“Creating a Safe Space”

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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.”

8 thoughts on ““Creating a Safe Space”

  1. An interesting post, Elizabeth. I must say that the younger generation seem to react far more easily and strongly to literary stimuli than I ever did. I was brought up to keep a stern hold on strong emotion.

    1. I am not sure they react more strongly. The difference with some colleges is that they think they are not supposed to upset anyone. So I think some students take advantage of that and protest the teaching of some texts. I think that by college, students should be able to cope with strong emotions.

  2. I find the whole idea of safe spaces kind of troubling in a way. (I also work at a university) I guess it implies there is some danger around, and that puzzles me. I never feel in danger. I wonder how many people ARE feeling in danger. When I see an office with a little “safe space” sticker outside the door I feel uncomfortable. What am I missing?

    When bad things have happened to me over my lifetime, I appreciate when people are sympathetic and reach out, but I don’t expect it. In fact, I can be embarrassed when too much attention is paid to me. I’m not one to look for a safe place. I would rather act like nothing has happened and move on.
    Yeah, I know – that’s denial and it can be a problem. But so far, time heals all wounds in my life.

    I know sometimes I am a little dense about emotional issues, and I’ve learned from my daughter to not to be so judgmental so I’m trying.

    1. I don’t understand the idea at all. Does that mean that other faculty aren’t safe? It must be some kind of code that we aren’t privy to. I guess I always felt that emotional safety was the responsibility of the student as long as the faculty protected them in class from personal attack.

      1. I don’t understand what changed. Is it that personal boundaries are down due to social media? Why would someone trust a stranger just because the have a sign that says “safe place”.

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