Triggered or ignored : a phenomenological multiple case study examining student understandings of and experiences with trigger warnings in the higher education classroom.


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The purpose of this phenomenological multi-case study was to explore college students’ perceptions of the definitions and functions of trigger warnings and to determine if students’ desires and perceived need for these warnings were tied to specific aspects of the curriculum and their perceptions of their instructors. The research questions for this study included: 1) How do students define trigger warnings? 2) What do students perceive is the function of trigger warnings? 3) How do these definitions and perceived functions impact students’ willingness to engage with text they perceive as controversial or uncomfortable? 4) How do students describe their experiences with trigger warnings in the higher education classroom? I collected questionnaires and interviews from criterion-based, purposively selected participants at a private southern university to answer these questions. Drawing from Heiddeger’s interpretive phenomenological analysis and Creswell and Poth’s version of the data analysis spiral, I used the PowerGlass conceptual framework developed from existing theories of power, subjecthood and subjectivation, voice and agency, and performativity to create memos and engage within-case and cross-case analysis. Participants demonstrated a keen awareness of trigger warnings and how they should be used. They expressed their views of instructors as caring and students being humanized when trigger warnings were present in the classroom. Students also demonstrated awareness of the power structures within the institution and found ways to participate in the system while using trigger warnings to challenge these norms. These findings suggest that students engage in acts of performative re-subjectivation to reassert their identities in the classroom by engaging in the trigger warnings debate. This suggests that the issue should not be attention to trigger warnings. Instead, more attention should be given to how student identity is implicated and impacted by classroom curriculum.