Recently, a posting about the welcome letter to the University of Chicago’s incoming 2020 class has been making the rounds. The letter challenges a contemporary academic trend, that of Universities creating “safe” (non-anxiety causing) places and preliminarily cautioning students that an idea about to be discussed may be uncomfortable, an action known as a “trigger warning”. It’s a pretty complicated issue, especially with the growing expectation that professors will help students with “adulting”. (For the record, I hate that term and find it incredibly demeaning.)
I shared the post on my wall and a friend responded, “I just don’t understand how safe spaces and trigger warnings actually impede someone’s freedom of speech or expression.”
“X, I’ve been thinking about your question and wanted to give you a considered (and slightly long, forgive me) answer. I think it comes down to a question of responsibility. As a professor my responsibility is, in part, to prepare the students for their professional career after they leave the “Ivory Tower” of academe. For me, this includes teaching the students skills such as critical analysis and ways to discuss artwork. As an art student moves forward in their career the content of their work often begins to incorporate the personal experience; this includes very uncomfortable and often confrontational subject matter. We ask them to drop their ego and bring maturity to the classroom. We teach them language that directly addresses formal composition and conceptual content, as well as ways to address the work and avoid personal attacks. In my classroom experience, younger members of our community are likely to behave badly and aggressively when they lack the vocabulary, and because people of average college age tend to see issues as polar rather than full of gray areas, this language is essential. I think “Safe” spaces and trigger warnings enable the students to remain immature and, worse, hide rather than address issues. I’m not sure how other disciplines work but in studio art critique comes from anyone who looks at your work and can be incredibly harsh/painful/wounding. Viewers, strangely but ever so humanly, bring their issues to the party when addressing artwork, especially when the subject matter is uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because art is often seen as an expression of feeling? Regardless, I see it as my responsibility to give the students the tools for navigating the rough waters. There are faculty in my school who choose not to show examples of or discuss artwork with “controversial” topics in fear of having to address the issues because they may make students feel “unsafe” or uncomfortable (though they definitely address the issues when needed). These, and the spaces and warnings, do the students a disservice because they fail to give students the necessary tools to discuss ideas and issues respectfully, compassionately, maturely, and responsibly. I understand that you’re not saying we should avoid discussing topics, I do! The problem is very complex. Personally, I think we need better mental health resources and these, combined with the intellectual tools provided by folks at the head of classrooms, are what will provide students with a good education. Learning happens through dialogue, engagement, and participation. I like the U of Chicago letter because it tells the students that, “In the classroom, we will give you the tools you need. We don’t hide, we don’t mollycoddle you, we don’t do the thinking for you, and we don’t take decision making away from you (which trigger “warnings” do).” I’m pretty sure you won’t agree with me, and that’s cool; I am interested in hearing solutions you propose, and why. You and I respect each other and we can keep having this conversation because we learned how to talk about things in school without hiding, and because we were taught how to address difficult issues when confronted. I don’t think the world outside academia gives warning and I want my students to know how to take care of themselves and be able to hold their own when confronted, to use their brains instead of their fists, and to be compassionate and respectful while muddling through the discomfort. Ideally, my students will be fearless and continue to learn and grow until they die. That one is big on the hope scale, but it is what I want. I want my students to be able to find that safe place within themselves so they stop looking to external sources and I want them to develop a sense of internal warning so they develop an awareness of when it is time for them to step away. I’m curious why you don’t think these are mutually exclusive methods.”
Although she chose not to reply, answering her question helped me shape my thinking and teaching philosophy. I returned to the classroom refreshed and excited to enjoy and challenge my students, whatever comes our way.