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A Syllabus for Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

The dean of students at the University of Chicago says the school doesn’t support or condone them. To ask a very U. of C. question: what do “support,” “condone,” and “them” mean?

Old (grim, intimidating) and new (light, cozy, transparent) in architectural tension at the University of Chicago   Photo: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune

My august alma mater, the University of Chicago, stepped in it when its dean of students sent a welcome letter declaring that “our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ’safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Not that it didn’t also draw immediate praise, for instance from the Tribune editorial board, which decried “political correctness run amok” and “narrow-minded,” “hypersensitive” students.

Stop right there: We expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate. At times this may cause discomfort. What a stupendous school motto! If the U. of C. put those words on a hoodie, we’d buy one.

We’re good on T-shirts about how discomfiting the U. of C. is already, but thanks.

More cautious observers noticed some issues with the letter. Does not supporting “trigger warnings” mean that professors can’t use them? There are academics who believe that, properly used, they make students better able to deal with the most difficult topics, and whether they’re right or wrong, prohibiting them from doing so raises questions of academic freedom. If the university doesn’t “condone” safe spaces, what does that mean for its Office of LGBTQ Student Life Safe Space, of which the author of the letter is literally listed as an ally? The official word from the university’s spokesman is that the letter doesn’t represent any change in “university policies and programming.”

In short, the letter was vague in conceptual terms and perhaps misleading in practical terms, which presents a problem on a campus that, even in these benighted times of political correctness run amok, tends to be hypersensitive towards a lack of analytical rigor. In that spirit, here are some readings that bring some actual light to the subject.

A More Practical Letter

Ken White, at the libertarian, free-speech focused blog Popehat, rewrites the letter to reflect a broader, more practical, and arguably more idealistic reading of free speech:

Our commitment to academic freedom will govern our response to community concerns about course content and campus expression in general. The community should not expect us to require professors to give “trigger warnings,” or to discipline them if they decline to do so. The community should not expect us to prohibit or “disinvite” speakers who offer controversial or offensive ideas. Members of the community should exercise their freedom of association to form groups with similar interests, goals, and values, but should not expect to transform classes or public spaces into “safe spaces” where expression they oppose is prohibited.

Such wording is less likely to sell a hoodie, but it is satisfyingly precise and rigorous.

Protecting Professors’ Autonomy

Mark Tushnet, Harvard Law prof and former clerk to Thurgood Marshall:

Instructors use trigger warnings, when they do so in a sensible manner, to maximize their pedagogic effectiveness as instructors: They want to include material whose content might distract students who weren’t prepared for it, and hope that the warning will be enough to reduce the distraction to a level where the substantive point can still be made…. At the very least, instructors should have the freedom to make a responsible decision that giving a trigger warning will, in the circumstances, enhance pedagogic effectiveness. If the University doesn’t support their doing so, it doesn’t care about good teaching.

Tushnet credits the legendary U. of C. law prof Geoff Stone for putting the letter in the context it probably needed to be in in the first place, which is closer to Ken White’s thinking.

A Nuanced Defense

Yangyang Cheng, an alumnus, current postdoc at Cornell and “particle detector builder & dark matter hunter at CERN,” on why she supports the letter despite being frustrated with its presentation of the subject, and while being a trauma survivor:

I mourned my loss through other people’s reflections of theirs. I sought out texts of subjects from broken homes and tortured childhoods to know that I’m not alone, and if the subjects turned out okay I felt I might too. I consumed works depicting the greatest horrors and sorrows in human history, to put my own suffering, miniscule in comparison, into perspective. I found comfort and companionship from those words. I found healing from those words. The experience of reading, listening, searching, thinking, and recovering was mine and mine alone. My intellectual safe space was of my own construction. I did not have, and would never have wanted, trigger warnings put in by other people to disrupt my experience.

It’s an elegiac defense of the idea, and worth reading at its considerable length; what it’s not is gleeful, smug, and triumphalist in its defense, which a lot of the reaction has been.

Defining “Safe Space”

P.Z. Myers, a University of Minnesota-Morris biologist, whose Wikipedia page notes, accurately, that he is “widely regarded as a confrontationalist” in the intelligent design/creationist movement:

When I teach, I am an enforcer for certain rules of decorum—I create a safe space for learning. That doesn’t mean discussion is put on rails and not allowed to deviate from my plan. I might not allow a conversation about football when the topic is evolution, but if someone raises a hand and makes a creationist objection, which is wrong but on topic, I don’t allow the class to shout down the person (I have been in this situation, where the students are more discouraging of ideas than I am, and I have to crack down and insist that the class address the question respectfully). A safe space is a place where we focus on an issue, and we don’t allow distractions. I guarantee you that every class at the U of C is a safe space for a certain perspective, because that is the nature of teaching. Or does Dean Ellison think every classroom should be the equivalent of the comment section on a YouTube video, where the loudest assholes are allowed to dominate?

Myers goes on to note that he’s been using “trigger warnings” for three decades, such as when he’s going to show photos of fetuses with birth defects, so that students aren’t caught off-guard and are of clearer mind to think about the science, not the shock.

What the Conversation Misses

Jared Keller, in a thoughtful essay for Pacific Standard titled “What Americans Don’t Understand About Trigger Warnings,” gives reasons to be skeptical about trigger warnings: they may not be effective, generally speaking, though of course academics like Myers can cite cases where they seem to be. Again, this gets back to the academic-freedom issue: while they might not usually work, a professor may want the freedom to use them where he or she has reason and evidence to believe they will. Keller’s broader point is this:

Additionally, the public deploys “trauma” and “trigger” in a monolithic fashion to encompass all classroom anxiety, a misunderstanding that makes intellectually honest discussions of trauma and tragedy rife with tension.

There’s a lot of intellectually honest discussion of this out there; I’m barely scratching the surface. But—in a debate about free inquiry—it tends to get lost.

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