I think safe spaces are misnamed. I think we should rename them “Giving Us A Break from Dumb Questions Space.” That’s it. Yes, “there are no dumb questions.” But we all know that’s bull crap to some degree: there are questions that drag down both the pace and discussion of information exchange. Safe spaces are places where students from similar backgrounds facing similar experiences with alienation or oppression from majority culture can be with people who get it instead of *always, perpetually* having to be with people who don’t get it and who ask dumb questions or require explanations about. Isn’t it nice, sometimes, to be with a group of people with whom you don’t have explain yourself? Now and then? We’re not talking all the time. We’re talking about now and then. One of the nice things about the Lusk Center programming at USC is that we can often just sit around and assume everybody knows how to read applied micro and relatively advanced econometrics. We can start further ahead than if we have to bring others up to speed. See? Nothing sinister about any of it. I assume that my black students at USC–granted that I generally have 1 in every 50 person class–want to hang out with other black students now and then without the rest of us horning in. Is that really so wrong? The College Republicans have private meetings–not every meeting is an open debate with everybody democratically voicing their opinion. No, I don’t think those students are sinister, either. I think they want a place where they can discuss their ideas uninterrupted by newbies and challengers. Bringing along newbies and debating challengers are things that can–and do–happen in other contexts throughout the university. Some advanced courses have prereqs so that you don’t spend all your time catching up people who don’t know the basics.
These moments of sharing and idea development are important to any subgroup with shared identities, value systems, or intellectual projects. It is not, in other words, a big deal, and the people making it into a big deal need to get a real hobby.
Trigger warnings strike me as simple good pedagogy. Anybody who teaches on emotionally difficult subjects knows that emotions play a role, but you have to let students manage themselves and their own comfort levels if they are going to participate or learn at all. And students don’t need to be in class for every discussion. To wit: those of us who teach end-of-life decision-making know–if we are any good at our jobs–that in any given class, there may a student or two for whom this discussion is not abstract. Plenty of young students are fortunate enough to still have their parents; others have watched parents or other loved ones struggle with debilitating conditions or suffer at the end of life. I used to assume that students knew me well enough that I would be cool if they needed to leave a class discussion if it was getting too emotional for them. I learned not to do that. I had assumed it was common sense. It’s not; lots of professors might sanction such behavior. Me? There are lots of places to learn. I’m thrilled to have people with a variety of experiences in the class. But not if their heart is breaking and their colleagues’ grappling with the ideas in the abstract hurts them more. How many of us can learn effectively when all we are trying to do is not cry in front of our peers? Maybe a student *is* ready to have that discussion, and they want to talk about it. Or they think they are, but about halfway through, they find it tough going and need to head out.
Why not just give students the information and freedom to take care of themselves? Yes, they might miss an important opportunity to discuss difficult concepts, but maybe they will take up the reading later, and maybe they know what they need to know already, having learned experientially. Maybe they will talk about the ideas later with a friend in the class they trust. It’s THEIR education, not mine. And while it is nice if a student wants to stay in and speak to others from their experiences, that’s a choice they should make, not me, and they aren’t here to be everybody’s educator. That’s what I get paid for.
These things are true for LOTS of things across the political spectrum. Anybody who sneers at trigger warnings has never looked into the devastated face of a young woman or man in an undergraduate class, trapped in their seat, while everybody else talks about violence like it’s a theoretical concept.
And anybody who thinks this is all just students on the left has never led a discussion about Israel-Palestine. You are very likely, in a cosmopolitan research university like mine, to have students sitting in the *same class* who have had family members die on either or both sides of the conflict. People, no matter what their politics, feel pain, and there are lots of ways of working through it, and it’s wrong for an instructor to be indifferent to the struggles or sorrows (or joys and triumphs) of people sitting in that class, no matter what side they espouse.
As to the idea that we should teach ‘grit’ and whatever, please. Life teaches grit. Life doesn’t magically stop just because a person has gone to college, no matter what FoxNews tells everybody who never went to college. People who go to college still have car accidents, brain cancer, siblings with leukemia, crushing loads of student debt, and lots and lots of other things happen to them. If a student has something happen where the trigger warning is useful, they have coped already. The fact that the student is still upright, going to class, trying to make things work after something devastating happened to them speaks enough to their character. That’s plenty tough enough without the rest of us making it tougher through our indifference or cluelessness.
IOW, I am not a drill sergeant or a sadistic PE teacher, and I am training people to think from many different angles. That’s enough for one course without me assuming I need to be nasty to somebody to build their character.