Reporter's Notebook

Parsing the University of Chicago Letter
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Readers, staffers, and others from the University of Chicago community discuss Dean John Ellison’s injunction against trigger warnings and safe spaces. If you have something to add, particularly as a professor, alumnus, or current student there, please email hello@theatlantic.com. (A related reader discussion on campus politics is here.)

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Faculty Responds to Dean Ellison

Following the controversial letter published last month by Dean John Ellison against trigger warnings and safe spaces at the University of Chicago, we highlighted many responses from members of the U of C community. Yesterday, more than 150 faculty members published a letter of their own in the student paper The Chicago Maroon. Here’s the nut graph:

Those of us who have signed this letter have a variety of opinions about requests for trigger warnings and safe spaces. We may also disagree as to whether free speech is ever legitimately interrupted by concrete pressures of the political. That is as it should be. But let there be no mistake: such requests often touch on substantive, ongoing issues of bias, intolerance, and trauma that affect our intellectual exchanges. To start a conversation by declaring that such requests are not worth making is an affront to the basic principles of liberal education and participatory democracy.

The letter also touches on the idea of mutual respect as a crucial element in “the free exchange of ideas” (a theme we’ve touched on as well) and points out that the administration “confusingly disconnects ‘safe spaces’ it supports (see the list of mentoring services on the College’s own website) from ‘intellectual safe spaces’ that it does not, as if issues of power and vulnerability stop at the classroom door.”

The University of Chicago faculty is a dynamic one, but I can’t remember too many faculty letters in my time. In recent years, faculty members in 2008 protested the creation of Milton Friedman Institute (for ideological bias) and called for the University to divest from fossil fuels. The Friedman Institute happened anyway (it’s now the Becker Friedman Institute) and divestment didn’t.

There’s been a lot written about how “not U of C” the original letter’s language and wording seemed, and the members of staff we’ve heard from seem to agree on this front. Here’s an excerpt of a letter sent to Dean Ellison from Jessica Haley, the University’s Program Coordinator for Creative Writing and Poetics who is also an alum (she gave us permission to post, adding “Thanks for giving alumni a platform outside of social media.”):

The letter is reductive to the point that it diminishes the larger project claimed by the administration’s various statements, reports, and op-eds. It is enormously difficult to set up a classroom environment that can facilitate productive, challenging discussion within a diverse collection of very bright young people, but that is what we should be aiming to do. In our creative writing classrooms this can get especially tricky, as our students regularly read and write about deeply personal topics. It is up to our instructors (mostly OAA instructors) to set a tone for these classrooms that allows for open, honest, and respectful exchanges. It is hard for students to hear criticism about work that feels close to their very being, especially when the work deals with things like sexual assault, race, and grief. That difficulty is real, and it is part of the project of intellectual and artistic inquiry that the University of Chicago has the resources to take on [...]

The terms “safe space” and “trigger warning” mean different things to different people. I understand the criticisms of how these tools are used in practice. I understand concerns about what could happen should the power of these terms expand unchecked. I cannot understand why your office thought it was acceptable to unequivocally dismiss these complicated, loosely-defined concepts in a space posing as a welcome letter to a whole new group of students. Those letters set a tone, of course, that is part of their function, and the complementary media campaign put out by the University over the rest of the week further underscores that this was all very intentional. But who was this specific letter really for? I don’t think it was for the students, which subverts any kind of “welcome” gestured at here.

Many alumni have expressed that the letter seemed like a branding exercise for the University to energize alumni donation, as this new Baffler piece by alumnus Maximillian Alvarez argues. Alvarez ponders who whether the University is simply “cashing in on the culture wars”:

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.