Top university tells new students: No trigger warnings or intellectual safe spaces

A letter to freshmen from the University of Chicago is reigniting the discussion over trigger warnings in classes and safe spaces on campus. In its letter, the prestigious  university cautions:

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.

The university is not the first to questions trigger warnings and safe spaces. But the practices have support.

Some professors employ trigger warnings to alert students there may be material in the class that could be upsetting to victims of abuse or trauma. You can read a defense of trigger warnings here by a professor who explains, “At least some of the students in any given class of mine are likely to have suffered some sort of trauma, whether from sexual assault or another type of abuse or violence. So I think the benefits of trigger warnings can be significant.”

Safe spaces entered the vernacular as a result of recent Black Lives Matter protests where student protesters sought refuges on campus where they could meet and find strength through others sharing their life experiences. In this essay, Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University, said giving students in the Black Lives movement a safe space was no different from the longstanding Hillel house for Jewish students or  the Catholic Center for Catholic students.

The University of Chicago stance is garnering praise online, but I found a dissenting response from a professor. Here is an excerpt:

As a faculty member, I would be enormously dismayed if my dean sent this letter to my incoming students. Because now they’ll come into my class already having received a clear message about what my institution seems to value – and it isn’t them. The Chicago letter reeks of arrogance, of a sense of entitlement, of an exclusionary mindset; in other words, the very things it seeks to inveigh against. It’s not about academic freedom, it’s about power. Know your place, and acknowledge ours, it tells the students. We’ll be the judge of what you need to know and how you need to know it. And professors and students are thus handcuffed to a high-stakes ideological creed. Do it this way, in the name of all that is holy and true in the academy. There is no room here for empathy, for student agency, or for faculty discretion.

Our first reaction to expressions of student agency, even when they seem misguided or perhaps frivolous, should not be to shut it down. Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity. When we act out of fear, we do harm. When we assume the worst from our students, that’s what we often end up getting-from them and from ourselves. We can do better than this.

 

Reader Comments 0

18 comments
redweather
redweather

Years ago, long before I'd ever heard of trigger warnings, a student objected to my requiring him to read Jonathan Swift's satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal." He claimed it advocated cannibalism! Then about three years ago another student said he wouldn't read Sir Thomas More's "Utopia," claiming it amounted to nothing more than communist indoctrination.


In each case I told the student he could read the text or not, but that questions about it would appear on the mid-term and final exam. I will do the same if students object to a text because it makes them uncomfortable for some reason. As I recently remarked during a conversation about trigger warnings, it makes me uncomfortable to be around students who seem to think those things are necessary; but they are welcome to sign up for my class.  

bu22
bu22

Chicago has always championed common sense.  There's nothing haughty about the letter.  They just expect their students to be adults, which they are legally.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

In support of the original letter from the U.Chicago administration, I'll point out that this school is located in a rather rough intown neighborhood of Chicago, where attending students often experience situations that would themselves require "trigger warnings."



Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf In other words, teach the class, avoiding tough and unpleasant discussions that might offend some sensitive soul.  Ridiculous.  Every worthwhile discussion potentially offends somebody.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf It's also that U. Chicago is south of the loop, but the campus is better protected than, say Georgia State.  Do they have armed robberies in the libraries?

iwd
iwd

@OriginalProf I am sorry. This is just unecessary and irrelevant. And, by the way, in case folks are thinking of going to U of C, Hyde Park is a great neighborhood in a dynamic city,


AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

"Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out."


Elitism: hopefully, students attend college to learn, grow, and BECOME elite.


Ableism: Yay to that.  Thank God that disgusting, two week long celebration of ableism known as the Olympics is finally over!


redweather
redweather

The comparison with Hillel House and the Catholic Center looks a little tenuous. Both are monetarily supported by international organizations and provide more than just a "safe space" for like-minded individuals. They are ministries.



cuppa
cuppa

How weak-willed Emory's administrators appear in comparison.

The social-justice warriors are free to attend other universities if the University of Chicago remains immune to their intimidation.

kaelyn
kaelyn

My daughter is in tenth grade and was recently assigned a book in English class that contained some controversial material. I flipped through the book and then looked up online reviews. I came to the conclusion that the literary merits of the book far outweigh some bad language and adult situations. I don't expect her teacher to send home a warning that my fifteen year old may run into a few printed four letter words before the end of the year.

So...why do college kids need "trigger warnings?" Isn't every topic a potential trigger for someone? Do they lock college kids in classrooms these days, or do they have the option to leave if they find something truly offensive (and not just an opinion differing from what they believe)?

Too many young people seem to think they're entitled to be comfortable all of the time.

kaelyn
kaelyn

@redweather Yes, that one ranks pretty high in the uncomfortable zone!

redweather
redweather

@kaelyn I haven't provided a "trigger warning" to my students in advance of our reading of Oedipus the King, which is a text that could potentially make just about everyone uncomfortable.  And that's what makes it such a worthwhile read.

Starik
Starik

@kaelyn A tenth grader is likely to have experienced some bad words and awkward situations. Fifteen year olds need to start to make their own decisions based on what happens in the real world, and need to begin venturing outside the family cocoon.