Field guide to the safe spaces and trigger warnings debate

Warning: the next four years might be sensitive material

Caroline Hopkins, Staff WriterCaroline Hopkins, Staff Writer

"Safe space," "trigger warning," "coddling," "first amendment": In the wake of Donald Trump's shocking victory in the presidential election, these phrases are dominating headlines once again.

Here's what they all mean, in case you missed it

In the weeks following the election, colleges debated whether to meet students' demands for spaces where their views would remain protected. Some lawmakers threatened to cut funding for schools that offered safe spaces to students upset by the election results.

Protests have continued on campuses nationwide. Faculty and staff are looking for the perfect balance between defending academic freedom and protecting students.

If you're in need of a refresher, here's a field guide to the key arguments on each side. 

Supporters of trigger warnings and safe spaces argue:

Supporters of trigger warnings, such as Ika Willis, lecturer of literature at the University of Wollongong, say the alerts encourage learning and classroom participation.

Willis recently wrote for The Conversation that issuing a trigger warning before particularly sensitive class material led to "some of the best class discussion [she has] ever seen." During the discussion, she said all of her students managed to "articulate their intense responses to the novel and to negotiate their profound disagreements respectfully."

Related: Not all educators are opposed to trigger warnings

Notifying students before discussing difficult or potentially sensitive subjects gives students the opportunity to consent or opt out of such discussions, Willis writes. She adds that students who have agreed to and prepared for the material can manage their reactions and articulate opposing views more thoughtfully.

Similarly, supporters of safe spaces say they provide an environment where students can relax and focus on learning, rather than worrying about threats or marginalization.

Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro argued in a 2016 op-ed that safe spaces help students embrace uncomfortable lessons because it gives them more control over where and when challenging lessons will happen. He also noted that safe spaces are more normal on campuses than you may think—for example, you might consider the Hillel House to be a safe space for Jewish students, and the Catholic Center a safe space for Catholic students.

And engagement encourages retention

Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces argue:

Critics of safe spaces and trigger warnings tend to see them as two strategies with the same goal: to restrict speech and censor language. In a 2015 op-ed, Judith Shulevitz argued that the practices not only coddle students and allow them to "self-infantilize," but also threaten free speech.

In a letter to incoming freshmen that went viral last year, the University of Chicago's Dean of Students John Ellison wrote: "Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called 'trigger warnings'... and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces,' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

Are safe spaces drowning out free speech on campus?

Faculty members who oppose trigger warnings and safe spaces say they limit their ability to teach. One professor shared in Vox last year: "my liberal students terrify me." That professor expressed concern that his students' focus on identity politics would distract them from real social change (Ho, Harvard Political Review, 1/30; Jaschik, Inside Higher Education, 1/25; June, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/16/16; Richardson, Washington Times, 11/10/16).    


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