In a letter Dean of Students in the College John Ellison informed incoming first year students at the University of Chicago to expect an environment committed to freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression. He additionally warns students not to expect “intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

This language reveals a misunderstanding of what constitutes a “safe space.” The idea that a safe space and a trigger warning could somehow diminish an intellectual environment is laughable, as these terms indicate that professors and students must deeply consider and think about who is in the room, their history, how particular topics of conversation might affect them, and exactly how freely all students may participate in a discussion.

The establishment of safe spaces and the use of trigger warnings are partially borne out of activist language around issues of sexual assault—which, in recent years, have garnered national attention on college campuses, including the University of Chicago. The term “safe space” is also derived from advocacy for gay rights on campus, designating an area or a person with whom a student or individual can be themselves, or out, with a promise of discretion and/or without having to worry about social repercussions.

uchiletterIt is my understanding that the use of safe spaces and trigger warnings are not intended to stop conversation; rather, these terms constitute a reach for empathy, for understanding that not all individuals in a conversation are the same or have had the same experiences. These terms are meant to establish a mutual respect for various needs and perspectives, especially for individuals who have been socially and politically marginalized, like women, minorities, sexual assault survivors, queer and trans folks. These underrepresented groups are additionally more likely to experience social and economic marginalization on a college campus.

I am particularly baffled at the resistance to use trigger warnings in conversations that may include discussion about sexual assault or rape. College age students are especially vulnerable to sexual assault: 11% of all students report experiencing rape or sexual assault through violence, force, or incapacitation. Around 23% of female undergraduate and 5% of male students report experiencing sexual assault or rape. Therefore, it is probable that professors and students may come in contact with a victim of sexual assault in their classrooms who could be triggered by such discussions and reminded of the trauma caused by their experiences, if such conversations are not prefaced with a warning.

While I do tend to agree that the furor over safe spaces and trigger warnings reached a ridiculous apex over the past few years, especially regarding the Yale Halloween costume controversy, the activist roots of these terms require that they remain an integral part of college life, especially for resident advisors, professors, and fellow students who wish to be advocates for marginalized students and groups.

Regarding the concern that invitations for speakers with whom students disagree are rescinded precisely because students disagree with them, I say students have the right to protest the presence of a speaker before, during, and after their appearance on a campus. It is not my opinion that administrations should become involved with the removal of a speaker (that responsibility should remain with the organizing division or student group), but protesters have every right to publicly associate their universities with the voices that are elevated on campus.

The fact is, every student on a college campus is searching for a space to call their own, where they can express themselves freely and without chastisement from others. Fraternity houses, clubs, teams, sororities, and advocacy groups all serve a purpose to shelter the identities and perspectives of their members, especially when students are able to select who may be a part.

A classroom, however, is less selective, and will pull students from every corner of campus life. The need for professors, teaching assistants, and students to be more thoughtful about words and conversations should thus be a given. This conversation should be about recognizing who is present in a classroom, about acknowledging their humanity and their right to be present, after many college institutions have historically denied admission to marginalized groups. 

Unfortunately, it seems that some simply cannot handle the intellectual rigor of establishing a safe space and do not posess the foresight to issue a trigger warning.

Photo Credits: Flickr, The Chicago Maroon