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Content Notes: From Either/Or to Both/And
January 31 2022, Written by Bee Brigidi, Julia Lane, and Belinda Karsen
What are content notes?
Content notes are statements, spoken or printed, made prior to sharing material that will be seen,
read, or discussed in the classroom. Content Notes support learners’ well-being by preparing them in
advance for potentially disturbing content, including but not limited to graphic references to topics such
as sexual violence, self-harm, violence, or eating disorders. Such potentially disturbing content can
appear in courses in a variety of forms including images, video clips, audio clips, or pieces of written text.
In addition to using Content Notes to signal the presence of such content, instructors can consider
providing a statement in their course description and/or syllabus acknowledging the fact that some
students will have a personal connection to these aspects of the course material (e.g., mental health,
Content Notes (CN), Content Warnings (CW), and/or Trigger Warnings (TW) (hereafter referred to as Content Notes) have all been the subject of widespread discussion and debate both in academia and in popular culture. The focus of these discussions has been varied and included questions surrounding the effectiveness of such warnings as a part of trauma-informed practices for supporting safe learning environments (Khalid and Snyder, 2021) and concerns about the ways they might constrain academic freedom and rigour (“On Trigger Warnings” AAUP August 2014). Unfortunately, in these debates, the latter two (safe environments and academic freedom) are often pitted against each other, as exemplified in a 2018 Inside Higher Ed article which posits a dichotomous discussion in which faculty have to choose between “defending free speech” or “helping students feel emotionally safe” (Ceci, Lilienfeld, and Williams).
The Problematics of an Either/Or Approach
We contend that this either/or thinking, itself, presents a barrier to an authentic and open-minded consideration of Content Notes and their potential role in our classrooms. Recognizing Tema Okun’s scholarship and advocacy1, we understand either/or thinking as a defining characteristic of white supremacy culture, within which settler-colonial universities have historically framed their work. This kind of thinking cannot truly support antiracist and decolonized teaching and learning practices.
All too often, the either/or approach leads to the assumption that instructors should not be teaching any content that might be triggering or even mildly uncomfortable for students. This understanding has led some institutions to issue statements, such as this one from the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago: “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort” (John Ellison qtd in Jaschik, 2016). This statement was included in a letter explicitly stating that the university does not support “so-called trigger warnings” and pitting these warnings against academic freedom, stating that it was because of their “commitment to academic freedom” that trigger warnings were not supported at the university (Jaschik, 2016).
An Invitation into Both/And Thinking
In this post, we invite you to take a both/and approach to considering Content Notes. As such, we suggest that Content Notes may be both a part of a trauma-informed approach to creating safer learning environments and insufficient in and of themselves. We also suggest that using Content Notes can be both a way of supporting student learning and a way to exercise academic freedom and rigour.
This both/and approach requires us to make two important distinctions about Content Notes and their pedagogical applications.There are two important distinctions to be made here. The first is to clearly differentiate between content that is triggering and content that is “challenging” or likely to “cause discomfort.” The concept of triggering content originates in the study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by “re-experiencing symptoms” (such as flashbacks), which can be “triggered” by content related to the initial traumatic event(s) -- the primary source(s) of the trauma (Haslam, 2017)2. Such triggering content is clearly distinct from content that is intellectually challenging or even content that causes students to experience discomfort, such as through questioning long-held beliefs. While intellectual challenge and even discomfort can be part of stimulating students’ new learning, being triggered into a “re-experiencing symptom” has been shown clearly in the literature to negatively impact students’ abilities to cope during class and to therefore be associated with significant barriers to academic success (Morton, 2018). While challenging and even uncomfortable content may engage students in their learning and promote inquiry, triggering content does the opposite: it prevents learning from taking place.
The second distinction is to clarify that the use of Content Notes does not imply that instructors must necessarily remove content from their courses, even content that has the potential to be triggering. Taking a both/and approach allows us to understand Content Notes as an invitation for faculty to engage critically with their own discipline(s) and pedagogy and teaching practices in ways that are fundamentally in line with academic rigour and freedom. Content Notes may thereby function as part of a reflective pedagogical practice that supports faculty in creating and maintaining courses that are stimulating, challenging, rigorous, and meaningful to the diverse communities of undergraduate and graduate learners who make up our campuses and our classrooms at SFU.
Content Notes Aren't Just about Content
It is important to acknowledge that what some instructors and students find challenging, uncomfortable, and even disturbing content is not just content to be studied for others. Rather, for some instructors and students this content will serve as a reminder of their own lived experiences. Even when individuals are not managing PTSD or a clinically-defined trigger it can be unproductive to have to study your own experiences as course content–as an object of study–especially if taught insensitively by someone who does not share in those experiences. Such objectification dehumanizes and displaces actual people’s lived experiences through intellectualizing processes.
Let’s work through a rather benign example: imagine you grew up in a family of mechanics and were helping to fix cars from the time you were 5-years-old. You would likely find it at-best unhelpful and also likely cringeworthy to learn about car mechanics from someone who had only ever experienced a car in a textbook. When the content in question is more sensitive than car mechanics, students’ reactions can be even more complex. Taking up the work suggested by Content Notes is, therefore, about challenging ourselves to consider who is in the classroom and what kinds of experiences they bring with them. It is also about respecting lived experiences–even traumatic ones–as a form of knowledge that students bring with them, recognizing that students3 have lived distinct lives and consequently have diverse relationships to, and need for, the course content we choose to present. Content Notes open the opportunity for students to make their own responsible choices about courses and course content.
What the Scholarship Shows Us
In our research for this post, we looked at literature that details the academic experiences and outcomes of Black students who have experienced trauma, including sexual assault, robbery, and other violence (Aruguete and Edman, 2019); students who are refugee trauma survivors (Bajwa, Kidd, Abai, Knouzi, Couto, and McKenzie, 2020); students who are war veterans (Linski, 2019; Morissette, Ryan-Gonzalez, Yufik, DeBeer, Kimbrel, Sorrells, Holleran-Steiker, Penk, Gulliver, and Meyer, 2021); students coming to university from the foster care system (Morton, 2018), and students who have experienced sexual violence (Baker, et al, 2016). Even this small snapshot of the existing literature reveals that, in any given university classroom, there are students who have experienced a broad-spectrum of types of trauma in their lives.
The potential presence of diverse forms of trauma in a classroom is also often used as an argument against providing Content Notes. The line of questioning goes: “How can I possibly know what might be triggering for my students?” and “Isn’t any content potentially uncomfortable for someone?” It is for that reason that we hope to encourage a focus on Content Notes, rather than on Trigger Warnings, specifically. While there are useful resources that suggest the types of content that are known to be likely triggers (see, for example, this handout from the Maryland Institute College of Art), the approach to Content Notes that we are suggesting involves providing brief summary overviews and keywords about the content engaged with both in the course and in specific texts. It is, of course, helpful to flag content that is connected to known triggers, but the overall focus is about providing students with information about the educational goals of the course and the content used in the course to address those goals. This, in turn, allows students to make informed decisions about their own intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual capacity for engaging with the course content.
Content Notes as Pedagogical Communication
Content Notes are a useful tool for providing proactive communication about course content in ways that respect students’ autonomy, lived experiences, knowledge of themselves, and responsibility for their education. Where relevant, instructors may provide alternative course content that supports the identified educational goals and, where this is not possible or relevant, the instructor can explain that the specific content is not gratuitous to the course or selected for “shock value,” but rather an integral part of the educational goals and requirements for the course. Students can then determine whether engaging with that content will be possible and meaningful for them at this time in their lives.
Of course, on their own, Content Notes are not sufficient to accomplish a trauma-informed pedagogy or safer classroom learning experience. However, engaging in the reflective process suggested by this approach is an integral part of trauma-informed practice. What is made clear through trauma-informed work is that there is no “one right way” (Okun) and so we can’t simply create our course content once and for all. Instead, for our classroom content and pedagogy to maintain its relevance and significance, we must listen to and learn from our students (The Peak, April 2021) -- all the more so when they challenge our habitual and comfortable practices as educators.
1 To learn more about Okun’s work on White Supremacy Culture: https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
2 For a concise explanation of the impacts of trauma and PTSD, refer to The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk.
3 Instructors, too, have often experienced a broad-spectrum of traumas, though less literature has been written with a specific focus on instructors’ trauma in the classroom.
Resource for Supporting a Culture of Care through Content Notes
We have created the following resource to guide faculty members in reflecting on the relationship between their course content and educational goals, and to create meaningful Content Notes to support the students in their classes.
This blog post and related resources were written on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples, specifically those of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem), and Səlílwətaɬ (TsleilWaututh) peoples. We hope that these resources will be valuable to all those working to do decolonizing and empowering work in the academy and beyond.
The co-authors wish to thank Janet Flora Hilts, Co-Op Librarian with SFU Library in 2021-2022, for her work on the research and annotated bibliography that supported us to write this post article and create the relevant support resources.
Aruguete, M. S., & Edman, J. L. (2019). Trauma exposure and academic performance in African American college students. North American Journal of Psychology, 21(3), 573–582.
Bajwa, J. K., et al. (2020). Trauma-informed education support program for refugee survivors. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 32(1). https://cjsae.library.dal.ca/index.php/cjsae/article/view/5452
Baker, M. R., Frazier, P. A., Greer, C., Paulsen, J. A., Howard, K., Meredith, L. N., Anders, S. L., & Shallcross, S. L. (2016). Sexual victimization history predicts academic performance in college women. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(6), 685–692. https://doi.org/10.1037/cou0000146
Ceci, S. J., Lilienfeld, S.O., Williams, W.M. (18 October 2018). The one-time-only trigger warning. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/10/18/way-handle-trigger-warnings-develop-one-time-only-one-opinion
Dowling, K. (5 April 2021). It’s time to start using content warnings for course material. The Peak. https://the-peak.ca/2021/04/its-time-to-start-using-content-warnings-for-course-material/
Haslam, N. (19 May 2017). A short history of trigger warnings. Psychlopaedia. https://psychlopaedia.org/society/republished/whats-the-difference-between-traumatic-fear-and-moral-anger-trigger-warnings-wont-tell-you/
Jaschik, S. (25 August 2016). U Chicago to freshmen: Don’t expect safe spaces. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/25/u-chicago-warns-incoming-students-not-expect-safe-spaces-or-trigger-warnings
Khalid, A. and Snyder, J. A. (15 September 2021). The data is in: Trigger warnings don’t work. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-data-is-in-trigger-warnings-dont-work?cid=CDP-articlebottom
Linski, C. (2019). Assisting student veterans with hidden wounds: Evaluating student support in US higher education. In J. Hoffman, P. Blessinger, & M. Makhanya (Eds.), Perspectives on diverse student identities in higher education: International perspectives on equity and inclusion (Vol. 14, pp. 29–45). Emerald Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2055-364120180000014004
Morissette, S. B., et al. (2021). The effects of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms on educational functioning in student veterans. Psychological Services, 18(1), 124–133. https://doi.org/10.1037/ser0000356
Morton, B. M. (2018). The grip of trauma: How trauma disrupts the academic aspirations of foster youth. Child Abuse & Neglect, 75, 73–81. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.04.021
Okun, T. and Jones, K. (2001). Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. ChangeWork.
Sub-Committee of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure. (2014). On trigger warnings. American Association of University Professors. https://www.aaup.org/report/trigger-warnings
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. United Kingdom: Penguin Publishing Group.
About the Authors
All authors work on the unceded lands of the Coast Salish peoples including the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), and Kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwikwetlem) Nations. Bee Brigidi (she/elle) is a Latinx motherscholar/organizer and anti-oppression educator, working as an educational developer at the Centre for Educational Excellence. Julia Lane (she/her) is a white settler and a mother, scholar, educator, and activist. At SFU, she is a Writing Services Coordinator in the Student Learning Commons. Belinda Karsen (she/her) is an Educational Specialist with SFU's Sexual Violence Support & Prevention Office.