Friday, September 2

Safe spaces and trigger warnings: Growing up is hard

The University of Chicago really stepped into the maelstrom of public opinion with its letter about safe spaces and trigger warnings. For those of you who do not follow the goings on of academia, well, good for you: you have better things to do with your time. For those of us who have some peripheral awareness, such eruptions of angst and outrage can be quite informative and often entertaining.

I should note that I’m a former academic. I taught literature, among many other things. I introduced my students to a range of novels that were typically among those in college curricula. My college was a small private institution. Some students came from a very sheltered background; others were far more worldly than many on the faculty cared to imagine or know.

I remember teaching The Color Purple and a female student commenting that she wished we’d warned them about a particular portion of the text. I’d read the book several times and was usually pretty good at trying to read from the perspective of my students, but I’d miss that or forgotten about it or just hadn’t thought it warranted any specific note. I registered my surprise and acknowledged her comment. She wasn’t mad. She was just surprised by it and wasn’t sure how she was supposed to respond. So we talked through that. I learned something as did my students. What we learned was not mutually exclusive.

After that incident I might warn students about “earthy language” or some scenes that might make them a bit uncomfortable. I’d always say that I hoped they could step back from their immediate emotions to ask why the author wrote that incident or using that language, and to consider the time and place in which the author was writing as well as the possible purpose for that particular work. In other words, I asked them to contextualize what they were reading but also to examine carefully what they were feeling and thinking and why.

There were books I chose not to teach again simply because it seemed clear the work was too “difficult” for most students. It’s not like I didn’t have options. I didn’t think then that I was caving to students’ need for any kind of safe space, though I suspect I was striving to stay clear of the administrative spotlight. But, again, because I had choices, I had plenty of options. There were times I might tell students that I used to teach a particular book and explain why I chose not to teach it this term. Inevitably a good number of students would go find copies of that book to read on their own. Some would question why I no longer taught it—and pose those questions in class. Heh heh.

And we would always talk about why some language, some scenes, some plot points, some themes were uncomfortable or difficult or offensive to some, and we would honor that. In some ways, maybe, because of those conversations, I was better able to teach them to respect the ideas and perspective of others. I can’t be sure of that.

The University of Chicago letter to its freshmen was published in the August 25 edition of the Chicago Tribune. In the letter the Dean of Students states “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings,' we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Welcome to the world.

Remember when Howard Stern was labeled a “shock jock” and people wanted him off the radio? His response was, essentially, “If you don’t like what you hear, change the station and don’t listen.”

The Tribune also offered some definitions for those left scratching their heads over these terms: “Trigger warnings — used to alert students of sensitive material that might be uncomfortable, offensive or traumatic to them, such as discussions about race and sexual assault — and safe spaces, designed to shelter students from certain speakers and topics, have become more common and controversial on campuses across the country.” Professors have the option, of course, of including trigger warnings in their classes which, based on my limited experience, has some value. At the same time, I’d want to be sure professors clarify the reason for the text(s) that seems to prompt said trigger warnings.

Now the University of Chicago letter has prompted responses, as you might well imagine. Some point to the students’ needs; others point to students’ self-perceptions of fragility; others point to how easily students misunderstand, confuse, or twist words.

In June 2015, Judith Shulevitz wrote “In College and Hiding from Scaring Ideas.” It’s a very good piece. Well, I enjoyed it but I can imagine why some students might find it less than appealing.

TIME published an opinion piece by RaeAnn Pickett in which she asserts “Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces Are Necessary” because students should have an idea of what they’re getting into; without trigger warnings and safe spaces, the onus is on the students “to leave or endure the situation.” Yes. She spoke of a time during which she avoided certain situations to reduce the lack of safety she felt. The onus was on her to pay attention and make as informed a decision as possible.

The Atlantic invited people to respond to the University of Chicago letter and I was pleasantly surprised that most of the responses were thoughtful and well-considered, the majority lacking what is so often the typical hysteria or intellectual condescension in such responses.

I found myself agreeing with elements of both sides of the discussion and therein lies the complexity of this issue. The University of Chicago doesn’t say it is banning trigger warning and safe spaces, but it is saying that if the university chooses to invite a potentially controversial speaker, they won’t cancel that speaker if a bunch of students claim to be offended or scared or whatever. They will, in effect (and I’m surmising here) suggest the students not go to the event.

If students have legitimate reasons they are willing to share with a professor about why a text of any sort makes them feel unsafe or uncomfortable, I agree that student’s concerns should be honored to the best of the professor’s ability. But there is the other extreme in the possibility of a professor having to be aware of every potential shadow and phrase that might cause a student to feel a bit uncomfortable or a bit unsafe.

Then today I read a piece by a high school English teacher who had some parents come after him because he was teaching Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a deeply provocative and disturbing text meant to be provocative and disturbing for some very good reasons. The teacher wrote a letter in defense of his choice. His concluding sentence reads thusly: “I would add only that one of the functions of literature is to shed light into the corners of our world, even if what we find there is unpleasant.”

Wouldn’t it be quite amazing if instead of responding emotionally to what we think someone might have said, we first check our facts and then spent even a few minutes examining why we’re responding the way we are. And then, even as we marshal our arguments for or against, we think about what we want the outcome to be: what do we want to happen?
Sometime later I had a student tell me her parents didn’t want her to read Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This was a college student; I reminded her she was of age and could make her own decisions. She sighed and said that since she still lived at home it just wasn’t worth the aggravation. Then she confessed she’d already finished reading the book anyway and precisely because her parents didn’t want her to read it. When I asked her why she told me about the whole incident anyway since it was moot and she’d already read the book, she told me she was hoping I could help her broach the subject of her parents’ discomfort with the book. I suspected I already knew but I suggested she invite her parents to come to campus. We’d meet somewhere neutral—not my office—and have a chat. I was right about their concerns. I heard them out. They heard me out. They acknowledged that having her at home gave them the opportunity to balance anything “in the world” that was problematic to them but they also noted that they’d had certain expectations of to what their daughter might or might not be exposed given the reputation of the school.

That’s when those labels of “liberal” and “conservative,” “religious” and “Christian” come back to bite us. Because we cannot ever predict how people interpret those terms, what people read as the subtext of an organization’s reputation.

At the end of the day, I think much of the noise about the University of Chicago letter is a result of people failing to read the letter themselves and relying on second, third, and even fourth parties to get their information. The chair of the Committee on Freedom of Expression stated “While the university doesn't support, require or encourage trigger warnings, it does not prohibit them. . . . Professors are still free to alert students to certain material if they choose to do so.”

That’s what academic freedom, freedom of speech, critical thinking, and growing up are all about.