When Class Content Gives the Professor Nightmares, It Might be Time for a Warning

Photo by Fernando Arcos, public domain, https://www.pexels.com/photo/white-caution-cone-on-keyboard-211151/

This is the second in a three-part series on the use of content warnings in classrooms, archives, and museums. You can read the first entry here. 

Erica L. Fraser

Looking back, I probably began using content warnings for students after giving myself night terrors from reading the memoir of a Holocaust survivor as class prep. I was on an evening train back to Ottawa after winter break. I was tired, trying to anticipate how students in a new class on the topic would respond to Ruth Kluger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, and thumbing through it quickly to check it off my to-do list. It is a beautiful, horrifying memoir – but I had read material like this before. Next thing I knew, I was sitting bolt upright in bed the next three nights, terrified of something unnamed and with vague images from Kluger’s text fading from my mind.

(Before I go further, please note that this blog post contains references to Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust and the sexual assault of serf women in 18th century Russia).

I had researched and taught Russian and East European history for several years by then, including some of the darkest parts of the twentieth century. I considered it purely an intellectual exercise, as I myself did not have any heritage in this part of the world and my family has not experienced trauma from war, genocide, or displacement. A few years earlier, in fact, when teaching a fourth-year seminar on East European history at a Baltimore liberal arts college, I was struck by the sighs and only half-joking comments from students as they slid into their seats each week: “Didn’t anything fun ever happen in Eastern Europe?” they complained as we worked our way through books with titles like Everyday Stalinism, The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania, Ethnic Cleansing in 20th Century Europe, and The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. The students persevered, but lesson learned: now, when I ask students to come with me to meet people in the past who lived and died in terrifying times, I include more content on festivals, leisure, and the different ways that folks built their own lives, families, and communities, not only waiting passively for violence to happen to them.

But these sorts of experiences – both in my classrooms and in my own sites of emotional preparation – have helped me formulate principles for teaching difficult histories, including reasons why I include content warnings for reading or lecture material.

The first reason I include content warnings is that I don’t want students’ main encounters with history to be just a series of unpleasant surprises. History can be unpleasant, after all, no matter which time period or part of the world we teach. Like most history professors, I want my students to engage – with the overall topic but also more specifically with the primary sources that help us understand that topic, with historians’ accounts of it, and with students’ own interpretations. If students become overwhelmed by, or worse, fearful of the unpleasant surprises in my classes and disengage to protect themselves, by not attending class, not reading carefully, or skipping a video lecture, then everybody loses – that individual student, the class that does not get to hear from that student, and me as the professor who let this happen.

Second, I don’t think it is asking too much for me to respect students’ lived experiences and appreciate that they might be different from mine. I might personally not find it upsetting to read about how Nazi invaders tested execution methods on Slavic, Jewish, and Roma villagers in the western Soviet Union before deciding to economize resources (and protect perpetrators’ mental health) by building death camps in Poland. I have studied this material before; it’s fine.

(Aside: it is not always fine, of course; see the night terrors situation).

But when a student raises their hand or posts to our online discussion to say, “My grandfather said his mother had to eat glue or starve in Leningrad during the war,” I owe it to that student and everyone around them to protect that experience, to take intergenerational trauma seriously, and – at the bare minimum! – try my best to let this student and their classmates know when we might be reading a difficult source. The issue is even more crucial in my field now, given Russia’s war against Ukraine and the students from this region who come to my classes desperate to understand how such violence could be happening. Am I going to look at my Ukrainian students and order them to, “Just do the reading!” when a moment of warning about a topic could make all the difference to them?

Third, while I love to imagine that students think deeply about the human condition in each class with me, the truth is that they are just trying to get through their day like the rest of us. If I’m going to take up their lunch hour describing how serf women were bought and sold in 18th century Russia, the least I can do is help them approach the topic with care. Content warnings help empower students to decide how their day is going, how robust (or not) their mental health is, and whether they need to shelve that material for another day. In this light, for me, it is ultimately an issue of equity and inclusion, to help as many students as possible work through difficult encounters with historical material. Content warnings can help a student engage more, not less, with that difficult material.

Finally, as I have been teaching more online (using asynchronous modules) since the pandemic, I find it just as important to include content warnings. In person, a content warning only partly prepares students to study a difficult topic; it also requires our empathy as instructors in the room that day. Online, I try to replicate that compassion as much as I can by saying, I regret not being able to sit in the classroom with you today in particular, to better gauge how you’re feeling as we talk about this material, and I invite them to preview the slides or video transcript before watching. I also alert them as to whether the video will contain any violent images and when those occur. Despite the asynchronous format, it is gratifying to see online students share their experiences with or apprehension about that content just as they do in the physical classroom.

These days, my classes include content warnings for: the genocidal violence of the Nazi invasion of the USSR; sexual violence in documents about Russian serfdom; the medical violence of “gender verification” tests from the 1960s-90s in my sports history class; and – only slightly tongue-in-cheek – for animal abuse when we read Robert Darnton’s classic, The Great Cat Massacre in my historical theory course.

Even then, although I try to think about what kind of content my students might find upsetting, my own experiences ultimately drive my decision about which content deserves a warning. It is not a perfect system. But given the violent topics that arise in my classes, I think it is a crucial way to help students connect with me and with the material.

It was almost ten years ago now, but when I told that new class about my reaction to Kluger’s memoir on the day we discussed it, that I had found it challenging to process even as someone accustomed to difficult histories, many students gave me a relieved look. “Me too,” one of them said. The class laughed together a bit nervously, took a collective deep breath, and dove into the conversation.

Erica L. Fraser is an associate professor in the Department of History at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is the author of Military Masculinity and Postwar Recovery in the Soviet Union (University of Toronto Press, 2019). Her newest book project explores women’s hockey in the USSR before World War II, and she is currently co-editing a special journal issue on Slavic characters in contemporary Anglosphere television and film.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Fenner, Sofia. “Not So Scary: Using and Defusing Content Warnings in the Classroom.” Journal of Political Science Education, Vol. 14, no. 1 (2018): 86-96.

Lower, Wendy. Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

University of Michigan, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Inclusive Teaching. “Introduction to Content Warnings and Trigger Warnings.” https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/inclusive-teaching-sandbox/wp-content/uploads/sites/853/2021/02/An-Introduction-to-Content-Warnings-and-Trigger-Warnings-Draft.pdf

Young, James E. “Interpreting Literary Testimony: A Preface to Rereading Holocaust Diaries and Memoirs.” New Literary History, Vol. 18, no. 2 (Winter 1987): 403-23.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: ActiveHistory.ca encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.