A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of serving as a panelist for ACUI Live in a conversation about trigger warnings and offense on campus. I came to this topic wearing the dual hats of “campus activities talent booker,” and “recreational comedy enthusiast.” But the conversation we had examined the issue through several lenses- programming, relationships with agents, how it manifests in the classroom, and more. Such a broadly defined topic left us a great deal of room to talk about many sides of the issue, and I’m thankful to my fellow panelists (Dr. Brian Bourke of Murray State University, Jeff Hyman of Degy Entertainment, and Tim St. John of Clark University) for the wisdom that they shared.

However, as we looked over the evaluations of the session (yup, we read those!), we realized that we as a group fell short in one area: leaving participants with a feeling of knowing what to do on their campuses, with their students to address these issues. After giving it some thought for a few weeks, I have some recommendations that I’d like to share.

First, draw a clear line – with faculty, staff, and students alike – between offense and trigger. Some of the greatest controversy we encounter when addressing issues like this comes when we mistakenly conflate the idea of offense (borne of discomfort, with the potential to lead to learning) and trigger/trauma (borne of pain, likely to inhibit learning). Despite how they’re often treated on campus and by the media, they are not the same.

This can be as simple as delineating what resources are available to whom. Things like emergency counseling care, 911, and the like are appropriate for those feeling triggered; while resources like scheduled counseling, regularly scheduled support groups, and peer mentors (more on that later) are more appropriate for moments of discomfort. But something else can be more powerful: identifying which is normal, and which is cause for deep concern.

I remember a Director of Orientation that I worked with several years back giving an opening speech to new students that included the advice, “Get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable.” I always loved that she shared this note, because it normalized the idea of being tentative, unsure, or just plain icky about things that students do, see, hear, and learn each day.

Contrary to what many of our first time in college students come to us believing, you’re supposed to feel uncomfortable sometimes- that feeling of discomfort often spurs curiosity about why the feeling exists, and that can lead to learning.

With that said, the college experience should be uncomfortable at times, but it shouldn’t hurt. And for that reason, the notion of trauma needs to be explored for what it is- a sensation or experience borne of pain, something relatively common but not normal, and can be dangerous if pushed beyond areas of expert exploration.

Finding ways to share with students that discomfort is okay, but pain is not, is a significant step toward creating a culture that can operate smoothly in the face of challenge and respond appropriately when pain is caused.

Once this distinction is clearly made, find ways to convey that the student experience in the college space will feature challenge. Many students (though, admittedly, not all!) recognize that the level of work they are expected to do will be more demanding than it has been previously. But students are typically less prepared for the mental and emotional challenge that college will present. Remind students, where possible, that these challenges will arise. If you have the opportunity to teach, and have control over your syllabus, include it there. Explain it at floor meetings or in common meetings for commuter students. Let them know that it’s coming.

This warning shouldn’t just happen in the first year, by the way. Classes, informational sessions, and conversations leading up to study abroad trips should include this conversation as well, as should internship or practicum courses, and capstone experiences that are preparing students to head out into the post-graduate world. For it is not just the college experience that will spark feelings of discomfort, but also the world. Any opportunities to prepare students to “leave” us, should include these conversations as well.

Coach student leaders who commonly work with students on how to spot trauma, as well as talk students through moments of challenge. Tim brought up this point during our session, and I’m very appreciative of him for making the point; students can help with this process! Once students recognize the difference between the discomfort of offense, and the pain of trauma, equip the student leaders who they’ll be likely to turn to with the tools to help them cope. If they are leading programs or initiatives that have the potential to trigger, ensure that they state this possibility upfront, and allow permission for triggered students to leave or approach a staff member for guidance.

However, it is possible that students who utilize this approach, may actually be speaking of feeling offended rather than triggered. In these moments, leaders should be trained not to dismiss those feelings as less than painful, but to help students sort out the source of their discomfort. Make no mistake- I do not advocate for students to serve as counselors or therapists. Rather, more appropriately utilized helping skills (asking questions about expectations, wondering where expectations may have fallen short, inquiring where expectations may have originated) could help a student come to understand why something feels offensive, and what that offense may be rooted in.

As an additional note, I appreciated Tim’s suggestion that student comedians- members of improv troupes, sketch groups, or stand-up comedians opening for regional or national touring acts- should be taught about this element of the landscape in which they’ll be performing. Many worry about being funny, without recognizing the complicated manner in which their content could be perceived.

I spoke to a comedian and stand-up comedy instructor, Dana Jay Bein, who provides advice on this challenge to his classes as they craft their material. I’ve found that it’s something (a) budding comedians often need to hear, but also (b) many students may need to hear when interacting with one another in their most uncomfortable moments (we’ll return to this shortly):

I encourage students to write material about their lives. Don’t go for shock value. People don’t know you. They want to invest in you. They came to laugh. If you’re deliberately trying to offend them (upset them), you’re breaking the code of why they came.

I’ve been vocal previously about the high capacity that students have to handle complex issues and tasks; involving them in the process of assessing these conditions in their peers, as well as trusting them to use advice on how to avoid it in their own work, is one way to demonstrate that trust.

If we know in advance that programs or initiatives could be deemed offensive, plan pre-emptive or follow-up programming to help students work through it alongside peers and professionals. There are often speakers, entertainers, or campus events that we know will ruffle feathers; agents can be an invaluable resource when determining how potential events or initiatives have been received, as are colleagues at other institutions (so don’t be afraid to ask for references!). Don’t use that potential for discomfort or trigger as a means to dismiss value. Rather, ensure that the psychological resources needed are in place to help attendees or participants cope.

For triggering events or initiatives, do what you can to label them as such (outside and near the space, in advertisements, etc.) and identify or provide campus resources that can assist those deeply troubled after participating.

For potentially offensive or thought-provoking ones, consider pairing them with a follow-up “lunch and learn” or “dialogue forum” to allow participants to talk through their experiences, worries, and feelings. Provide space for these “grievances” to be aired anonymously or in writing, as some students may respond to this better.

And lastly, declare these spaces to be non-judgmental, confidential and kind. Without these standards set from the beginning, the sharing and civil controversy needed to work through these uncomfortable transformative moments, won’t take place.

Finally, create space for challenging conversations in your own offices and departments. Many who work in college unions have the level of contact with students that allows us to recognize trigger or offense up close; additionally, the relationships we have with students necessarily means sometimes it will be brought to our doorsteps (or cubical limits). When these moments arise, treat them with care and respect. Yes, you may be presented with issues or concerns that you don’t understand. But a listening ear, thoughtful questions, and offers of advice or supplemental resources will mean the world to the person who trusted you enough to bring their worries to you. Where you can, challenge colleagues and staff members across the aisle to do the same.

What other tips do you have for those looking to help students struggling with offense and triggering? Any examples of standout programming that has done this well? I’d love to know more!

One thought on “Panel Review: ACUI Live, on Offense + Triggers

  1. I experienced a similar but opposite phenomenon at a meeting for a student group I advise. They had an invited speaker to discuss inclusion, which she presented in a “dumb things people say” style. For each example, she covered the statement, the intent, the impact, and a reframe. The timing was during the current holiday period, so Christmas/Chanukah/Happy Holiday examples were used. One student offered that since he was not offended by someone saying “you’re lucky that your Christmas is 8 days” (he is Jewish, for context), he could not see why anyone should be offended by that. I failed to address it in the moment (knowing the speaker personally, I did not want to overstep), but what was more troubling was the reinforcement of his “people should just get over it” mentality that pervaded discussion after the speaker left.

    I share this story, because this is an example of my own shortcoming – though the potentially offensive matter did not ‘apply’ to me, does not absolve me of my responsibility to advocate for those who would be offended. I’ll do it next time for sure (as I can sadly guarantee it will come up again in a members only conversation) and hope you all will hold me to it.

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