I teach Writing and Literature at a community college in New York City, and I’d like to think that my students would feel comfortable coming to me with any ideas, learning-related struggles or problems interfering with their work. I make a conscious effort to engage in my students’ stories and experiences, and validating them by offering them chances to reflect on their ideas and beliefs throughout the semester.
When I speak to struggling students, I make sure to do so in private, to use non-judgmental language and to see how I can adapt my teaching to their needs instead of the other way around.
Just this semester, I made class participation an added bonus to students’ overall grades instead of a mandatory requirement for the class. When I started teaching five years ago, I assumed that everyone in my class needed to speak in order to prove that they were actively engaged, likely because that’s how I showed my knowledge when I was a student. But that’s not the case with all students nor all personalities, and it’s unreasonable to measure learning through something that is not so much rooted in learning but in personality.
Every so often, I’ll see evidence that my efforts are successful (a shy student might come to me after class and tell me all the ideas she felt uncomfortable discussing in front of others, or a failing student will take the initiative to talk about the learning disabilities affecting her work), but it’s unrealistic to connect with everyone.
There are an infinite number of physical, emotional and social influences on a student’s success in school, and when they don’t feel comfortable coming to me (or when I am ill-equipped to handle the issue), colleges have other resources for them to use. I wasn’t aware of these resources until I got a part-time job working in the Student Affairs office, which houses the Dean of Students, at a different public university a few years ago. A lot of what this campus office dealt with were highly sensitive and confidential student issues which not only affected the students’ performance in school, but also their psychological, emotional and physical well-being. Counseling, Health, Student Conduct and a few other departments worked together to advocate for students and ensure that the institution cared for its population’s academic standards as well as personal growth.
My experience as both a teacher and as an assistant in the Dean of Students’ office is why I feel equipped to address the University of Chicago’s introductory letter to the Class of 2020 condemning the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces in the school. Penned by Jay Ellison, the Dean of Students, the letter states:
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
It’s quite a clear, if not forceful message, to send to students on their first days of college. It foregoes sunny generalizations about learning and success to make a stern, hard stance on a topic that would be sure to anger at least some of the entering class.
Let’s explain these two terms before getting into Ellison’s gross misunderstanding of their use in the college setting.
A trigger warning comes from the idea that certain themes or depictions can be “triggering” for people who have suffered trauma in the past and might cause the person to react negatively — anywhere from feelings of discomfort to symptoms of the person’s mental disorder. The warning is stated out of consideration for the person’s mental health. So, for example, if a book contains strong depictions of domestic violence, you would give your students a brief warning so that students who have experienced domestic abuse in the past won’t react so strongly to those particular scenes. It’s a bit like the way a newscast will warn viewers of graphic images before the story starts so that viewers have the option to either turn away or to prepare themselves for those images ahead.
But experiencing distress rooted in traumatic experiences is not the same thing as experiencing anger or sadness or dislike while reading. For example. I can talk about hating Hamlet’s paranoid insanity, but I might not feel comfortable being in a classroom full of students calling Hamlet weak and crazy if I myself have had suicidal thoughts. We should not expect students to cope with traumatic experiences on our own terms and schedule. What we can and should expect from our students is that they are taking steps to maintain their mental health. Using resources like trigger warnings empowers them to do so. Trauma doesn’t heal on our say-so. It takes work and time, and hopefully one day that student will be able to cope with distressing situations in their own unique ways.
Teachers employ other trigger warning methods, such as allowing students to leave the class if they feel uncomfortable during a discussion, or teaching students to communicate using constructive, non-judgmental language.
When I first heard about trigger warnings, I was ambivalent about their use in the literature classroom. While I saw their utility for my students, I also saw them as undermining the way an author would want the reader to experience the book — though frankly, I’d say it undermined the way I wanted readers to experience the book. However, at the end of the day, if a student experiences emotional difficulty or a recurrence of symptoms because I value my personal experience of the book over their own, then my goals as a teacher are misplaced.
‘Safe spaces’ rose out of the LGBT movement in order to designate LGBT-conscious spaces where people could be free to express their identities and be accepted in predominantly anti-LGBT surroundings. Since then, the term has been used in relationship to other causes and movements. Many institutions offer safe space trainings, like this one, in which participants learn about the best practices for creating a judgment-free zone and for opposing discriminatory language and behaviors. On campuses, faculty and staff who have participated in the training might have stickers or signs outside their office indicating that they’ve participated in the training and are equipped to assist with those particular student needs.
Having safe spaces on campuses does not mean that other spaces are unsafe. It also doesn’t mean that the people in the safe space are preventing the freedom of speech of people outside the safe space. The safe space signals that here is a place (and a person) who knows where you’re coming from and can understand your experiences without the fear of discrimination or judgment.
One popular critique of safe spaces is that they “coddle” students into false environments of pure positivity and happiness. And that when they are faced with the harshness of reality, they’ll crumble under the exposure to negative criticism. These criticisms are rooted in a misunderstanding of the function of safe spaces as a happy-go-lucky, distress-free space. It’s not. Additionally, I think these opponents see all negativity and criticism as an opportunity for growth. It’s not. In fact, it can often hinder growth and create insecurity, stress, or worse where it shouldn’t be.
And what exactly is wrong with surrounding yourself with people who have the same experiences and backgrounds as you? It’s what we do as instinct, and it doesn’t logically mean that we oppose other people’s freedom to surround themselves with their own like-minded friends. In an excellent response to Dean Ellison, Morton Shapiro, the president of Northwestern University, describes a scenario where a group of black students is eating lunch and two white students ask to join. Since there are other empty tables available, one black student asks them why they can’t sit elsewhere, and the white students reply that they want to stretch themselves and their community by having an uncomfortable learning experience. The black students refuse. Some might argue that the black students are increasing racial tensions instead of ameliorating them. But Shapiro states that the black students had every right to protect their ‘safe space’ because “the white students, while well-meaning, didn’t have the right to unilaterally decide when uncomfortable learning would take place.” This story also shows the hierarchies inherent in educational institutions: The people in power deciding when learning should occur are not always the ones who are sensitive to the needs of their minority student populations.
Dean Ellison’s condemnation of trigger warnings and safe spaces fails to understand that learning and academic freedom is not something that needs to be enforced. In fact, we learn better when our needs as individuals are given consideration when we are empowered as people who wish for our own growth and development. We make education more meaningful when we make our environment more about sensitivity and compassion.