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As Seen By Marine: students are calling for standardised content warnings

Whether you are starting your first year of teaching this term, or embarking on your daunting final year, you are bound to come into contact with controversial material. There is a consensus among students at Bristol about the importance of a system to standardise the use of content warnings.

By Marine Saint, Deputy Editor and Features Columnist

There is a consensus among students at Bristol about the importance of standardising content warning use. Third year English rep Jessica Millson emphasised how many students would feel safer were there a standardised system, especially when it comes to sensitive content.

Third-year History rep Laura Gunbie explained that content warnings had been discussed in previous meetings with course reps, with students ‘Complaining about the vagueness of the warnings for images in the  ‘Picturing the Twentieth Century’ unit, which did not allow students to prepare for specifics’. Similarly to Millson, Gunbie added that ‘The general consensus [in the meeting] was that you can’t warn students about everything, as history is not always PG, but that some warning for especially distressing content is certainly appropriate’.

Wills Memorial Library | Flickr / Nick Sarebi

During my studies, I have come across such advisory content from lecturers in the ‘Revenge Tragedy’ unit, including plays such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Noting the potentially distressing topics students are engaging with lends itself to an accessible approach to teaching and learning, but has equally been the source of discontent.

Across all disciplines, there is potential for exposure to material which challenges but troubles students. Universities like Leeds have received backlash for their English department’s content warnings on reading lists. While a spokesperson for the university commented that ‘Content notes provide a supportive way to introduce a wide range of texts’, such guidelines have been heavily critiqued by politicians.

Speaking to The Times, Prime Minister Liz Truss asserted that ‘Real life doesn’t come with a content warning—we can’t protect people from difficult ideas for their whole lives, nor should we try to’. Investigating the removal of texts from reading lists this summer, The Times found 1,081 examples of warnings for mainstream literature across undergraduate courses.

This particular Times article shed light on the extent to which student engagement with materials can be limited, yet the addition of advisory notes was endorsed by many of the universities approached. An Aberdeen University spokesperson explained that their warnings policy  ‘Enables staff to explore controversial topics that could otherwise be difficult to address in an inclusive and supportive environment.’ Bristol was not directly listed in their article, but the Humanities department have been approached for a comment.

There is clearly an ongoing debate between universities and government bodies about the need for warnings, and the potential risks of removing texts for this reason. Academics at the University of Nottingham have developed a common language for content warnings to suit intended audiences.

Their study, published in PLOS One this May, analysed the effects of advisory notes on mental health recovery across all sectors. Project leader Dr Stefan Rennick-Egglestone emphasised the research’s potential to facilitate the development of content warning systems for varied groups, such as those who have experienced traumatic stress.

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The detailed analysis and this debate regarding content warnings for teaching materials works intandem with the need to support student mental health. Given the prevalence of viewing notes in the creative sector, the use of warnings will undoubtedly continue to raise concerns regarding student safety and the conditions of education.

Featured Image: Epigram / Charlotte Carpenter

Should the University introduce a standardised system for content warnings on reading lists?