanted to learn about it in a way that wouldn’t be detrimental to his mental health. Providing warnings ahead of time allows students to work out an alternative to being exposed to a particular method of teaching.

While some professors are happy to give warnings, Brianna Matchett, who’s a fourth-year student at STU, said that some do so reluctantly and in a way that can come off insulting. She’s noticed a misunderstanding from people when it comes to the need for trigger warnings.

“If you’re a student who’s experienced trauma, it’s a lot different than just a topic making you uncomfortable,” said Matchett. “There are lots of topics that make me uncomfortable, but I understand that we need to have discussions about it. There’s a difference between that and something traumatic.”

Context plays a huge role in whether something should require a warning or not. Laura Lindsay is a high school teacher, but believes this is something that rings true no matter what level of education you’re at.

“I assumed that in my human sexuality class there were going to be discussions involving some pretty sensitive topics,” said Lindsay. “However, if I rolled into my sport psych class and all of a sudden we started looking in depth at sexual assault – that’s different.”

Mark Tunney teaches in the Journalism department at STU. While journalism courses don’t focus specifically on difficult issues, they cover a wide range of topics. Because of this, the potential for troubling stories to arise is common. When it comes to dealing with these issues, Tunney falls somewhere in the middle of the scale, particularly because of an incident in his radio class one year.

“I played an example of what a soundscape should sound like,” said Tunney. “I thought of explaining beforehand what it was about, but I thought that would lose some of the drama of the piece, since the whole point is to show the way it suddenly changes.”

The piece dealt with someone talking about a particular method of suicide, and with no warning to what was going to be played, a student had to leave the room upon hearing it.

“A student in the class had a friend commit suicide in a similar way to what was talked about in the piece. She was going through a tough time in her life since it happened fairly recently. So I felt bad about that, and I did learn a valuable lesson. Still, I would never not play something.”

Although Tunney regrets not giving a warning to the content of the piece, he said that part of journalism – and university in general – is dealing with a wide range of issues and arguments, and that they all deserve attention, even if it’s hard.

“You should listen to all ideas and have a broad discussion. We’re not teaching you what to think, but we are teaching you how to think, and part of that is listening to all ideas.”