Thanks to Kelley Woods-Johnson for inspiring this post.
“Safe space” and “trigger warning” have become loaded terms over the past several months, particularly after the Dean of Students at the University of Chicago sent a letter informing incoming freshmen that the university would not permit the installation of safe spaces in its classrooms. The faculty of the university responded with a letter of their own, accusing the Dean of stripping students of their right to make demands about their own education. As an instructor in the psychology department and student in a mental health-focused field, I have been asked many times about my opinion on safe spaces and trigger warning. My response is typically that these terms are more nuanced than they may seem, and how one interprets their meaning has a lot to do with the opinions one forms about them.
The Dean’s letter characterizes safe spaces as walled-off anti-intellectual realms where students are “safe” to remain entrenched in their own perceptions and opinions without being challenged or exposed to new points of view. From this perspective, I can understand the outrage and protective response from the faculty, who clearly believe (as I do) that students should seize the opportunity in college to explore novel ideas in the pursuit of developing their own independent self-concepts. Furthermore, the faculty and I share the opinion that an atmosphere of mutual respect is an essential ingredient for preserving classroom spaces in which truly free–and safe–exchange of ideas may occur. In my view, then, a “safe space” is defined as one in which students feel comfortable voicing their opinions and, in exchange, agree to be open to and respectful of the potentially opposing opinions of others. It sets up the foundation that the classroom is not a place to be intimidated or harassed, but a place in which one can seek to learn about new, important and meaningful experiences and ideas.
Naturally, there will always be a “counselor” or “therapist” side to me, and it occasionally wars with the “instructor” side of me when it comes to issues like these. The former side feels concern for students who may have experienced trauma that prevents them from approaching these topics with open eyes. In trying to be fair to these students, I see the need for “trigger warnings” in highly specified situations. The latter side, then, tries to include such warnings as needed while informing students about the purpose of the potentially triggering material and encouraging them to see it for its educational merit. I strive to have a clear purpose for everything I show and to not shy away from controversial or probing questions. I pride myself on not letting my students “shy away” from critical thinking opportunities.
With a foundation of mutual respect, the appropriate use of warnings about potentially triggering content, and the establishment of a “safe space” as defined and agreed upon by all participants, I believe that we can move toward the use of “brave spaces” in our classrooms. In my view, the construction of a successful “safe space” naturally leads to the emergence of a “brave space,” in which students and instructor share ideas and together shape their understanding of the curriculum. In a “brave space,” students can fully identify with the topics of discussion and discover their relevance and value. It is a “brave space” not only in terms of the flow of ideas but also in building a sense of trust, such that students are free to question the material and instructors are free to ask students to engage more fully with the material and approach higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy in working with it.
In closing, I have a few ideas about how I would create a “successful safe space”:
- Negotiate the space cooperatively with students. Consider the message conveyed by an instructor independently establishing a safe space; although it may seem harmless and natural, it could also convey a message steeped in privilege and set up the belief that student voices don’t matter in your classroom. Instead, seek their feedback about what kind of space would be beneficial to them, and keep the conversation going throughout the semester so that students who come into contact with unexpectedly triggering material can speak up about their concerns. Along with this, send a clear message that students are welcome to confide in you if they have reservations about the course and how their experiences might negatively impact what they are able to get out of the course. If possible, seek opportunities for compromise rather than defaulting to the option that students who are worried about being triggered can just be exempt.
- Show, not tell. Often, syllabi convey that instructors expect respect and participation from students with few overt statements about what students can expect from the instructor in return. Model mutual respect by using preferred pronouns, responding promptly to student questions (even if a little outside research is needed), and adhering to stated office hour schedules.
- A little disclosure goes a long way. In clinical psychology, some believe in the sparing use of self-disclosure as a method for building rapport with clients. This could also be useful in the classroom. If you have an opinion on a controversial topic, feel free to share it, as long as you have already established the purpose of the discussion and your openness to disagreement. If used tactfully, this technique can help “humanize” you to students and get them to open up.
- When in doubt, use a “trigger warning.” I would never use a “trigger warning” to, say, open a discussion of the role of implicit bias in police brutality. This topic could be triggering, but in my view, its importance in our current political climate and impact on less privileged communities outweighs any potential (and valuable) discomfort experienced by my students in discussing it. However, I would consider warning students who may have experienced racially-motivated violence if I were going to show a video clip that depicts police brutality against a person of color. My style would be to convey the importance and purpose of the clip and prepare students for what they are about to see, and let them know that I and the rest of the class will not think negatively of them or punish them if they become overwhelmed and need to step out. To avoid singling anyone out, I might frame this as “anyone is free to use the restroom at any time.”
This list is not exhaustive, and I hope it promotes some constructive discussion at our brown bag this week. My overall message and point in writing this post, however, is to ask you to reconsider your perception of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” and think about whether they could be useful to you.