There has been much discussion recently about creating safe spaces in colleges along with trigger warnings about readings. The discussion has seemed to imply that college students need protection from reality. In my teaching experience, something more important is being touched upon, but not in a useful way.
One of the first times I taught the poetry of World War 1 in my English class, a student walked out. When he returned after class, he shared that he was a veteran of the Viet Nam War and that the poetry discussion had distressed him enough that he needed to take a walk. I felt that I needed to address such possibilities in the classes I taught from then on.
As a college teacher, I felt the need to teach a wide variety of often distressing works. I also felt a responsibility to my students. I believed that the college classroom should be a safe environment to explore controversial ideas. To ensure that, I began each semester explaining two ground rules for class. First, no student could attack another personally, nor make negative generalized statements about any religion, ethnicity or sexuality. I told them that while I was generally an observer in discussions, I would step in if that occurred. Second, I stressed that if any discussion so upset someone that they needed to leave the room, they could do so without explanation.
I never forewarned any student about any reading. There were no “trigger warnings” in my syllabus. I had no way of knowing what might affect any student, and I felt it was the student’s responsibility to handle their own responses to any readings. To my relief, students nearly always respected each other in class. And only on very rare occasions did anyone leave the room. I felt that I had, in fact, created a “safe space.”