‘Content Notes’ Added to Film Studies Classes to Warn Students About Sensitive Material

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Dr. Tom Brown introduced ‘content notes’ in two first-year film classes after complaints were made by students about sensitive material in the films watched in class.

These content notes are observations in the syllabus regarding scenes and overall themes that could be triggering for students. The measure was put in place mid-semester, due to recent reactions by students in the ‘Introduction to Film: Forms’ class.

This isn’t an isolated event, as the use of trigger warnings has been a largely debated issue in the faculty of Arts and Humanities in recent years. This has led them to publish a set of guidelines, which can be viewed on the King’s College London website.

One of the main points of contention is on the matter of which terms should be used. ‘Content notes’ is the name preferred by the faculty, since King’s does not have a policy of trigger warnings. According to their guidelines: “Students should expect occasionally to be challenged and made uncomfortable by material they encounter in university as in the wider world and should be encouraged to develop a mature approach to such material.”

This discussion is still a rather recent one. According to Dr. Brown: “From undergraduate students, it was probably last year that the issue was first raised to me. A student had asked her personal tutor to inform the department of her having particular issues with certain kinds of content.” He then started to made adjustments by going over the films and giving verbal warnings about material that could be sensible, before adopting the use of ‘content notes’ this November.

In regards to the difficulty of choosing films for modules while being aware of these concerns, he said: “I think it is a very difficult issue and I think the first thing I need to do is to listen to the concerns of students and teaching colleagues.” However, he is also careful not to fall into self-censorship and to “find a balance between making the classroom a safe space but also sometimes a challenging space”.

The debate is far from being over, particularly regarding the limits of what can be considered sensible material and what measures King’s College should take. According to the faculty guidelines, it is difficult for the university to anticipate “every potential source of discomfort for students,” especially keeping in mind the immense diversity of the student body.

It is certain that this matter will continue to influence the choice of material in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in the coming years. According to Dr. Brown: “Teaching the first year undergraduate compulsory modules, I perhaps have a particular duty of care and this issue will certainly feed increasingly into my film choices on those modules and especially on how I frame those film choices.”

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