Safe Spaces in the Life of the Mind

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to incoming students which has made me – for the first time – embarrassed to be affiliated with my undergraduate institution.

Image from the Chicago Maroon twitter feed. https://twitter.com/ChicagoMaroon

This letter (as Kevin Gannon has noted) seems to be equal parts pedagogical statement and public posture.  It certainly needs to be understood in terms of evolving debates about college campuses, academic politics and student life.

I, however, want to address it from the perspective of both an alumna of the college and as a professor.

The call for “civility and mutual respect” in this letter is a heartening one, as is the reminder that “freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others.”  (This, by the way, sounds like what most academics mean when they talk about safe spaces) A space in which “members of our community [are expected] to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement” and to constructively manage ideas that “may challenge you and even cause discomfort” resonates with what I expected when I first stepped into U(C) classrooms some many years ago.

But I balk at what follows – first because the author of the letter seems not to have fully interrogated what “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” mean, in practice, in college classrooms; and second because rejecting student protests and trigger warnings works to undermine what Dean Ellison says is a priority: “building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds” and which supports students’ “freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”

In my experience, and as described by faculty from different institutions, trigger warnings are not about “cancel[ing] speakers because their topics might prove controversial.”   Neither are they intended to allow students to “retreat form ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”  In the practice I have seen, trigger warnings are a way for faculty to help students manage their reactions to material without disrupting the intellectual community of the class, and without derailing students’ own academic progress.

For example, I teach on the history of disaster.  We read about terrible, heartbreaking things.  It does no one in my class – neither me nor the students – any good to not anticipate the possibility that some students might react strongly to (for example) discussions of the death of orphan children during the Galveston Hurricane.  Flagging scenes of infanticide (a trigger warning) in our readings likewise has no cost – it simply alerts students who may have strong reactions to a particular topic that they might want to take extra steps to prepare for class that day.*   These might include drafting a discussion question in advance, finding a time to do reading that might be trauma-inducing when they will not be in public, or even simply practicing scripts to get through the class period.  Rather than undercutting intellectual discourse or protecting students from uncomfortable material, trigger warnings as practiced by me and by many faculty seek to ensure that a student can fully prepare – in what ever way they need – t participate in class.

Dean Ellison similarly seems to be mistaken about the common use and history of “safe space.”  While it is laudable that the U(C) “welcomes people of all backgrounds” and encourages “diversity of opinion and background,” American higher education is historically constructed, and has – historically – been friendlier and more accommodating to certain groups more than others.  For one excellent example of this history, see Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy detailing the racial history of American education (while I have the utmost respect for Dean Boyer – the dean of the college when I was an undergrad – I can’t help but think that Wilder’s would certainly be a book that incoming first years would benefit from reading).  This history means that, in practice, colleges and university have been – and continue to be – safer spaces for some students than for others. Those for whom the college is already safe – many of them students who are not otherwise marginalized – do not need to petition for safe spaces on campus.  For them it already is one.

To reject the idea of safe spaces or to pre-empt any protest in response to a scheduled U(C) speaker is to say – again in practice – that the University of Chicago has no interest in attending to the needs of students who do not already feel safe.  These might include (and this is based on my experiences both as a student and now as a faculty member) students of color, first generation college students, LGBTQA students, undocumented students, students who grew up in poverty, students with learning differences, students with illnesses, students with disabilities.  Making higher education more welcoming to these students sometimes means re-imagining what campus civility looks like.  It means, rather than telling students that protests are unwelcome and silencing, interrogating why those students thought that protest was the best way to speak to the administration.  It involves treating protest as a tool of debate rather than as a fait accompli**.   It involves listening to students who ask for a heads up about potentially traumatic material.  None of this silences academic discourse.  Rather, it makes academic discourse a space in which more and more diverse students can participate.

As practiced*** most frequently, trigger warnings allow for classes to be flexible enough to accommodate students whose experiences of trauma and crisis are different from our (the faculty’s) own.  Discussions of how to make more safe spaces on campus are a way to expand campus culture to include people who historically were excluded from it.  Neither of these models is detrimental to undergraduate education.  Neither undermines the life of the mind.  It shocks and saddens me that a place which prides itself on intellectual rigor for all students would take such a stance.


*They might also choose to skip class, but I have seen no evidence that talking about possibly traumatizing material makes a student any more likely to skip a class than any other of the usual reasons college students have. Incidentally, this is why I do not have an excused absence policy in my classes – students can choose to be absent from a fixed number of class meetings without penalty, and I am not put in a position of adjudicating a good reason for missing my class.

**I want to think about this a bit more about this, but discussions of student protests of speakers tend to assume that having a protest means that the speaker will not come.  This has not been my experience of student protests, and is a perspective which, I think, dangerously misrepresents the institutional power that students, faculty and university deans have respectively.  When we talk about student protests, I think we miss the ways in which institutions and (in the case of Rice, invited speakers) have the power to react to protest.  Many times, institutions and speakers decide that a talk will go on.  When I was a U(C) undergrad, Fareed Zakaria came to speak.  Some students walked out in the middle of the talk.  Some called for the talk to be cancelled.  Both of these actions prompted robust and sustained discussion, and allowed for discussion about the place that Zakaria’s ideas had on the U(C) campus.  Calling for the cancellation of the talk was part of that discussion, not an attempt to silence it.

*** I have a shirt from my time as an undergraduate which reads “that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory.”  I still love that shirt, but I think that the current U(C) administration might – in this case – benefit from thinking a little more about pedagogical practice, and less about theoretical posturing.

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