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 two. (Read part one here.)
Anastasia: What are safe spaces?
Paul: A safe space isn’t a push against free speech, it’s an environment where targeted self-expression, that urge to really share one’s point of view, comes second to one’s wellness and security. They’re buildings where individuals can go to feel as though they’re in a community that is targeted for their wellness and security. I don’t see in what way, shape or form that takes away from academic discourse—if anything it rejuvenates it. As a person who has epilepsy, who’s black and has various other marginalized identities, if I need a break from an intense discussion that relates to issues that I have personal investment in, and I need to take a break to take a breath, that can only help. A safe space contributes to intellectual pursuit, in my opinion.
Theo: The letter does not necessarily deserve to be defended on the basis of a technicality, and I’m almost certainly giving Dean Ellison too much credit here, but I do believe he said “‘intellectual’ safe spaces.” And I think there is a difference between that, and having a center like what we have at 5710 South Woodlawn, which is intended to be an eminently safe space for people who hold various marginalized identities, whether LGBT or racial or ethnic or religious… And, as far as I understand, these centers are well-funded and supported by the university.
Anastasia: What kind of safety are we talking about in these spaces?
Theo: I understood [5710 South Woodlawn] as a place where people—by themselves or in groups—people who feel marginalized on the campus of this university, could go and just feel like they can breathe, and not feel like they’re being judged. A place where they can feel welcome and like they’re not going to be exposed to some of the things that they might deal with on a daily basis that make their lives here difficult.
Anastasia: And Paul, do you take the letter to attack that?
Paul: Yes, implicitly, maybe unintentionally, but I guess so.
Let’s talk about safety. The world is a safe space for a person of privilege. Our understandings of norms and how things should be, how people should experience the world, are established by those with privilege. I have no problem saying it, I know this bothers some people when they hear it, but it’s the truth.
If I walk around campus—now I’m going to speak as a black disabled individual—I have two understandings of safety (and why this notion is important to me, just speaking off the cuff): There’s physical safety—if I have a seizure I can hit my head and get very hurt. There’s also a sense of personal, emotional understanding—existential safety—which allows me to feel secure in who I am as a person. Certain environments cultivate attitudes in which that latter form of safety is challenged and questioned consistently.
The way we approach these topics in the classroom, think about it: The door’s closed, you’re in an enclosed arena. These questions could come up and an underprivileged or disenfranchised person is pounded with these questions repeatedly. If they aren’t moderated so they can be more conducive to intellectual stimulation, that’s a problem. Yes, maybe it is an intellectual safe space but a classroom should be an intellectual safe space in that regard. My ideas on these issues can’t be torn from who I am as a person. It’s one thing for someone to challenge some theoretical view of what it means to be a black man, and it’s another thing to have that question posed as a personal challenge—in a way that relates to my experience as a black individual as I walk outside in the world.
Anastasia: But is that what the letter claims not to condone? Surely they’re not saying it is okay to question the personal identity of people in the classroom.
Paul: Just because he does not mean that explicitly doesn’t mean that that’s not the message the letter contains.
Anastasia: So if I’m hearing you correctly, are you saying, It doesn’t matter what he said explicitly, just putting it out there in this form makes it sound like it’s giving free rein to those who might be disrespectful?
Paul: I think, like Theo said, explicitly he’s saying we don’t want the classroom to be a place where they retreat from ideas they don’t want to hear. If someone is very staunch in their liberalism, or staunch in their conservatism, and they don’t want to hear anything that disputes their intellectual views, they shouldn’t retreat into themselves or leave the classroom just because they don’t want to hear a different opinion. And I think that’s what Dean Ellison is speaking out against. And in that case, fine, I agree with him.
When I was a sophomore I took a class on whiteness at American University in DC. The first thing that the teacher did was to start a discussion about how to make the community safe, though he didn’t use that word. We constructed our own class guidelines in order to make it an intellectually rigorous space where people felt comfortable and the emphasis was on respect.
To push back against “intellectual safe spaces,” my ideas on blackness when I’m taking a class on whiteness will be tied to who I am as a person. There’s some experiential quality that’s tied into them, so my personhood is going to be put into question even if it’s not intentional. I’m not talking about intentionality. I haven’t met a bigot here at the University of Chicago. This isn’t about hostile intention. An individual can feel unsafe simply by the environment they find themselves in, and I think the onus is on the university if we’re going to live up to the values of free and enlivened discourse that the letter seems to champion.
If the goal of any academic space is foster intellectual growth, then I think we must do our best to ensure that classroom rhetoric and behavior doesn’t cause students to doubt whether they belong. While questions of place, fit, and security arise naturally during an individual’s lifetime (and especially during their college years) practices that continuously incite these questions for particular groups of people are problematic and cultivate an unsafe space.
If I feel unsure of myself in an art history course because it’s a new subject, and one I’m largely unfamiliar with, that uncertainty and insecurity is a necessary step on my path to learning something new. But if I enter a class on American politics, and the tenor of the class has me question how (or whether) I should engage when topics of race come up, then we have a problem.
Marginalized individuals are continuously at risk of having their sense of self challenged. We can’t predict the kinds of situations we’ll find ourselves in, and there’s no way to avoid prejudice, discrimination and oppression at all times. But in spaces like classrooms comments and behavior that increases the likelihood of such challenge is not conducive to learning.
Anastasia: Theo, Paul is acknowledging that perhaps the intention is to send the message “You can’t run away when you don’t like what you hear,” but the result of sending out this letter is sending a message that doesn’t acknowledge other things that you yourself are open to: I want to make sure that people are very, very respectful of one another, and they’re taking seriously the fact that different challenges and different opinions are taken differently by different people. And the letter is jeopardizing that.
Theo: I guess I have a strong faith in both the faculty here and the students. I have faith that they will find something here in their classes and in lecture halls that is more sincerely and deeply reflective of these principles than the way that they were expressed by Dean Ellison, who’s not the one in the classroom. I hope that the actual experience is more sensitive than what they encountered in the letter.
I would also say that what Paul described, I think, from his sophomore year at American University—that sounds like a really great experience. Being in a class that is intellectually rigorous, mutually respectful, a place where people from all different backgrounds feel safe to express their opinions and to investigate questions together—those are some of the greatest moments we’ll have as students or as teachers. I just don’t think that… almost, sublimity… could ever arise from anything other than a really committed teacher in a room with a really committed, or potentially committed, group of students. That alchemy can’t exist by administrative fiat; it just doesn’t work that way.
What I’m consistently getting at is that I have a greater degree of faith in both the students and the faculty to make these environments productive, than I do in the administration.
Paul: But that’s not what the University of Chicago’s college is known for. Students of color, women, traumatized students who’ve suffered from harassment and sexual assault, are warned on message forums not to come here. This kind of environment has been lacking at the College, and it’s going to discourage students from taking the risk of spending four years at a university where they might not feel safe.
Are content warnings perfect? No. But I see them as a stepping stone, something that could expose a teacher who’s never considered identity to try to understand it. I don’t feel it’s the student’s responsibility to educate the teachers on that responsibility. The message needs to be directed from the administration: You are here and one role you need to play is to serve as our advocates and make this into a place where we do feel safe and secure.
There are certainly ways they can screw it up. And bringing in an external consulting firm so they can pat themselves on the back and say they’ve done what they needed to do—no, that won’t do. We need deep reflection. This is a community, not some abstract space for intellectual thought experiments. It has bearing on people’s lives. Students take these conversations back to the lounges in their residence halls. These intellectual environments pop up outside the context of a classroom, so it is necessary.
Theo: I’m still dubious about how we would go about this… How we would actually go about having a more active administrative role in keeping the classrooms as safe spaces?
I see a difference between the policies that are appropriate for, say, dining halls and residence halls, versus the policies that are appropriate to be applied in classrooms and lecture halls. The first are places where students live, where they take their meals, build friendships, fall in love. It’s where they spend four formative years of their lives. And I think it’s inarguably true that they need to feel secure and welcome, especially in their dorm rooms, and in the places where they take their meals and do their extracurricular activities and things like that—some of which may be protected by statute. For me, the difference is the abiding faculty–student relationship that takes over in the classroom or in the lecture hall, in these designated spaces of academic inquiry.
Paul: But you can’t leave your background at the door—respect for an individual’s identity should remain constant in all spaces. I think there is a division between the classroom and the dorm but I feel that division comes from the difference in the purposes of those spaces. The classroom exists to foster intellectual growth—it is not a space for unchecked and unrestrained speech or behavior. If a student took up loud or disruptive antics, their teacher would surely check them on it, so if certain language disrupts the ability for marginalized students to engage and learn, why shouldn’t that be checked as well? If unrestrained speech has a place, it is in the dorms and dining halls, and while I don’t necessarily approve of a number of the comments I’ve encountered in these spaces, I’ve always believed people should be free to make them there.
In my mind an “intellectually safe space” is nothing other than a space in which I (or any other disenfranchised person) feel I can grow and learn, without being burdened by worry over my marginalized identity. The university’s ability to foster trust between people of different backgrounds is fundamental to its success as a place of learning, as well as in its other functions as an institution. The dialogues between marginalized and privileged groups occurring in the classroom are not unlike the larger conversations being held between the school and its surrounding communities on the South Side.
This is the second installment of a three-part conversation on academic freedom, trigger warnings and safe spaces in the American university. Part one can be read here; part three here.