Why the 'Safe-Space' Debate Is a Problem for Adjuncts, Cont'd

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

A reader who teaches college in Missouri can relate to our recent piece from Oliver Bateman on the tension that many adjunct professors feel over the growing demand for safe spaces and trigger warnings. First, a passage from Bateman:

Many college instructors, including some of my former colleagues, rushed to defend the University of Chicago’s statement. Their decisions initially puzzled me, as the construction of safe spaces had always been central to my teaching. But it eventually struck me that perhaps their opposition to safe spaces has to do with the nature of their teaching experiences: Whether tormented by the tribulations of being on the tenure-track or underemployed as adjuncts on short-term contracts, these academics have little control of their professional lives. The classroom, where they essentially dictate the content of their syllabi, offers one of the few places for them to exert themselves as intellectuals deserving of respect.

All too often, that respect is absent. As an academic writing for Vox under the pseudonym “Edward Schlosser” observed last summer, “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to ‘offensive’ texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain.” Schlosser’s piece was intended as a critique of oversensitive students, but many full-time academics have borne witness to the callous discarding of an adjunct who no longer fits the department’s plans.

I wonder: Do adjuncts, in all their precariousness, often tread very carefully on controversial curriculum—or scrap it altogether—because it might provoke a reaction similar to the one “Edward Schlosser” experienced? Are you an adjunct who can attest to that, or do you think Schlosser is an aberration? We’d love to hear from you: hello@theatlantic.com.

Our reader in Missouri essentially argues that adjuncts will have less friction with students over their emotional needs if the former’s job is more secure and better paid. As she writes, “when both the professor and the student feel financially unsafe, no one has any patience for anyone else’s emotional concerns when they feel attacked, denigrated, or downplayed as ‘oversensitive.’” She elaborates:

I’m a 31-year-old female and have been an adjunct instructor for about nine years, at two giant state schools and a community college. I have been in and out of full time Non-Tenure Track (NTT) status. Like most of my adjunct colleagues, I have cobbled together as many courses as I could while juggling health problems and constantly shifting access to health insurance.

When it comes to safe space, Bateman’s article really hit the nail. As he mentions, I’ve seen a whole range of reactions/responses from my fellow adjuncts over the years. What most of us have not thought about enough is how our own lack of safety contributes to our classrooms.

When I have had full-time gigs—however temporary or tenuous they were—I’ve done my best teaching. When I have felt financially stable, and felt that my healthcare was reasonably covered, I have been creative, resourceful, and a good professor to my students, whose learning remained my most sacred priority. When I have felt stable, I have managed to avoid the kind of absent, slap-a-grade-on-it teaching that can happen for instructors whose financial anxiety is too dire.  Precisely the same thing happens for professors and students alike; if either are financially stressed, neither does good work, and neither can be expected to feel “safe”—in the most basic, Maslow’s-hierarchy-of-needs kind of way. And as Bateman mentioned, minority students are definitely more likely to experience this.

Maybe one of the more horrible consequences of all of this is that the present power structures of universities have pitted the most vulnerable against each other—a dynamic familiar to anyone who studies marginalized or oppressed social groups. An adjunct who isn’t making enough to live on is going to have zero patience for a minority student who misses a deadline. Even if that student is working two jobs to try to make it through college, the student may sense (rightly) that her professor has no bandwidth available for her (which may in turn lead to her dropping a class, or several classes where the same thing happens, and then deciding that college isn’t for her at all because everything feels stacked against her—a situation far too familiar to marginalized students in universities across the country).

And as Maslow’s hierarchy tells us, when both the professor and the student feel financially unsafe, no one has any patience for anyone else’s emotional concerns when they feel attacked, denigrated, or downplayed as “oversensitive”—and that’s if a marginalized or vulnerable student were to speak up about feeling emotionally threatened at all, which comparatively few do (despite the media’s implication that students are constantly rioting or militantly policing each other’s ideas).

The more privileged students are often the ones who will speak up about safe space or the right for people to learn in an equal environment, and this is a problem (that the privileged students are often the ones who feel comfortable speaking up), but a problem that should highlight how unsafe truly marginalized students still feel on campuses. It should NOT get us all up in arms about how these militant youths are threatening our country’s right to free speech.   

When everyone feels unsafe—professor and student alike—everyone tries to protect themselves, and they will use whatever mechanisms are available to do this. The more power is held by a certain group in the power structure of universities (and the more they operate like businesses), the more it leaches away from the individuals who need to feel empowered.

And in the midst of all this, we're very lucky if learning happens at all—whether in a safe space or not.

If you’re an educator and disagree with that assessment, or have anything to add in general, please drop us a note.