One Issue, Multiple Views:
Trigger warnings and safe spaces have made headlines in recent years and become hot topics on college campuses nationwide. While “safe spaces” once referred mostly to centers for marginalized groups, the term has broadened to become a pivot point for fierce debate on academic freedom and the means of creating vibrant, inclusive intellectual communities.
What does it mean to create a safe space for our students, and is it a goal we should be striving toward? In 200 words or less, four Drexel University professors share their perspectives on the debate.
MESHAGAE HUNTE-BROWN, PhD
Teaching Professor of Biology
Our classrooms should be “satellite locations” of the safe space as it was originally intended, the difference being that classrooms should foster inclusivity. Both must work together to have the desired outcome: For students to be confident participants in inclusive intellectual communities, they must first have a place where they feel safe. The former can happen without the latter, but that makes building a culture of inclusivity more challenging.
I have heard it said that these issues are of less concern in STEM classrooms. However, I recall a conversation with a student who was uncomfortable with my coverage of sex determination in humans. We talked about the meaning of biological sex and I explained that the role of the class wasn’t to explore gender identity, but the effects of chromosomal behavior on biological sex.
I now fold some of that language into my courses because I would hate for a visceral response related to a personal experience or struggle to become a barrier to learning. I don’t believe my student would have felt confident approaching me, let alone in the respectful, non-combative way that they did, had I not fostered openness and inclusivity. Safe spaces are as important in STEM disciplines as in the broader community.
CHRISTINE MAGUTH NEZU, PhD, ABPP
Professor of Psychology
One initial attempt to create a safe space was reportedly conceived by a college senior who was a member of the sexual assault task force, and was concerned that a campus event had been organized to debate the topic of campus sexual assault. It was intended to give people who might find comments triggering a protected place to engage in conversation. Safe spaces now represent an expression of the conviction, prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being bombarded by discomforting or distressing viewpoints.
As a psychologist, it is easy to see why there is a strong debate about these issues. Our ethical principles require that we respect, protect, attempt to benefit, seek justice, attempt to benefit, and do no harm to our patients, students and trainees. This supports the creation of safe spaces for individuals who may be psychologically or emotionally discriminated against or victimized by public dialogue, even when not ill intended.
Our ethical principles also indicate that competency requires self-reflection and facing challenging and uncomfortable encounters as part of our professional development. This suggests that in providing a liberal arts education, we should welcome opportunities for our students to grow their capacity for critical thinking and open-mindedness. In order to do so, we should carefully weigh both concerns and continue to create safe spaces for the reason that they were intended, but reject the view that any opinion with which we disagree is immoral or unsafe.
Instructor of Communication
I like to think of college as a “Wonderland.” In other words, students should be encouraged to wonder — to ask questions, to maximize their curiosity. There will be plenty of time to follow the rules when they are entrenched in their careers. In the college classroom, students should feel safe to think out loud and challenge the norm. Within the field of communication, there are many opportunities to challenge, question and wonder. Whether it be through persuasive writing or public speaking,
the opportunities to speak up and speak out are plentiful.
I believe teachers have an obligation to encourage disruptive — even radical — thinking. They need to push students to plant their seeds of interest and let them blossom in the classroom. Students also have responsibilities when it comes to creating and nurturing safe expression. First, they must be willing to find their inner rebel and release it. Many are conditioned to just stay quiet and keep the peace. As a result, they end up stifling their sense of wonder. Secondly, students must be open to hearing opinions that they may not share. They need to respect their fellow students and their points of view.
This collaborative partnership between college students and faculty is the perfect catalyst for building a provocative but safe Wonderland.
ABIOSEH PORTER, PhD
Professor of English
Both temperamentally and professionally, I have always tried to make people feel that they are in the safest spot they can ever be if they are around me. Also, as someone who studied and has degrees in comparative literature — defined roughly as the study of literatures across borders and disciplines — I find myself almost always engaged in discussions that may be controversial to some people. I have thus made a point of making it clear to colleagues, students, and friends and foes alike that, while I don’t fool myself into thinking that there is unlimited freedom of speech, people around me should never hesitate to express themselves as freely as they possibly can. Safe spaces for me, then, are locations where people want the best ideas and most valid arguments to win.
In the classroom, for example, I make it clear to students that the validity of the positions we take, as opposed to our opinions, is what really counts. That means that there is zero tolerance for verbal or other forms of abuse during our, at times, robust discussions. One final point: I don’t believe in the weird notion that to create safe spaces is to be “politically correct.”