• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


"Life Doesn't Have Safe Spaces"... Bulls__t.

College campuses are very safe spaces for some.

August 28, 2016



When it comes to the campus debate on the use of "safe spaces," is there a more ridiculous statement than “life doesn’t have safe spaces”?

My experience is that life provides ample opportunity for many of us to retreat to a safe space.

“Your home is your castle,” is the hoariest cliché in the book.

The teachers’ lounge at a high school is a safe space to vent about students. AA meetings are safe spaces for addicts. Fraternities and sororities are safe spaces (for members). Churches are safe spaces.

Private clubs are safe spaces, often zealously defended from intrusion, as Augusta National Golf Club kept their members safe from the presence of women all the way up until 2012.

Supporters of Donald Trump explicitly say how they appreciate that his rallies make it safe to say things as they “really are,” which they’re not allowed to do in their everyday lives anymore.

Safe space.

Who among us doesn’t appreciate the opportunity to escape to a space that allows us to rest and recuperate from the challenges of life, to be ourselves, to know that we are accepted by those we are with?

I think of  safe spaces as something like the sideline of a football game, a place you get to go and catch your breath surrounded by your teammates before getting back into the fray.

It seems to me that much of the controversy over campus “safe spaces,” hinges on a difference in viewpoint. Rather than seeing safe spaces as a sideline, or temporary respite, some believe that activists are attempting to make the entire campus a safe space for students.

I am not aware of where this is happening. Even at Oberlin, the most activist students are not demanding this. A New York Times op-ed by Judith Shulevitz that is often cited as containing the best examples of students wanting to “pad every corner of the campus” actually contains no evidence of this, as each example of students creating safe spaces refers to very specific and limited corners of campus.

There is, however, a group that traditionally has very much experienced campus as a “safe space,” tenured faculty.

Obviously, this has not been true of all faculty. Tenured academics who are women or people of color often find that for them, the safety of tenure does not fully extend.

And for decades now, conservatives have been claiming that campuses are not sufficiently safe spaces for them to fully air their views.

But by and large, provided you’re tenured faculty, campus is a pretty safe space, and yet it’s the faculty who experience the greatest degree of safety who seem most bothered by incidents that seem to threaten their haven.

Those who seem quickest to declare there are “no safe spaces,” likely have never felt unsafe.

On the other hand, students who seem most strident in demanding safety, may never have experienced it.

The “Halloween costume” incident at Yale last year which led to a “house master” and tenured faculty member being publicly yelled at by a student is often cited as a cause for deep concern.

Even at Yale! Students losing their shit at a professor! Quelle horror!

The concern over this incident seems to overlook the fact that in the end, while the faculty couple stepped down as masters, no one was fired from a tenured position. I believe many would also like to also ignore that the incident comes with the additional context that Yale has what many of their own faculty believe to be a decades-long unaddressed climate of hostility to minority and female scholars and students. That student shouting was a symptom of a much deeper disease on the Yale campus that had nothing to do with millennial coddling.

That students believe places that have promoted themselves as havens for learning may be interested in providing the resources that will indeed make learning possible seems fairly unexceptional.

And as I see the reactions of the tenured faculty who seem most exercised over the debate over “safe spaces,” I cannot help but think when it comes to academic freedom, we are in a “for me, but not for thee” situation.

I would be curious to see how many of these people believe that the principles of academic freedom extend to students. In my view, how could they not? What’s the point of these values if we don’t all get to put them into practice?

For sure, to respect the academic freedom of students means the authority of professors will, on occasion, be challenged. My understanding is that this is what tenure is for.

Tenure isn’t a magical shield that prevents one’s point of view from being questioned. It’s protection so that when challenges come, you can’t be summarily dismissed from the arena.

I can’t help but note the irony that many of the tenured faculty who object to even debating campus safe spaces are doing so primarily because of how it makes them “feel,” as supposed guardians of free inquiry.

Though, maybe I should be more understanding as to the plight of this particular category of tenured folks. It’s true that in recent years, more threats to the rights and privileges of the tenured have arisen. Adjunctification has shrunk the proportions of tenured faculty at many institutions. Administrations have consolidated power and sought to constrain faculty autonomy. Politicians have squeezed budgets, and in the case of Wisconsin, redefined tenure itself.

So when students challenge faculty hegemony in these areas, I can understand how it might cause some to feel additionally besieged.

But in identifying the actual forces that are working to erode the safety of tenure – primarily the corporatized university and the type of administration this brings – I believe tenured faculty have common cause with students who want safe spaces. Students aren't the enemy here, folks. The forces that put you in antagonism with students are.

As faculty fear the disappearance of their safe spaces, they’re illustrating how, more than ever, we all need them.




Tomorrow: Trigger warnings. Get psyched!


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