UVenus Responds:

U Chicago's "We Don't Do 'Safe Spaces' Or 'Trigger Warnings.'"

September 1, 2016

UChicago To Freshmen: We Don't Do 'Safe Spaces' Or 'Trigger Warnings'

A letter recently sent by the University of Chicago to incoming freshman notifies students that the school does not support “so-called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces.’” The note has prompted vigorous debate among students, alumni and outside observers.

In the first of our new series, University of Venus Responds, our contributors give their perspective on this controversy.

Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada

I explain in the first paragraph of my syllabus that the course will discuss controversial or provocative subject matter. I also include points about the importance of a collegial environment for discussion, and that this works all ways--student to student and between me and my students. I do give trigger warnings. I know that my students appreciate it, and occasionally students might contact me about a video clip or reading that has affected them. The discussion about trigger warnings has become controversial, when the actual act of informing your students about course materials is an easy one. If it’s appropriate, I will also let my students know that I am a survivor and I understand that some topics are triggers for recent or old wounds.

Leanne Doherty, Simmons College, Boston, MA, USA

The definitions of free speech, trigger warnings, and safe spaces have all become one. Some language is protected, some language is hate speech, etc. What I find with students today is that there is an overwhelming demand for validation of feelings - charges of “gaslighting” are common. Finding the balance between creating an environment where everyone can learn (what I consider to be an important part of an inclusive classroom) and making sure that critical thinking, debate, and dissent can occur is getting more difficult.

Gwendolyn Beetham, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA

Like Janni, I also include a disclaimer in my syllabus about the nature of the course, as well as points about providing a collegial environment. In discussions with students about what this all actually means - which take place throughout the semester - I also note that some of the topics discussed will provoke discomfort, and that this is okay, and even welcome, in a course that seeks to examine the workings of gender, race, and class in society. At the same time, I stress the importance of recognizing that we are in a shared space, where multiple people will be dealing with different reactions to the materials, as they are coming from different perspectives, and that we need to make space for all of these varied perspectives. In addition, I offer a list of resources for self-care outside of the classroom.

And, as Leanne notes, the concept of trigger warnings and safe spaces have been blended together. It is important to note that trigger warnings originated online in the feminist blogosphere where, as Daniel E. Solís y Martínez notes on the blog Black Girl Dangerous:

[t]hese warnings were meant to shift power back to people with traumas so they could decide the terms under which they would engage with their triggers. Taking [trigger warnings] offline was meant to provide survivors of trauma the space they need to

care for themselves in face-to-face interactions as well.

Because (most) classroom interactions take place face-to-face rather than online, the original intent of the trigger warning becomes complicated, since the individualized way that we consume the internet does not translate into the classroom setting. In other words, when used in the classroom, triggers warnings can lead to an individualistic approach to trauma, which centers or privileges some trauma above others. For me, this is why honest and ongoing discussion on discomfort in the classroom, as well as the offering of resources to deal with trauma outside of the classroom, is extremely important.

Bonnie Stewart, University of Prince Edward Island, Canada

I teach teachers, both pre-service and practicing, so in my classes trigger warnings are partially a meta-conversation. It’s important for educators to have the opportunity to think about the content they teach from this perspective - it raises questions of who our dominant narratives serve and erase, and whose identities and stories are made welcome in classrooms.

I do a fair amount of work to try to introduce conceptual tools for thinking about identity and social positioning and power before we launch into conversations about trigger warnings and safe spaces, to scaffold shared language and make the discussions more productive for everyone involved. Not necessarily “safe,” per se - I can’t promise learners that they will feel entirely safe in these conversations. But I can explicitly outline a structural perspective on a pluralistic society, tie it to the mandate of public education, and then gently begin to unpack some of the respectability politics that reinforce logics of dominance within schools and society more broadly. I also address openly that these conversations can be destabilizing - my own meta-trigger warning, I guess - particularly for those of us who’ve been served by the existing power structure much of our lives. I use the concept of intersectionality to help learners analyze position and power and contextuality, rather than simple identity markers.

A. S. CohenMiller, Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Education, Republic of Kazakhstan

There are some very important aspects that have been brought up such as regarding terminology and the intention of providing safe learning spaces. For those of us who have been, and are, disproportionately affected by violence and discrimination (or whose families have been targets of such behaviors/attacks), it is essential to create a space for teaching and learning which supports as many people as possible. Following in that regard, I recall a technique from teaching in middle school and one utilized in a PhD course I once took as well, where the students were responsible to collectively develop guidelines for behavior. While not specifically addressing the concept of trigger warnings, the overall framework can be applied as time and time again, what emerges in a space that allows for respectful interaction between individuals.

Do you use trigger warnings in the classroom? Why or why not? Join the discussion below or tweet us @UVenus.


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