The beginning of this new school year brought a renewed controversy over the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses. Dr. John Ellison, the Dean of Students at The College at the University of Chicago, sent a letter to students detailing the institution’s embrace of inquiry and academic freedom. His letter made clear that the use of trigger warnings and “intellectual safe spaces” was in direct conflict with these values, and would not be used. Chicago faculty, more than 150 of them to be exact, seemed to disagree. In a letter of their own, published in the school newspaper, the faculty asserted that, whether they personally agreed with the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces, students’ right to request and utilize these should be recognized and valued:
“The right to speak up and to make demands is at the very heart of academic freedom and freedom of expression generally. We deplore any atmosphere of harassment and threat. For just that reason, we encourage the Class of 2020 to speak up loudly and fearlessly.”
What can look like frustrating academic banter on the surface (especially if you discovered most of it on social media platforms, as I originally did), has actually turned into an excellent case study in the tension between learning and learning in the context of our lives and society. The Dean proposes learning as context-free, while the faculty counter with an acknowledgement of the context of safe spaces and the ongoing potential for their use today. In a strange catch-22, the Dean finds himself in the middle of an argument for the practice of free expression and inquiry, while the faculty suggest that argument must include the student perspectives he argues against. Brian Arao & Kristi Clemens set up and explore this tension in a practical way in their article “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces.”
I have experienced many a somewhat-disastrous residence life diversity training before, in which feelings were hurt, things were taken personally, and everybody left frustrated, despite extensive discussion and agreement on ground rules. The definitions Arao & Clemens explored of safe spaces left me feeling similarly to those failed training sessions – like students never held up their end of the bargain, “conflat[ing] safety with comfort,” at the expense of a true opportunity to learn with their peers. As I continued re-reading (I’ve encountered this piece often before), I was reminded of my favorite quote, and subsequently reminded to challenge my initial frustrations with my students:
“Learning necessarily invokes not merely risk, but the pain of giving up a former condition in favour of a new way of seeing things.” -Boostrum, in Arao & Clemens
I wholeheartedly embrace Boostrum’s description of learning, so safe spaces never came with confused intent for me, even as trainings ended from time to time with the sense of meaninglessness described above. I did this without considering Arao & Clemens’s question of whether or not I adequately and honestly prepared students to be challenged to learn in this way, forgetting their context, much like the Dean.
While brave spaces will incur just as much cynicism from outsiders looking in, I “favour” Arao & Clemens’s reframing of the safe space. The word “brave” invites students to aspire to something they expect will be hard. Our cultural association with bravery suggests to do so would be honorable. Rather than prepare the space for them, as the word safe passively suggests, brave challenges them to prepare themselves (and me to do the same). I would only add one ground rule to the list provided. It will seem to contradict #3: Challenge by Choice, but I think it’s another illustration of the natural tensions that will accompany all difficult conversations (basically, all learning). #6: Be all in. In my experience, when students commit to showing up and being all in, they’re investing in themselves and, possibly more importantly in conversations around diversity and social justice, each other. Whether it’s active listening, sharing their stories, or participating in activities, the one thing I’ve always found to create a common sense of identity in these places where that’s the last thing expected is when people participating invest and be all in.
For me, my approach to pedagogy is to create brave spaces where students can even push themselves to challenge me. It is essential to our group formation of understanding. I think brave spaces allows me and my students to carve out a space where free speech and expression can live with mutual respect, the ability to provide trigger warnings without assuming they dismiss learning, and the ability for students to take on the pain of considering and understanding new points of view without that pain being so much that those new visions cannot be seen.