26 August 2016

Monsters and Mythical Creatures of Higher Education

More on that U of Chicago letter to the students...

Things that pose a threat to "freedom of inquiry and expression" in higher education:

1. declining levels of public support for higher education.
2. the widespread belief that higher education exists primarily to train an entry-level workforce.
3. student debt
4. ongoing failures to give all students access to an equal K-12 education
5. the increasing adjunctification of higher ed
6. increasing reliance on private and corporate partners to foot the bill for public higher education
7. the proliferation of third-party vendors and educational corporations in the delivery of higher education.

Things that don't pose a threat to freedom of inquiry and expression in higher ed:

1. professors' efforts to prevent bigoted students from derailing discussion.
2. the acknowledgment that traumatized students may find some material difficult.
3. events, spaces, organizations that give students who have, as a group, been historically excluded from certain institutions the opportunity--if they want it--to have community and a sense of belonging at those institutions.

Things that don't exist*:

1. institutionally enforced expectations that faculty not talk about certain things.
2. institutionally enforced expectations that students be allowed to opt out of anything that makes them uncomfortable.
3. institutionally enforced expectations that students be protected from disturbing ideas.
4. the large-scale excision of intellectually viable yet controversial subject matter from college curricula.

*At least not in my experience of teaching at a public R1 for the past 12 years and interacting with lots of faculty at other institutions.

Preserving Intellectual Safe Spaces for White People

It's been a couple of days now since that University of Chicago letter to admitted students erupted all over the media, and I'm still trying to figure out what an "intellectual 'safe space'" is. I've been in and around higher education since 1992, mostly at R1 institutions like the U of Chicago (where, full disclosure, I got my BA). Here are the "safe spaces" I've encountered:

1. A so-designated room in the Women's Resource Center on my campus. I was part of a panel discussion on trigger warnings (more anon) and it was pointed out to everyone at the start of the event. The discussion--which was not part of any formal class--was pretty dry and academic, which I gather is not always the case. Anyway, no one made use of it.

2. Cultural houses on my campus where students of color for whom the predominantly white and privileged campus is not itself a "safe space" can spend time with people who share their positionality.

3. (Not on my campus, that I know of): stickers given for faculty to put on their doors alerting LBGTQ students that said faculty member is "safe" to come out to (e.g., won't "out" them to others or try to talk them out of being LBGTQ).

I'm guessing "safe spaces" like these are not what Dean Ellison had in mind. Closing off these kinds of extracurricular resources would just be mean, and the University of Chicago's own Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (which provides them on that campus) seems to be in no particular danger. I'm guessing it was exactly to exclude such instances that Dean Ellison modified "'safe spaces'" with "intellectual."

So what did he have in mind?  I've certainly heard of faculty using the term "safe space" to demarcate rules of engagement.  As Dean Ellison himself points out, "Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others." Occasionally professors set down guidelines about how what "civility and mutual respect" mean in a classroom; many trust to their own modeling and guidance to convey that message implicitly. It would be really nice if we lived in a world where professors and students alike could be counted on to civilly and respectfully shut down racist comments and behavior as quickly as they would shut down a creationist demanding equal time in a genetics classroom, but any student of color on my campus can tell you that we are not yet living in that world. I have yet to encounter white students who have been censored by heavy-handed efforts to bring it about.

I have also heard the phrase "this is not a safe space" used to signal to students that class discussion is likely to touch on controversial matters in which students may have some personal investment. I'm sure that those applauding Dean Ellison's letter would be glad to hear of it, except that such statements could be taken to be "trigger warnings" and those are, I gather, a bad thing.

The phrase "trigger warnings" seems to be, uh, triggering, to people who aren't themselves in higher education. It provokes a reaction disproportionate to the words themselves, conjuring up nightmare visions of words, phrases, whole realms of inquiry being declared off-limits and pathetic students cowering in dismay. I don't know where this fantasy comes from. I've certainly never encountered it. The terms is, I admit, irritating, but I'm not sure how one teaches disturbing material productively without the concept embedded in it. In fact, I was using "trigger warnings" before they were A Thing. It's just good pedagogy.  When I've taught Eliza Haywood's 1725 novella, Fantomina, for example, there's a scene of sexual violence early in the story.  I've long been in the habit of letting students know it's coming and that we're going to be talking about it in class--not to get them off the hook for reading it, but because a survivor of rape who knows to expect it is more likely to engage with it intellectually than one who gets blindsided by it.  Depending on the nature of the class (I have had the luxury of small discussion-centered classes), I may mention before we start discussion that some students may have personal experience of sexual violence and so connect differently to the scene than those for whom the question, "Is it rape?" is more abstract.

Is that censorship? It may cause a student who has not considered these matters to think twice and look for some textual evidence before suggesting that Fantomina "was asking for it." There may have been rape survivors who choose that day to take one of their allotted absences. Either way, I'm okay with it--I don't see where either outcome vitiates the intellectual process. Acknowledging the intersection between this three-hundred-year-old text and present-day concerns leads to a deeper discussion than does allowing students to uncritically internalize the narrator's assumption that it's ultimately all in good fun--or asking them to pretend that rape is a thing that only happens in the safe spaces of the printed page.

So when I see people applauding Dean Ellison's bold stand for intellectual give-and-take, I'm baffled. Of course, rigorous debate is a good thing in college, as is coming up against ideas that are troubling and challenge one assumptions.  I've blogged about it, in one of my most popular and enduring posts.

It's that one paragraph, though, that undermines the whole enterprise:

Trigger warning and safe spaces are, in my experience, how students of color, LBGTQ students, rape trauma survivors get the support they need to participate fully in the painful conversations that are part of the University of Chicago experience. To take Dean Ellison's words at face value, to assume that he writes out of some rich understanding of the function of trigger warnings and safe spaces would be to sssume that the majority of University of Chicago students are such delicate flowers that the mere acknowledgment that other students come at these matters from different life experience and need different kinds of support constitutes a deadly threat to their ability to engage fully. And one must then echo the many supportive commentators and ask, how are these students going to cope in a world where people of color expect to being taken seriously as human beings? Where trauma survivors expect not to have their experience erased? Where the intellectual enterprise is supposed to take into account the whole of human experience, and not just that of privileged white people?  What a trigger warning Dean Ellison has given!  And what glorious reassurance, that the University of Chicago is a safe place where the world view of white students will be preserved intact and without threat.

But it would be a mistake to take Dean Ellison's words at face value. As I said, above, the "safe spaces" provided by the University of Chicago to its minority students still stand, and I have every expectation that conscientious faculty continue to to frame their subject matter in ways that will encourage participation from all students. All this letter does is make it clear to the mass media and any well-heeled alumni paying attention that the University of Chicago is dedicated to preserving its intellectual-macho brand. The letter also makes it clear to students of color and trauma survivors (both incoming and prospective) that the brand will be preserved at the expense of their access to it.

The whole letter: