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Last August Jay Ellison, Dean of Students in the College at the University of Chicago, sent out a letter to the incoming class of first-year college students. “Our commitment to academic freedom,” the letter reads, “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.”

The letter, and the flurry of responses to it, placed the University of Chicago at the center of a national argument over “p.c. culture.” Several weeks later The Point invited two graduate students, Paul Cato from the Committee on Social Thought, and Theo Beers from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, to discuss the letter. Paul and Theo were chosen because both are members of the University of Chicago academic community—with responsibilities as students and teachers—and because both took clear public stances in the days following the letter’s publication. The conversation, conducted on September 22, was mediated by Point editor Anastasia Berg, who is also a graduate student at the university.

The conversation begins by considering the terms used in the letter, such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” and then opens out into a discussion of broader questions about academic freedom and what role administrators, teachers and students should play in deciding what happens in college classrooms. The remarks have been edited and condensed into three parts, which will be published over the next week. What follows is part one. Part two is available here.


Anastasia: What are safe spaces and trigger warnings, and how do you take the letter to be positioning itself in respect to them? Let’s start with trigger warnings.

Paul: Well, I have to start by pointing out the fact that most people in the country don’t know what a trigger warning or safe space is. This is something that’s academic parlance, and it’s come up within civil-rights and social-justice circles. Most people in the country, perhaps in the world, aren’t exposed to this kind of terminology. My dad is well educated, but when I showed him the letter—I was at home in DC visiting my parents—I walked upstairs, laughing, and I said, “Dad, look at this letter that the dean sent to the incoming freshmen—this is one of their first experiences of UChicago,” and he said, “Yeah, I keep hearing this talk about trigger warnings and safe spaces, but to be honest, we never talked about them back in Morehouse in the Seventies, so it’s just weird to see all this.”

The letter went viral within 24 hours of it being sent. People were putting it on Huffington Post, it was going up on all sorts of blogs and newspapers, and Northwestern had a response to it shortly thereafter… So if someone like my father is getting his understanding of what a trigger warning is from an administrator, that’s going to shape his understanding of what’s going on in colleges today.

Regarding trigger warnings, I think the term “trigger” is, ironically, triggering. It’s alarming to a lot of people, just hearing that word. It’s an allusion to violence and so forth, so some people have pointed out that they like the term “content warning” better. For me, it’s just an alert. It’s an attempt to inform individuals that a space might involve discussion of certain topics that could be damaging or alarming or harmful. And so in that way I see trigger warnings as efforts to protect wellness.

Theo: I also prefer the term content warning. One reason that I prefer “content warning” is that I think that laypeople in America would be more familiar with it, or would have an easier time understanding what it means. Everyone’s familiar with watching a news broadcast, and they’re about to show some graphic images or something, and they give you a warning, you know: If you don’t want to see this, turn off the TV or change the channel. Everyone has some level of familiarity with that.

Whereas the term “trigger warning” brings up associations of people who may actually be suffering from PTSD, which is usually not what we’re talking about in a classroom environment. Sometimes, certainly, there are students who could have PTSD-like symptoms because of something they’ve been through, but that’s not encompassing enough when we’re talking about content warnings. I might offer a content warning, in my Arabic class, if I assigned a reading that dealt with something like domestic violence or sexual abuse. Then I might just say, “There are themes of such-and-such in the following readings; gird yourself for this.”

The reason I support the letter is that the most immediate thing I see when I look at it is a university administration saying, Here are things that we’re not going to intervene in, or that we’re not going to compel in the classroom. In saying, “We don’t condone trigger warnings or safe spaces,” what I hear is “We’re not going to force the use of any of these things, or we’re not going to compel academic spaces in the university to be run in one way or another.” And I think when it’s looked at from that perspective, most faculty and graduate students who care about what happens at this university, would like this to be a place where the administration is involved as little as possible in what happens in the classroom or lecture hall. For a lot of us, the most productive, the most humane, the most respectful, and, overall, the best exchanges we have on this campus, are between students and professors, or among students. And those are conversations that are not mediated by the administration.

Paul: Theo, as far as I see it, hit the nail on the head right there when he offered that definition, but we need to broaden our understanding beyond “If it’s not PTSD, what is it?” These things can be harmful in a number of ways.

When I get into these discussions with my friends—libertarians, fundamentalists, even hardcore liberals—I’ve found that a lot of times in the eagerness to have a rational, civil discourse, there’s an expectation that personal experience and emotion be driven out of it, and I’ve found it the case that that’s not necessarily appropriate, especially when it’s a social issue such as this. No matter how we frame it, this social issue is a personal issue, and to deny its personal dimensions is to silence one form of knowledge.

Eventually, I’d love to teach a class and talk about interracial distrust, a concept taken from Danielle Allen, and in order to do that I’m going to have to read controversial books. I’m going to have to put Native Son on that syllabus—I’m going to have to put Beloved, The Bluest Eye, statements from the Klan and so on—and I want my future students to feel comfortable enough that they can take this class. It’s going to be difficult for all the different students involved, but I need to create resources and do my best to foster that sensitive environment.

Anastasia: A lot of people in the free-speech camp would say that being uncomfortable is part of learning, and the fact that you’re uncomfortable doesn’t harm you.

Theo: I don’t entirely agree with that. I think that there’s a difference between a level of discomfort that can be productive and conducive to learning, and then a kind of experience that will make someone shut down—just as a defense mechanism—which then would prohibit learning and make the situation unproductive.

It’s like in any argument: you can sense when you may be crossing that line, and where you’re going from hashing out the issues to where you’re just yelling at each other. Similarly, a heavy-handed class discussion of sexual assault—for someone in the room who has experienced that, they’re not going to be engaged. Maybe they react in such a way that they start tuning it out or going into a dissociative state, and there’s no educational defense of the conversation at that point.

Anastasia: Aside from the benefit of forewarning, some have claimed that content warnings can also alert an entire classroom to the fact that this text will be affecting different people in the room differently. The warning serves as a signal to students, saying, Do not speak in a way that assumes that no one has experienced this first hand. Think about what it would mean to be hearing what you’re saying if this were personal for you.

Paul: Yes, it invites all individuals in a room to cultivate an environment that’s based on respect. A content warning that is informative or helpful to multiple people within the room—not just those who might be triggered—I think that’s a positive.

Theo: I could see that, although one of the fundamental things a teacher should be doing is encouraging the students to take it seriously. If the professor isn’t encouraging the students to really think about what the ramifications of the ideas in a text would be, then they’re not doing their job anyway. I do see how offering content warnings could offer another level of reinforcement to that process, but I think ideally, with a good instructor, the classroom should be a space where the ideas are being taken seriously enough that people are thinking about the implications, the ramifications, how it could personally affect or collectively affect actual humans.

Anastasia: That’s a common trope: “That’s all well and good, but it’s just called good pedagogy.”

Theo: I’m not quite dismissing it at that level. I’m saying, I do acknowledge that offering a content warning could be one other very explicit way of encouraging that process. But it’s not the only way, and it’s not a stand-in for seriously engaging with texts.

Paul: It’s also just not the case that all professors have, as you call it, good pedagogy.

Anastasia: You seem to agree that content warnings in certain circumstances are legitimate and useful—the disagreement is about whether or not to make it mandatory.

Theo: Mandatory, or… encouraged. There’s a spectrum here. There’s a spectrum between “Don’t expect it here, that’s not what we do”—on one really far end—and, at the other end, “Content warnings are required to be offered by instructors when there are assigned readings or other things that deal directly with the following list of subjects.” Something in between would be, for example, having a website that offers resources, or having optional but encouraged training of all instructors on how to deal with sensitive issues. I might be open to something in the middle. I just don’t trust university administrators, and that’s part of where I’m coming from.

Anastasia: But why not make them mandatory? Why is the independence you insist on so important?

Theo: In a word, the corporatization of the American university, which to my mind has to be the worst thing on the horizon for all of us. Preserving faculty independence is one of the only things that we can do to resist the corporatization of the American university. It would be best if this could be left up to the good judgment of faculty and instructors.

When the administration gets involved with this, they might hire a consulting firm or try to come up with a list of topics for which content warnings are going to be either encouraged or mandatory. But it would be difficult to come up with a truly comprehensive set of issues where you would want to either encourage or mandate the use of content warnings. I’m in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, which happens to be in a field where a lot of people are trying to navigate really sensitive personal, social and political issues. A lot of my students and colleagues are Arab, a lot are Jewish; some are Muslim; some are ardent supporters of the Israeli cause and the settlement project. These are things that we are always negotiating in my field. And sometimes it does become a problem if someone at a department event, for example, making conversation in Arabic says something that someone else thinks is anti-Semitic. We’ve had cases where the Bias Response Team was contacted. But one thing that I’ve found over the years is that it’s not easy to know ahead of time what’s going to be a problem.

Anastasia: But what would be the downside of trying to develop a policy—let’s say one that included faculty input—to address these issues?

Theo: For one thing, the teacher would be liable, potentially, if a student were to complain to the administration that they should have known that a topic would be a real problem for them. And once that door is open to a lecturer or a professor facing administrative sanction for failing to do one of those things, I think it could have the opposite of the intended effect, in letting a different kind of nervousness into the classroom and adding a different kind of toxin to the dialogue, both among students and between students and instructors.

Anastasia: So content warnings can promote learning but we should leave the concrete practical steps to faculty and students, and that’s all the letter is really saying.

Paul: First, I don’t think that’s what the letter is saying, because it says explicitly, “We don’t condone this.” And it doesn’t say this is the position of the administration; it says “the University of Chicago,” which is supposed to be a grander community that extends beyond the president’s office or the Dean’s Office. This is the students’ introduction to the university and to the greater community that they’re becoming a part of.

Second, who is to say that a professor—who is older or who might not have been exposed to these kinds of discussions when they were studying in school, or who doesn’t necessarily have a deep interest in this kind of stuff—who’s to say that they have sufficient knowledge of any of this? I agree 100 percent that it’s the wrong approach to have some external consulting firm swoop in to say this is how your strategy should be. I have utmost respect for the faculty; I understand their independence is necessary. But they are one facet of this greater community, and as we look at the universities and colleges, especially the residential ones across the country, we see that students are making clear this sense of community doesn’t fully honor what they need in order to feel included.

This is the first installment of a three-part conversation on academic freedom, trigger warnings and safe spaces in the American university. Part two is published here; part three will be posted later this week—stay tuned.

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski, Sign outside of the University of Chicago Regenstein Library (CC BY/Flickr)

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