Erica FraserHistory Professor Erica Fraser wrote an article for Active History discussing content warning in classes. A short excerpt is included below with the full article, “When Class Content Gives the Professor Nightmares, It Might be Time for a Warning,” available online.

Looking back, I probably began using content warnings for students after giving myself night terrors from reading the memoir of a Holocaust survivor as class prep. I was on an evening train back to Ottawa after winter break. I was tired, trying to anticipate how students in a new class on the topic would respond to Ruth Kluger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered, and thumbing through it quickly to check it off my to-do list. It is a beautiful, horrifying memoir – but I had read material like this before. Next thing I knew, I was sitting bolt upright in bed the next three nights, terrified of something unnamed and with vague images from Kluger’s text fading from my mind.

(Before I go further, please note that this blog post contains references to Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust and the sexual assault of serf women in 18th century Russia).

I had researched and taught Russian and East European history for several years by then, including some of the darkest parts of the twentieth century. I considered it purely an intellectual exercise, as I myself did not have any heritage in this part of the world and my family has not experienced trauma from war, genocide, or displacement. A few years earlier, in fact, when teaching a fourth-year seminar on East European history at a Baltimore liberal arts college, I was struck by the sighs and only half-joking comments from students as they slid into their seats each week: “Didn’t anything fun ever happen in Eastern Europe?” they complained as we worked our way through books with titles like Everyday Stalinism, The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania, Ethnic Cleansing in 20th Century Europe, and The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. The students persevered, but lesson learned: now, when I ask students to come with me to meet people in the past who lived and died in terrifying times, I include more content on festivals, leisure, and the different ways that folks built their own lives, families, and communities, not only waiting passively for violence to happen to them.

But these sorts of experiences – both in my classrooms and in my own sites of emotional preparation – have helped me formulate principles for teaching difficult histories, including reasons why I include content warnings for reading or lecture material.