I cannot reply to all the readings I have done on safe spaces and trigger warnings this week, so I wanted to cite a few before continuing from my earlier post:
- Paul Chancey linked me to a Chicago PBS televised discussion about these topics, as related to the recent University of Chicago letter.
- Daniel P. Franke cited me in their recent post, which includes additional readings of various opinions for and against safe spaces and trigger warnings.
I disagree with some points raised by Franke, and with some points in the readings linked in their post (although I recommend reading just about anything by Sara Ahmed). But as with any debate, I appreciate getting to read counter-arguments to points I was raising about why safe spaces and trigger warnings are valuable teaching tools.
Some of Franke’s links include:
- Alan Levinovitz, “How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students”
- Conor Friedersdorf, “Grading the University of Chicago’s Letter on Academic Freedom”
- Tyler B. Kissinger’s discussion on Twitter
- fivefifths, “Straw Freshmen: Why the War on Campus PC Culture Is Bullshit”
- Sara Ahmed, “Against Students”
- Kevin Gannon, “UChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power” (already cited in my previous post)
- David M. Perry, “ ‘PC Policing’ by Student Activists Is a Red Herring”
Chancey also had an additional question for me:
“How do you think safe spaces/trigger warnings can/should help prep students for [the] ‘real world’?”
My lengthy response is below.
Courses, in classrooms or online, have the unenviable challenge of having to be both safe spaces (locations where some difficult, controversial, and challenging discussions are held) and places for preparing students for this imaginary “real world.”
The real world is a nebulous phrase that refers to the various personal and professional challenges students face, at work, at home, with friends, with family, with strangers, with the law, with various forms of power. No one course can cover all of that, especially depending on its field of study.
That is one potential use for safe spaces. Those spaces offer opportunities that a course, even a teacher, may not be able to in the classroom, due to time limits, the focus of the class, or the goals of the teacher. Safe spaces may allow students to hear from their peers in settings outside of a traditional classroom. If the space is used badly, then you are not going to get the truth or opportunities to fix problems. But if the space is used well, I want to have confidence that mature, honest students will be present to discuss topics based on evidence and towards ethical solutions that improve conditions at that college and in their personal and professional lives (the “real world”).
“Safe space” is a phrase that could be applied to various unofficially and officially organized groups on campus. I don’t know what to think about that choice. On the one hand, unofficial safe spaces already exist very well, but as such they may not have the oversight colleges want a group operating on campus to have. On the other hand, official space spaces have such oversight–and as such may be seen as an extension of the college’s authority, hardly safe, a space for free speech, or a location that decentralizes conversations that can be more democratized or more egalitarian rather than having one person leading the discussion.
One potential solution may be found in various on-campus organizations, which already provide the safes for conversations not usually held in classes. These include cultural clubs, political organizations, leisure activity groups, civic service organizations, and sports. And those groups are already required to follow rules by the college. However, those rules also must include an expectation that students will not discriminate, and with punishments listed (disbanding of the organization, for example). Again, the idea that free speech is limited by asking that organizations not discriminate on the basis of identities is foolish: to ridicule such an expectation as “political correctness” (another phrase that means almost nothing, except to say, “don’t be a dick”) is to condone hostility towards someone else, not on the basis of their actions, their arguments, and their behavior, but on stereotypes fixated just on their identities.
A counter-argument to all of this is that classrooms “coddle” students (I have said already how I think that is nonsense), and that classrooms should be more like “the real world.” What does it mean to “coddle” students? What happens in classrooms that is somehow “not the real world”?
When those quoted phrases are used, they tend to be opposed to what a classroom should do: it is itself a safe space, albeit one with a teacher facilitating discussion, where people do get to have civil discussions on the assigned topics. That means no unnecessary interruptions and no mockery: arguments occur on the basis of evidence, moving logically to conclusions and without insults. The classroom is not your home where your arguments are reinforced or mocked; the classroom is not your hangout where your friends always agree with you or make poor arguments; the classroom is not Twitter where you’re going to get mocked, harassed, or doxxed.
That leads to the discussion of how trigger warnings prepare students for the real world. These warnings are not restrictions on free speech. While I recognize the potential chilling effect such a ratings systems can have (“I can’t teach this text, as I worry what people will say”), and while I recognize that trigger warnings can be so expansive that everything can be a trigger (and yes, I do think anything can become a trigger for someone), the warnings exist with the understanding that the teacher, if they are good at their job, has considered carefully the text chosen and is giving this warning to help students prepare for how they will approach this difficult topic, one that, if the teacher is doing a good job, is responding to the world as it is, and not simply assigned for arbitrary reasons. There is a difference between assigning a text because, in the context of the course, it is addressing violence in this world and how we condemn it and correct for it, and assigning a text simply for shock value and without having in mind what it can do to help make the world better. A teacher gives a warning not because they are considering removing the text, so it is not a restriction on their speech.
A trigger warning also helps prepare a student for “the real world” because it lets that student know that their teacher is willing to listen. A teacher who includes trigger warnings, or a disclaimer that encourages students to discuss, privately or in class (or, if possible, anonymously) about a trigger they themselves encounter in a text, is leaving the opportunity available to discuss how a text succeeds at provoking a reaction, intentionally or not. That is what literary studies can be: it can be about how this text creates this memory, feeling, or response. Trigger warnings therefore help students to practice speaking with someone about what they think, to communicate more clearly and to persuade someone to see their point of view on a topic. If someone is to survive the “real world,” such skills will be valuable.
 In Franke’s post, they link to my previous post with words that wrongly imply I was arguing that (quoting Franke) “[t]he University of Chicago, deliberately or otherwise, knows nothing about the actual meaning of trigger warnings or safe spaces.” I never wrote that, and that was not my argument.
I did say the University of Chicago’s letter “defines many terms poorly,” and that its definition of safe spaces “is limited, referring to it as a space for ignorance and monolithic thought, which is hardly its proper definition and hardly how many of us have used those spaces on campus in our work.”
I wouldn’t say the University of Chicago knows nothing about the actual meanings: safe spaces and trigger warnings can have multiple meanings, evident by how the University of Chicago chooses one definition in its letter, and as its own campus does include an LGBTQIA safe space program.
However, I will correct myself: I should have said the University of Chicago “hardly gives a proper definition,” rather than imply there is only _one_ proper definition.