Can a University Classroom be “Safe”? Should We Want it to be?

I’m on sabbatical this year, which means that I haven’t done much classroom teaching in the past two semesters. Still, I have followed with some interest the public discussion about making colleges and universities “safe.” This is most clearly evident in the notion of a “trigger warning,” to be issued before any discussion of topics that might lead students to recall or relive past traumas. The recent NY Times piece on “safe spaces” at my alma mater brought a number of important issues to light.

I have never explicitly issued a trigger warning, even though my courses on Southeast Asia inevitably include some discussions of genocide, murder, rape, torture, and other forms of physical violence. Instead, I have always explicitly told students students that our class’s success depends on our collective behavior, such that we are all responsible—me no less than them—for creating an environment suitable for learning. I don’t say “safe,” I use words like “conducive” and “respectful” and “collaborative.” (More on that in a second.) I also begin each class in which we discuss violence or violence-like things with a sentence or two alerting students those topics will come up.

The reason why “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” have garnered so much attention in the media is of course because many people find the whole idea to be inappropriate. For some, it’s just tiresome; for others, it’s actually counterproductive. My guess is that much of this discussion takes the form of center-left radical-bashing: those who sympathize with progressive causes arguing that safe spaces are radical identity politics run amok.

That is why I was particularly interested to read this interview with Katherine McKittrick, who presents a radical critique of the entire idea that the classroom can be safe, or even more penetratingly, that we should want a classroom to be safe.

Privileged students leave these safe spaces with transparently knowable op­pressed identities safely tucked in their back pockets and a lesson on how to be aggressively and benevolently silent….This kind of privileged person sees the classroom as, a priori, safe, and a space that is tainted by dangerous subject matters (race) and unruly (intolerant) students…All of this, too, also recalls the long history of silencing—subalterns not speaking and all of that. Why is silencing, now, something that protects or enables safety? Who does silence protect and who does silence make safe and who does silence erase? Who has the privilege to demand tolerance?

This accords well with my views on classrooms as safe spaces. It has always seemed, to me, very important that we confront difficult topics that make us uncomfortable. That we gaze upon images like this (from my counterinsurgency-in-Vietnam lecture), ask unsafe questions, and think uncomfortable thoughts.

The whole discussion of classrooms as safe spaces by McKittrick is well worth a read. It also has some rather uncomfortable implications, leading me to wonder if I’m doing the right thing by invoking “collaborative” and “respectful” as essential to the classroom.