What We Talk About When We Talk About Safe Spaces

By now, you’ve probably read about the University of Chicago’s letter to students warning that it does not support “safe spaces” or “trigger warnings” and will not cancel invited speakers who prove controversial.

I think this letter is bullshit. Here’s why.

In its letter, the University of Chicago does not bother to define what it means by “trigger warnings,” and suggests “safe spaces” are places “where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

That’s roughly equivalent to describing “gun control” as “banning all firearms.” Ever watched an online conversation about gun laws devolve until it has all the intellectual vigor and raw appeal of an overflowing septic tank? I have, and I’ve noticed that often it’s because no one in the conversation actually bothered to define what they mean by “gun control,” thus making it impossible for anyone to understand anyone else, much less realize the amount of common ground they share.

One very important rule in writing is: if you’re going to make an argument about something, define what it is you’re talking about.

Safe Spaces

In the media narrative that’s been taking shape over the past few years, today’s college students are a bunch of pansies who can’t handle ideas and opinions different from theirs, while also evilly conspiring to convince the world that leggings are pants and Snapchat is a Thing. Basically, they are Kids These Days, and therefore bad and wrong.

The media narrative paints “safe spaces” as isolationist cocoons to which students can retreat when troubled by the sturm und drang of academia’s robust exchange of ideas. Apparently universities are rife with them, because us SJWs love that shit.

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I was so glad to see this comment. Finally an Olympics I can medal in!

Contrary to that narrative, though, I could find only one example of a “safe space” offering that kind of retreat, breathlessly reported in a number of places as if it were a harbinger of the apocalypse. Long story short? “Brown University” “created” a “safe space” for students during a debate on sexual assault. Except, wait, students set up the safe space, “where students could go to talk to sexual assault peer educators, women’s peer counselors and BWell staff if they heard something triggering.

Unfortunately, a story about students helping other students talk about sexual assault just isn’t the kind of outrage porn that will generate clicks these days. Better focus on the fact that there was Play-Doh and soft music in the room, and make it sound like the university was privileging puppy videos and cookies over learning!

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“Cocoon myopic dystopia false paradigm reality” sounds like a line from a found-word poem I wrote in high school.

Call me crazy, but I’d like to see universities actually get a handle on sexual assault before assaulting the idea of safe spaces for survivors.

In the media’s outrage generation machine, the “safe space” is the Brown University example — and not even the real safe space created, but the imagined “safe space” that conveniently omits the sexual assault education and counselors, but leaves the puppy videos and Play-Doh and pillows. This imagined “safe space” has, as far as I can tell, never existed, much less spread like a rash on the butt cheeks of the body academic.

So what’s the deal with “safe spaces”? Where did they come from, and who needs them? I’m going to link to a Wikipedia article on safe spaces here, and it’s not because I foolishly believe, in my tiny wanton liberal ladybrain, that Wikipedia articles are equivalent to vigorously peer-reviewed academic sources. I’m linking it because it’s a Wikipedia article, which means that it’s a useful approximation of the vox populi. This is the shit normal people find when they Google “safe spaces” and oh, would you look at that, they actually sound pretty reasonable: women’s groups, consciousness-raising groups, and the LGBTQ community created safe spaces for themselves because the world was not and is not always a safe space for many people.

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Right! Because it’s the existence of the safe spaces which don’t exist, and not arguing with your boss, that will make you lose your job. Somehow.

Some of the first “safe spaces” were gay bars, which I’m pretty sure are still around, so I don’t think the argument that there aren’t “safe spaces” in the “real world” holds much water. Upon leaving college, people can find and create their own safe spaces. We do it all the time.

In fact, the irony here may be that most Americans these days live in communities full of people who look like them, who are members of the same socioeconomic class, who have similar levels of schooling and even watch the same shows on TV. Online they can further enclave themselves into news and social media communities full of people with nearly identical views, curating a media feed that confirms their preexisting worldviews. To be hurling invective at “safe spaces” from inside those bubbles seems deeply hypocritical.

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I can’t use the word “irony” and not use this image. Bless you, sir or ma’am who made this. Bless you. You’ve brought joy to the world, and that is the greatest calling that any of us can aspire to.

The idea of “safe spaces” moved into academia through the nineties and into the new millennium. Classrooms, the thinking goes, should be safe spaces for dissent and discussion and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. Classrooms should be safe spaces for disclosures. Instructors shouldn’t punish students for having dissenting opinions. As one study of student perspectives put it, “Being safe is not the same as being comfortable.” This is…not rocket science. And it certainly doesn’t look much like the media portrait of “safe spaces” that’s currently en vogue, does it? In fact, it looks shockingly like what the University of Chicago claims to support.

Speaking of which: Jay Ellison, who authored the University of Chicago letter, is listed as one of the “Safe Space allies” listed on the university’s web site as part of its LGBTQ “Safe Space Ally Network.”

I can’t emphasize this enough: defining what the hell you’re talking about when you’re making an argument works wonders in facilitating communication.

Trigger Warnings

I was just listening to a story the other day on NPR as I was driving my kids around, and the anchor warned that the next story, about child abuse and proposed changes to statutes of limitation, might be disturbing for some listeners.

In short, I was given a trigger warning.

Movie trailers warn us, via MPAA ratings and descriptions, when we are about to encounter graphic violence or sexuality. Games are rated and given brief content descriptions. In polite conversation, people will say things like “this might be too much information, but –” or “not to gross you out or anything, but–” before getting to the really squicky part of their story.

“Trigger warnings” come out of an understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the idea is that it is possible for the person with PTSD to identify what will “trigger” painful flashbacks or memories. Providing a warning in advance gives the person a chance to collect and prepare themselves before encountering potentially triggering content.

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I’m pretty sure “shame rape victims/vets with PTSD until they man up” is not the course of action most mental health professionals would recommend.

I have had students who have done military service — not many, since I most often work with first-time freshman, but a couple — and I have had victims of sexual assault in my classes. My students are often immigrants and the children of immigrants. I have had gay and lesbian students. I have had students with learning disabilities. My classes are incredibly ethnically diverse.

If I use content that might hurt these students, I give them a brief heads-up that what we are about to read or see may be painful. I will remind them that we do not have to agree with what is said, but we have to listen to a wide variety of perspectives to understand an argument and how arguments are made.

That doesn’t make for a very interesting media narrative, though. You’re never going to get a good moral panic going if “reasonable people adopt sensible classroom strategies” is the story you run with.

Last year, the Washinton Post breathlessly reported that students at Colombia were requesting “trigger warnings” for Greek mythology. Like most reporting done in full moral panic mode, the article relies on just a few anecdotes to paint a picture of trigger-warning-happy campuses full of hand-wringing pansies. But if you wade past the lovely image of the Rape of Proserpina as imagined by Rubens, the Ovid quote, and 20 more paragraphs, you finally get to the bit about why.

[A survivor of sexual assault] described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.

Note how the narrative of the article was shaped: long before we get to the actual story behind the story, we get a defense of Greek myths as part of the Western canon, even though it was never in question. We get to see opponents describe these students as an “insufferable breed of self-centered Care Bears.” We get an overview of the spread of trigger warnings, framed as being overused and “losing all its meaning.”

Twenty paragraphs of that, not including the Ovid quote. I counted. All that, before we got to the facts behind the headline. This article could have been framed very, very differently.

The article about trigger warnings at Colombia also reminds us about the outrageous behavior of students at my alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, who passed a resolution in 2014 asking professors to put trigger warnings on syllabi and urging professors to allow students to skip classes containing PTSD triggers.

Like Jem and the Holograms, this was truly, truly outrageous. Or it would be, but for the fact that the resolution is, you know, asking professors. Urging professors. Professors aren’t required to allow students to leave class to have a panic attack with no consequence to their grade. It’s just a suggestion, and it’s in keeping with the way many professors are already allowed to use their discretion when students miss class for health reasons.

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Posted on this article in the Daily Nexus about two months before this happened.

The Washington Post article also rolls out the village bicycle of “trigger warning” examples: Oberlin. You won’t believe what they did at Oberlin, you guys. It’s so crazy. Those wild and wacky liberals at Oberlin…published an online resource guide.

It’s actually mostly about support resources for professors who find themselves as “first responders” to reports of sexual assault, and how to comply with Title IX requirements. It looks a lot like the training I got at my university on my reporting obligations under Title IX.

But through careful framing and selective quoting, the media made it sound as if Oberlin tried to suppress professors’ rights to use any material that could be “potentially triggering,” and then had to backtrack.

In truth, the reason the document needed to be edited was more bureaucratic than anything else: the additional resources, of which the information on triggering were a part, was presented as a subsidiary to the university’s sexual offense policy. Professors were concerned that there wasn’t clear enough delineation between “official policy on misconduct” and “some additional resources you might find helpful in supporting students” and that as a result, using “potentially triggering” material in classes could be considered misconduct.

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Life breaks a lot of people. We don’t have to help.

When we began reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, my instructor warned the class that we’d be reading the n-word more frequently than we might be comfortable with. Since we read large portions of the book aloud, we were given the option to say the word, to say “n-word” or to simply omit it as we read. We talked about why it was important not to edit the text itself, and what the word meant in the historical context and to the author, and also why it was fine to not say aloud a word that we found deeply discomfiting. And we did find it discomfiting; we were mostly white and we’d grown up in suburban coastal Southern California middle-class paradise. That word was not ours to reclaim.

The “trigger warning” helped us approach the text with greater maturity. It helped us have a richer discussion about the text we were reading. It facilitated our learning. The purpose was not to give anyone a chance to leave: it was a way of making sure everyone was able to be fully present.

It’s funny how, when you take a closer look, the “trigger warning” mountain starts to look  a lot like a molehill, and the furor over them starts to look a lot like a moral panic.

Speakers and Free Speech

The University of Chicago letter also takes a firm stance against…dissent, I guess? by stating that the university will not cancel scheduled speakers whose views are controversial.

“Don’t even bother asking, guys,” this suggests. “We know best which controversial opinions you should hear, and any protest will fall on deaf ears.”

That kind of message looks less like a defense of free speech than it purports to be. It’s a defense of something that could fuzzily, if you squint at it, look like free speech. “Freeze peach,” maybe.

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Staunch defenders of lively academic discourse, right here.

I think we can all agree that examining controversial and opposing views is important to healthy and vigorous academic debate. But preemptively attacking student protesters looks like an attempt to stifle debate before it starts.

I’ve found many recent examples of speakers whose engagements were moved or cancelled in the face of protests and petitions. Some speakers have declined invitations to speak at commencements. Some speakers have cut events short in the face of protests.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon. This is not an example of Kids These Days being “too sensitive.” This is what public debate looks like. It’s messy, ugly, and sometimes people on all sides forget that the right to swing their fists ends where the other guy’s nose begins. That’s what we call a teachable moment.

If universities want speakers to generate healthy debate and the consideration of a wide variety of views, perhaps students should be encouraged to participate in the selection of speakers, and that process should be open, transparent, and accessible. Protest should be welcomed as a sign of a healthy intellectual body — and yes, students should be taught how to protest effectively and to exercise their rights without infringing on those of others.

If we as a society want universities to give a shit about free speech, one thing we could do is push universities, especially public universities, to create more full-time and tenure-track positions. Tenured professors once made up the vast majority of college instructors. Now, half of instructors at universities across the country are contingent labor, and 70% of instructional appointments are non-tenure-track.

Adjunct positions come with fewer protections than tenured positions: often, teaching contracts for part-timers are semester-to-semester or year-to-year. Adjunct professors are not only less expensive — if you give them only a few units, you probably don’t even have to give them benefits — they have to worry more than tenured professors do about poor student evaluations, which at many universities may not just be weighed as part of the re-hiring decision, but may be the only tangible evidence considered.

On top of that, many contingent faculty, especially in areas like mine where the cost of living has skyrocketed, are taking grueling course loads, sometimes spread across multiple institutions. These faculty have no time for service or scholarship. Their voices as scholars are effectively stifled by the pile of work in front of them.

Of course, that’s a rather self-serving suggestion, coming from me. But it is one area in which I can give the University of Chicago unqualified praise: more than 80% of their faculty are full-timers. That’s significantly better than the national average, and significantly better than my own institution.

Disrupting the Narrative

I have to admit, there have been points in the past where I focused on my students’ deficits rather than on their merits. Irritated with those students who just don’t bother turning in work — and there will always be a few — I’ve thought back to my own work ethic, and assumed the difference was generational.

But that’s nonsense. I entered college the year my current crop of freshmen were born, and I knew plenty of people in my two years at community college and two years at UCSB who forgot assignments, half-assed their work, skipped class for stupid reasons, drank too much the night before an important exam, or tried to fudge the line between having a friend “help” them with an essay and having the friend write it for them.

Maybe my generation was the feckless one? Hell no. Fraternities and sororities have been keeping files on course assignments to facilitate everything from studying to flat-out cheating since time immemorial. Ivy League universities set quotas on Jewish applicants and made “character” an important factor in admissions decisions so that WASPs wouldn’t have to face competition from whip-smart, hard-working tailor’s kids from New York — making the nation’s top universities “safe spaces” for our nation’s richest and most privileged Protestants.

My students have shown me again and again that they are resilient, hard-working people. They had to be, to make it into my classroom in the first place. They’ve grown up in a time of rising income inequality. They are going to be paying higher tuition than their predecessors, and paying higher interest on their student debt. I’ve had students who cannot afford to buy all their books on top of tuition, and students who used financial aid money to help their parents avoid being evicted. They do not have it easy.

The media narrative which portrays this current generation as a bunch of weak, feckless whiners is slanderous and wrong, based on cherry-picked anecdotes, incidents taken out of context, and a willingness to forget that at 18 to 22 years old, we were all dumber, more impulsive, and more self-centered than we are now.

Resist that narrative.

Of course a rising number of college students are going to be asking for trigger warnings: we’re all aware the term exists now in a way that we weren’t just a few years ago. That is not, in and of itself, evidence of a problem. When students advocate for each other and themselves, that is a good thing. That is part of what we are teaching them to do as college students. And when they are advocating for each other out of kindness, out of a desire to help those who have been hurt and are hurting, they do not deserve to be met with anger and public shaming.

Surely as professors and academic professionals, we have the intelligence and the wherewithal to marshal reasonable cases for our own positions or for compromise, should students’ requests go beyond the bounds of what is sensible?

As you can see from the comments I’ve included throughout this post, taken from the comments section or Facebook comments of articles I’ve linked throughout, the discourse surrounding this issue is not just heated, it is full of white-hot anger and dehumanizing rhetoric. Our students — all of them, in broad strokes — are being viciously belittled over what ultimately amounts to very little. Is this what we want?

I don’t know if that’s what the University of Chicago wanted. It’s what they got.

There are a number of ways we could define the terms the University of Chicago used in its letter. But I don’t know whether Jay Ellison meant “safe spaces” to refer to the imagined safe spaces of the media narrative, or the actual safe spaces that he himself apparently helps create. I don’t know if the University of Chicago is taking its definition of a “trigger warning” from psychologists, bloggers, or Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

I don’t know because, in their rush to be seen rushing to the defense of that frail fair lady, free speech, in her ivory tower, they didn’t bother to tell us how they were defining the terms of their argument. Without that, their letter about “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” can mean whatever we want it to — which means it ultimately doesn’t mean much at of anything at all.

Update:

Over the weekend, I heard a radio interview on NPR with a University of Chicago law professor, who tried to a) throw Dean Jay Ellison under the bus, and b) tried to argue that the letter had been “misinterpreted.”

Pro tip #1: if you don’t want to be misinterpreted, be specific.

Pro tip #2: if you’re going to send out a letter to all of the entering freshmen at your university maybe have a few people look it over before you mail it out.

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