Content Warning: This is a Blog Post About Content Warnings

By Dr. Maria T. Gallardo-Williams, Teaching Professor and Director of Organic Chemistry Labs, Department of Chemistry, and SoTL Faculty Fellow, Office of Faculty Development

Some of the challenges that came with our recent and unexpected move to online education were foreseeable and some took us by surprise. Technical difficulties, adapting in-person strategies to online learning, and overcoming screen fatigue occupied most of my time for the first 6 months, all things that are a natural extension of this new teaching and learning environment.

In reaching out to support diverse faculty in many departments across campus I was pleased to learn of the many creative ways in which my friends and colleagues were working to resolve these difficulties. This effort to engage with practitioners in other disciplines also exposed me to things that wouldn’t normally be my concern as a chemistry instructor, such as the need to post content warnings for sensitive materials being shared online.

I had never worried before about the importance of allowing audiences to prepare themselves for topics that can cause them harm, including negative feelings, anxiety, or trauma (organic chemistry can be traumatic in its own way, but it’s generally regarded as a safe topic), but this is a very real issue for many educational practitioners, one that can set the tone for a whole course, and that must be handled with care and respect for all parties involved. Some instructors might resist the idea or find it restrictive, and some would argue that it is a way to coddle students by allowing them to pick and choose what content to view within the course structure.

In an inclusive classroom, all our students should be given a chance to decide to engage with a possibly distressing topic, and a content warning in that case should be given at the earliest opportunity. A course that deals with sensitive topics in general should include this as part of the syllabus and the class description. The following sample wording for a syllabus warning is from the University of Michigan LSA’s Inclusive Teaching initiative:

The content and discussion in this course will necessarily engage with racism every week. Much of it will be emotionally and intellectually challenging to engage with. I will flag especially graphic or intense content that discusses or represents racism and will do my best to make this classroom a space where we can engage bravely, empathetically and thoughtfully with difficult content every week.

Another example, from the Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning:

Given the nature of topics covered, some course materials will include explicit images and language, which some class members may find offensive. I will provide forewarning of such instances.

In courses where sensitive topics are only discussed occasionally, materials can be tagged with warnings as needed in order to provide students with notice before they are expected to engage with specific materials. For in-person classes, verbal warnings are generally sufficient, but in online environments, it becomes important to attach the warnings to the potentially difficult content. For most materials posted online, a content warning can be provided as part of the title. In the case of video or audio resources, it may be made clear as part of the introduction.

A good general approach is to provide students with specific examples of potentially challenging content that will be covered in class, the means to discuss the need for the use of this material ahead of time, and suggestions and resources available for student support if needed. Arrangements should be made for students to leave the classroom or the online meeting if they desire to do so during the time that the material in question is being discussed. In some cases, alternative arrangements for assignments might be required for course completion.

What material requires content warnings? The following warnings are the most common. You. as the instructor, are best positioned to consider the material covered in our course and how to provide warnings for your students. This is not an exhaustive list, other warnings might be requested by students based on their own personal experiences.

  • Sexual Assault
  • Abuse
  • Child abuse/pedophilia/incest
  • Animal cruelty or animal death
  • Self-harm and suicide
  • Eating disorders, body hatred, and fat phobia
  • Violence
  • Pornographic content
  • Kidnapping and abduction
  • Death or dying
  • Pregnancy/Childbirth
  • Miscarriages/Abortion
  • Blood
  • Mental illness and ableism
  • Racism and racial slurs
  • Sexism and misogyny
  • Classism
  • Hateful language directed at religious groups (e.g., Islamophobia, antisemitism)
  • Transphobia and trans misogyny
  • Homophobia and heterosexism