Statement of Principle: Introduction and Background

“Trigger Warning” describes an advisory preamble to subject matter that could potentially be disturbing to readers, listeners or students with a history of trauma, including sexual abuse and assault as well as racial or gender discrimination. These warnings have recently gained more attention as they pertain to an array of subject matter taught on college campuses. We recognize that some content in our learning environments may directly or indirectly interact with students’ prior experiences and understanding. As an institution it is important that we articulate our commitment to the principle of academic freedom and its necessity for academic rigor as well as to the cultivation of a supportive and inclusive environment for all who learn, teach and work at Washington University. We believe these values can be mutually compatible. The “Balancing Rigor and Respect in the Learning Environment” statement addresses these values.

Balancing Rigor and Respect in the Learning Environment: A Washington University Content Statement

A central mission of Washington University is the creation of knowledge through teaching and research. Learning takes place when we grapple with new and at times challenging ideas, concepts and perspectives, and this process not infrequently involves exposure to distressing facts and events. As an institution, we affirm the importance of academic freedom and the rigor it provides to our learning environments. At the same time, we remain mindful of the varied responses that subject matter can evoke in learners, especially those who have experienced trauma. We believe that upholding the values of academic freedom and maintaining respect for individual responses to course material are both important goals.

Students will have a variety of reactions to a course’s subject matter. In cases of general discomfort with course material, students are encouraged to see their respective instructor, academic adviser or program director to discuss course content or any related concerns. Faculty and staff can find resources for handling such situations through the Teaching Center. For specific instances in which course material seems likely to cause the re-experiencing of trauma, students should contact Student Health Services, Disability Resources, the RSVP Center or the Gender Equity and Title IX Compliance Office for assistance and/or to request reasonable accommodations for trauma-related disabilities or conditions. Faculty, staff and students can find additional resources for addressing such situations here. While instructors are not required to make fundamental alterations to their curriculum or course material, they are encouraged to be alert to possible adverse reactions to material, to consider reasonable accommodations, and to refer students to the above resources for additional support.

Issued: July 11, 2016
Sponsor: Adrienne Davis, Vice Provost
Advisory Group: Standing Committee on Facilitating Inclusive Classrooms
Co-chairs: Rochelle Smith, Assistant Provost; Jennifer Kapczynski, Associate Professor (Sabbatical; Jan. – Dec. 2016); J. Dillon D. Brown, Associate Professor (Acting Co-Chair; Jan. – Dec. 2016)