Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Educating for Whom

Last week, the University of Chicago's Dean of Students published an open letter to its student body informing them that the institution's administration did not "approve" of trigger warnings and that the university was not meant to be a safe space.

  1. The link to the first article I saw about UC's statement appears in this tweet below.

  2. I taught a new course this summer, "Equity and Justice in U.S. Higher Education." During the first class, I used an activity that I have done with over a dozen student groups, faculty, and administrators. The class was asked to have as many 1:1 conversations as they could within the time allotted about a number of topics. One of the prompts was to list 10 things that "every student should experience" during their time in college. One of the things that has come up time and again in every group with whom I've done this activity -- including this class of 10 doctoral and master's students in higher education, public administration, and American cultural studies -- was that every student should experience "challenge."
  3. Of the pairs who had answered this question during this activity, all except one had included "challenge" on their list of top 10 things that EVERY student SHOULD experience in college. I asked if there was common agreement with that across the class, so as to offer a chance to weigh in for those who hadn't gotten to that question in their conversations. Not a single person disagreed and a couple emphasized how vita it was given "students'" limited exposure to differing viewpoints and beliefs that were ill-informed, suffering from breadth of perspectives. I paused for a moment to listen to the screaming that was happening in my head as I listened. I wanted to take a beat to figure out why I was responding as I was. When I did, I shared with the class that I was not sure I agreed with them. I asked them to consider why that might be. Most looked at me a little befuddled, wondering what was wrong with that response. I asked them to close their eyes for a few moments or whatever strategy would allow them to connect to their imagination and inner vision. I then asked my class to imagine in their mind the student that they pictured was in such need of being challenged.
  4. I asked them to note what race that student was. What was their gender? What was their ability status? What religion did they practice? Where in the state or the country were they from? How old were they? What about their sexuality? Other social identities?

  5. As I asked these questions, one of the students realized where I was going. Some of the others began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. Others were still unsure where we were headed. I asked my class to return to the shared space of our classroom from where they had allowed their minds to go. I asked them to share, if they were willing, the social identities of the student they had pictured in their minds. Every single student, save one, shared that the student they had pictured was White (the class was comprised of nearly all White students except one), cisgender and most had pictured a woman, currently able-bodied, Christian, from a small town in Ohio, heterosexual, and came to college straight out of high school. Only one had pictured a racially minoritized student, a Black cisgender man from an urban area, but like the students the others in class had pictured otherwise. I told them that this might be okay if that was who most of our students were in college. However, as data from the National Center for Education Statistics illustrates (see next slide), White cisgender temporarily able-bodied Christian men are not the majority of students in college and White cisgender temporarily able-bodied Christian women are about to be outnumbered as well. In some institutions, like community colleges and for-profit institutions, these populations are already numerical minorities, outnumbered by older adult students and racially minoritized people who grew up in working class households.
  6. For most of my students -- and I would wager for most of those who respond that "every" college student "should" experience "challenge" while they are in college -- this is the student they have in mind: Someone with a great deal of relative social privilege and limited exposure to those with differing perspectives, backgrounds, and beliefs. Someone perhaps who may be the kind of student that @MaraWilson was reacting to in Mara's tweet here:
  7. Trouble is that these are not the only students on our campuses. I asked my class that day, as we prepared to spend the rest of the summer reading and discussing equity and justice in U.S. higher education, to consider education for whom? Who is college meant to educate? If all our efforts are spent on those quickly becoming the numerical minority -- but for whom college was originally designed and for whom it is still structured and organized -- we are not providing a socially just educational experience. I would like to hope that UC's Dean of Students' biggest error was that he failed to consider the educational needs and backgrounds of *all* UC students, not just the ones it historically was designed to teach.
  8. Indeed, college should not be a bastion of safety from ideas that someone finds uncomfortable or disagreeable. We who work in higher education would do well to keep in mind that not all those who matriculate to our classes, residence halls, and campus greens lack exposure to difference. In fact, some of our students have an acute awareness of difference and often have been at the wrong end of assumptions of their failure, immorality, and deficiency for the very differences that their identities and experiences represent: students who are racially minoritized, queer, transgender, dis/Abled, raised in poverty, and/or have life experiences beyond the imagined shelter of a two-parent (White) suburban home (e.g., sexual assault and rape, suicide ideation and survival, drug and alcohol abuse, enlistment and combat, and others). I spent four summers, from 2012 to 2015, teaching a summer class in BGSU's President's Leadership Academy on diversity and leadership to about 22-24 entering first-year students straight out of high school who were of varied race, sexuality, gender and gender identity, social class, and dis/Ability. Every summer, these students shared experiences that were evidence to me that they were not the ones who *needed* to be "challenged" with "difference." As a matter of fact, they were likely to be the ones whose differences were going to be the fodder for instructors and staff to use to "educate" the imagined every-student and then what happens to *their* education? Whose learning matters? Doesn't every student deserve to *learn* the tools they need to advance their lives and that of their community? To have a space, a moment free from the demands to be an object lesson for their peers? I appreciate what Northwestern's president says regarding this.
  9. I agree with the concern about the mixed messages that UC is sending to its students.
  10. As Tyler Kissinger tweeted, apparently not all debates are welcomed on campus and not all spaces are valid theaters for the performance of students' right to learn (lernfreiheit) through igniting debate and protest. Hmm....
  11. My final point is about content and trigger warnings (CW/TW) and what they actually are meant to do. There are some faculty who are approaching this as an academic freedom issue - their academic freedom to teach (lehrfreiheit). Although that is true, that is a narrow and incomplete picture of academic freedom. As this developed in the mid-19th century German university, *both* faculty and students were seen to have freedoms in the academy that were best reflected through mutual respect, understanding, and collaboration. The students' right to learn (lernfreiheit) was not secondary to faculty members' right to teach as they saw fit. Using them *enhances* the ability of students to exercise their right to learn free from psychological trauma and assault. I appreciate @RoyalHoeliness point on this:
  12. So, let's get it together - here's what TWs actually do. Thanks John W. Lowery (@drjwlowery):
  13. And, here's an example of a well-developed TW/CW, with much appreciation to Twitter user, Bailey (@THE_AUTHOR_)
  14. If somehow you're still unconvinced, then I'll reiterate my call to read this thread from @civilwarbore today about the reality of how TW/CW -- or the lack thereof -- can either support or undermine a students' right to learn. Several really poignant and necessary points were raised here through the dialogue between @civilwarbore and @studentactivism (and I jumped in late):
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