What ‘Safe Space’ Looks Like in the Classroom

Thomas Kienzle / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As we sifted through responses to the famed University of Chicago letter, we figured it’d be worth spotlighting what instructors feel about the whole thing. After all, they arguably understand the impact safe spaces and trigger warnings have on the classroom better than anyone else.

Educators recognize the value of challenging students intellectually; they know students should, at times, feel uncomfortable with the learning material. But they also know that absolutes are dangerous—that sometimes safe spaces and trigger warnings are conducive, and not antithetical, to the robust, stimulating intellectual environment they seek. And at the end of the day, they don’t like being told how to run their classroom.

Here’s what some current or former university instructors had to say:

Andrew Dombrowski, a former university instructor who’s now a counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic, which he describes as a “left-leaning, social-justice oriented” health-care collective:

Safe spaces are really emphasized in our training process and I’m not going to lie, the letter took me aback at first. For us, just as a point of clarification, safe spaces involve establishing certain rules and expectations in a slogan-like manner, rather than excluding people from given backgrounds.

Anyway, what I’ve come to realize is that when properly deployed, safe spaces can actually be actually very congruent to the values of open and rigorous intellectual inquiry—it’s less about shielding people from challenging ideas, and more about encouraging people to open up and explore challenging ideas in a *more* fearless way because they don't have to worry about irrelevant stuff that doesn't have anything to do with the ideas or content under discussion. I still don’t feel like I speak the language of safe spaces natively—I tend to couch these values to myself in terms like open/rigorous inquiry and “being a decent human being”—but I don’t think there has to be ANY conflict with the academic values that I remain committed to even now that I don’t work in academia.

I don’t doubt that there are people who abuse the concept of safe spaces in order to shut people down, but those people can be criticized without lapsing into the “grumble grumble grumble damn kids these days just want to be coddled stupid kids don't want to be exposed to new ideas” discourse that is WAY too prevalent in this conversation.

I’m very disappointed in the letter, because one of the principles of basic intellectual good practice that I learned at UChicago is to engage with the strongest reasonable form of an argument you’re opposed to, not to snarkily set up a straw-man argument in hopes that it will go viral (and let’s not kid ourselves, this was done with an eye to the outside world and external publicity). That’s what really bothers me here; I'm less invested in the ultimate policy decision and more profoundly disappointed by the lack of intellectual rigor and honesty involved in failing to reckon with the other side.

An anonymous alum:

Now that I’m on the other side of the classroom, I try to create as welcoming of an intellectual space as I can. In economics we talk about some difficult issues: the gender pay gap, consequences of inequality, effects of migration, consequence of job loss, social policies such as welfare and rent control. These have the potential to be sensitive issues for the reason that the things we discuss in my classroom may have consequentially affected my students’ lives outside the classroom.

I always try, though I do not always succeed, to ensure that everyone feels like their voice is respected. But I don’t permit any idea to be a sacred cow. That is, students will have to tolerate that others might disagree with their opinion. I require that they find a way to disagree with someone while maintaining respect for them, hopefully by employing data and facts, and not resorting to Trumpisms such as ad hominem attacks. I care much more about the process through which students come to hold their beliefs—and that throughout they maintain respect for others—than in any particular beliefs they hold.

I have two experiences from teaching at an elite liberal arts school where I was accused by students of crossing the safe space line. In the first instance, I was teaching at a women’s college. Two male students from a nearby university attended, so the class was approximately 90 percent female. Both of the male students were engineering students, whereas none of the female students were. In class I referenced the entrepreneur Elon Musk and got mostly blank stares but some nods from the male students. As an aside to the two male engineering students, I mentioned one of his projects. A female student later came to my office hours that week to discuss the incident. She voiced that singling out the male students in the class made the rest of the class feel uncomfortable. I thanked her for her feedback and asked her to return again if she found anything upsetting in the future. While personally I thought the student may have been overly sensitive, I appreciated the feedback. I strive to create a welcoming environment, and if there’s ways I can do that better I want to know.

In contrast, the other incident was handled quite differently. I was lecturing on wage setting and made the slightly indelicate comment “the firm buys this worker” to mean that a firm hired a worker at a given wage. A student interrupted my lecture, saying, “You can't say that. They aren't slaves.” I was taken aback. Was this student suggesting that I condoned slavery? No sooner had the comment left my mouth than I realized there was a better way of phrasing it, but I didn’t think it required interruption. I stumbled through the next 10 minutes of my lecture before returning to myself. Had this student come to my office and mentioned the comment I would have apologized and professed to be more careful. I left class embarrassed and, if I were honest, resentful towards the student for the interruption, whose comment I never would have been audacious enough to raise as an undergraduate.

What’s missing from this debate is a guideline for dialogue between students and faculty about how we can create a more welcoming classroom environment. If we want to discuss meaningful topics, students risk feeling discomfort. However, U of C’s “no safe space allowed” mantra only gets us half the way there. The other crucial element is knowing how to resolve incidents when students feel distressed.

Another anonymous alum:

1. I am largely supportive of this letter in its context as a cover letter for a longer book, which is how it was sent out. A letter to incoming freshmen does not actually set university policy; that’s reserved for the handbook that no one reads.

2. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and speaker censorship are all actually different issues.

3. I am largely against university “trigger warnings.” The example that is usually used is of sexual assault survivors being triggered, which most decent people immediately agree with. I would propose the more ridiculous example of someone with extreme arachnophobia. Should an instructor teaching The Lord of the Rings have to say “Warning: Spiders?” If not, why not? Are some traumas more valued/respected/traumatizing than others?

4. I am very pro insightful contextualization before a piece of media. In film class, rather than “Warning: This film has rape,” a sensible and sensitive instructor might say “I want you to pay attention to how the stillness and position of the camera makes the audience complicit.”

5. Students have the option of opting out of anything they want to. They just get penalized for it.

6. Students who have gone through the official steps of seeking accommodations (for dyslexia, ADD, PTSD, etc.) should be respected and accommodated. They are not a burden.

Timothy Stewart-Winter, an associate professor of history at Rutgers:

While I don’t use trigger warnings in the classroom, I’d be appalled if an administrator at my own institution attempted to dictate to me or my students what they should expect from their instructors with regard to such warnings. It would abrogate my academic freedom as an instructor.

In this context, Ellison’s words cruelly ignore the recent and devastating history of indifference by University of Chicago administrators to marginalized students’ safety.

I think the University of Chicago has a fetish of the universal and a hostility toward concepts or ideas that can be construed as “particular.” (For example, as a graduate student there, I taught a course that at most other institutions would be called “Introduction to LGBT Studies”; at Chicago, it is, or at least was, called “Problems in the Study of Sexuality.”) There is a concomitant sense that the heroic individual scholar can and should engage in the life of the mind, without being embedded in the messy realities of the real world. In its most troubling versions, this leads to a sense on the part of administrators that discrimination and structural oppression can be wished or willed away, or that catering to demands for inclusion would somehow be “coddling.”