Safe spaces and hospitable classrooms

In my last post here I argued that the infamous University of Chicago missive about “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” rested on a rather profound mischaracterization of the issues as being about preventing student discomfort in the classroom. The position adopted in the letter from the Dean of Students seems to be that efforts to make the classroom a more comfortable place are implacably opposed to “freedom of inquiry and expression” and “the freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas,” and that since safe spaces and trigger warnings are about making students comfortable, the University does not support or condone them. I actually agree that the purpose of a classroom is not to provide comfort; instead, I would claim that the purpose of a classroom is to provide opportunities for students to augment and enhance their capacities to do things. But I disagree with the notion that trigger warnings are about making students comfortable, and prefer to think about them as involving the removal of barriers to participation in class. So “trigger warnings” are an access issue.

But I don’t think that analysis suffices for “safe spaces,” the other target of the Chicago note. (I am setting aside the part of the letter about invited speakers, because in my view co-curricular activities on campus invoke a different set of concerns than those strictly limited to the classroom — and campuses without “safe spaces” strike me as a real problem, because we still have a lot of work to do in making room for a whole plethora of identities and issues on campus.) In many conceptions, a “safe space” does depends on “comfort” as a core characteristic.

The Advocates for Youth publication “Creating Safe Space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit” defines a safe space like this:

A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.

So a “safe space” is a space in which no attribute of anyone’s identity is questioned, in which no one has to justify who they are, and from which no aspect of their identity constitutes grounds for their exclusion. This makes sense in light of the history of the roots of the “safe space” notion in consciousness-raising groups and other havens from persecution, particularly for LGBTQ individuals. The “safe space” was literally a refuge, giving individuals marginalized in society at large on account of various attributes of their identities a place to shelter apart from that marginalization — and a place to instead revel in who they were, without fear of condemnation. Hence it is not enough that the space feature the absence of challenges to identity attributes; to be a safe space, it also has to feature the presence of affirmation of those identity attributes.

Here we see an immediate difference between a safe space and a classroom. In a safe space, the purpose is to affirm marginal identity attributes in preparation for a time when they can be displayed openly without fear, and perhaps even to contribute to campaigns to increase the acceptance of those identities. In other words, the safe space itself is deliberately articulated against the “unsafe” character of the rest of the world; challenge happens not within the safe space, but outside of it, precisely because individuals in a safe space are seeking respite from being challenged on aspects of their identity. Classrooms, on the other hand, are about augmenting students’ capacities to do things, and the design of classrooms — both their physical design in the space where they happen and their intellectual design in the syllabus that enframes and constitutes them — needs to pay attention to that purpose above all. The very notion of augmenting capacity means that a certain degree of challenge is built into the design of any classroom from the outset; the presumption is that the student cannot yet do X, but that participating in the course will enable her to develop the ability to do X. The student changes by learning, and the entirety of the learning process is thus a challenge to the place where the student begins at the outset of the course.

Of course, the nature of the challenge matters a lot here. Safe spaces are specifically assayed against identity challenges — that is to say, against challenges involving the way that people define themselves or are defined by society at large. Not every challenge is a challenge to an aspect of someone’s identity, but to my mind there are at least two kinds of challenge that are: categorical exclusions of everyone with a particular identity attribute from a space, and questions about how and whether aspects of one’s identity belong together. Those kinds of challenges can certainly make a space uncomfortable: “you don’t belong here” and “you don’t make any sense” can easily make their target feel both “unwelcome” and “unsafe.”

The question is: should both of these kinds of challenges be excised from the classroom? If so, then it might be possible for a classroom to be a safe space even though the purposes of a classroom and a safe space are somewhat distinct. The former kind of challenge is the easy case, and it should be rather uncontroversial to say that preventing students with particular identity attributes from participating in a course simply makes no sense: that’s a barrier that has no business being maintained, since a person’s gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and the like has no bearing on whether that person can learn whatever is being taught in whatever course. Racist and sexist accounts of what particular ethnicities and genders can and can’t do, or are and aren’t capable of, and any efforts to exclude, say, women from a classroom would have to be justified on grounds other than the capacity of women to learn whatever is being taught — religious grounds, cultural grounds, political grounds, in any case grounds that are not at all integrally related to the purpose of the classroom.

Beyond formal barriers to participation in a classroom, though, there are more subtle exclusions, modes of marginalization involving overt or tacit suggestions that the student doesn’t belong in the classroom in the first place, and that therefore anything the student says is illegitimate from the outset. When an incorrect equation is judged to be not just an incorrect equation, but an equation produced by a subgroup of the population that is intrinsically “bad at math,” we are in the territory of just such subtle exclusions; the message is that “members of group X can’t do this,” which is patently false. Likewise the notion that only students with particular identity attributes can speak on particular subjects, and the associated supposition that a student with a particular identity attribute somehow represents all people with that attribute: “now let’s hear the Hispanic perspective on this issue,” while turning to the one Hispanic in the class. In situations like this, which can be produced both by the teacher and by the students themselves, students are denied full participation in the classroom as students, and as a result the classroom space fails in its core purpose of letting learning take place.

Removing these more informal barriers to participation requires deliberate attentiveness on the part of everyone in the class; it is not enough to simply start allowing women or students of a previously-excluded ethnicity into the classroom. Instead, the classroom has to be made what Parker Palmer calls a hospitable place:

Hospitality means receiving each other, our struggles, our newborn ideas with openness and care. It means creating an ethos in which the community of troth can form, the pain of truth’s transformations be borne.

In other words, a classroom space is made hospitable by its deliberate inclusivity, by inviting students in, so that all are welcome to learn in that place. Hospitality in the classroom imposes a deliberate equality of status on the participants, but this does not in any way mean that all opinions on a subject expressed by students are somehow equally valid; instead, it means that all such opinions are subjected to the same standards of evaluation, and every moment is in principle a teachable one.

Hospitality looks different in different kinds of classrooms. A skills course features, or should feature, a relatively clear specification of the skill(s) in question, so class sessions can be designed to focus on everyone in the class acquiring those skills regardless of identity attributes. Indeed, this is an especially easy case since the performance of a skill requires an adherence to standards of evaluation that have nothing to do with anyone’s personal identity characteristics; there is an impersonality to a skill like riding a bike or fixing a computer or making an espresso macchiato that is, strictly speaking, indifferent to any attributes of a person’s identity. Which is not to say that particular characteristics of particular individuals might not make them better at performing particular skills, such as the athletic skills on display in Olympic gymnastics; it is also not to say that particular students’ characteristics and background don’t have implications for how they might learn a particular skill. The point is that the standards for the performance of those skills are identity-attribute-indifferent, so a hospitable skills classroom would invite everyone to be equally subordinate to those standards.

The same goes for courses intended to impart facts. Strictly speaking, identity attributes are equally irrelevant to such a course, because the facts in question begin in the possession of the instructor and end up also in the hands of the students, irrespective of any identity attribute of anyone involved in that relationship. One takes a course with an expert on a subject in order to get the benefit of her expertise; the facts that such an expert instructor delivers are certified or warranted, from the point of view of everyone in the class, in as detached and impersonal a way as the standards for a given skill’s performance are in a skills course. In a facts course one does not question the facts, any more than in a skills course one questions the definition of the skill —both of those kinds of courses are set up for the acquisition of a defined capacity or competence that precedes the classroom and stretches beyond it. In both types of courses, hospitality is bought at the cost of impersonality: in a sense, everyone’s identity is equally irrelevant to the subject of the course, so everyone simply checks their identities at the classroom door and focuses on acquiring the facts or skills on offer.

Raising questions about the standards for the competent performance of a skill (“why does an espresso macchiato have less milk in it than a latte?”), or shifting the conversation from “the facts” to the factuality or facticity of those facts (“the Europeans didn’t ‘discover’ the Americas, they conquered them”), takes us into a messier realm where hospitality looks different, and where different challenges to identity are more likely to manifest themselves. The challenges in question are challenges based not on exclusion, but on the coherence of someone’s identity. And such challenges are particularly likely to arise in courses intended not to impart facts to students or to train students in skills, but to cultivate judgment, the enhancement of a capacity on the part of the student to distinguish between alternatives and to make choices between them. These are the sorts of courses in which controversy and contention are more the order of the day, precisely because learning here is personal, not impersonal — and for most of us in the social sciences and humanities, these are the kinds of courses we most often find ourselves teaching. Outside of technical research methods courses and broad “surveys” for the generally-educated, what we prioritize when we teach is the sensibility to a subject we want a student to develop: a feel for what is important in a topic, an attitude toward the world that is informed by the subjects we teach.

Courses intending to cultivate judgment are thus directly connected to students’ identities, and what is discussed in such courses cannot help but be “taken personally.” This is not the domain of facts or skills, precisely because it often involves not a right answer but a defensible answer — which is part of why we use descriptors like “thoughtful” or “elegant” or “nuanced” to describe the exercise of such a capacity. This is the realm of aesthetic and moral sensibility, and it won’t be on the test because you can’t just test for it the way you can for facts and skills. It’s also the realm of things like integrity and character and commitment, which a student might augment through participation in a class if there is sufficient room for the student to exercise her or his capacities in that environment, but which aren’t the kinds of things one acquires in the same way as one acquires facts and skills by being trained in them.

Challenges to the coherence of students’ identities therefore arise in such classrooms as a matter of course, whenever a student is pressed to develop a point in a way that produces inconsistency with other attributes of her or his identity. Questions about justice and beauty and moral rectitude, and the implications of particular stances in those registers for practical action, form the day to day subject-matter of many of our courses, and as we know only too well students often come to college with an inconsistent mish-mash of inherited and adopted positions on a variety of issues. Posing a controversial question for a class full of college students (“does a state have the right to defend itself from invasion by pre-emptively attacking another state?”) quickly reveals a variety of commitments that haven’t been completely thought through, but which are nonetheless important attributes of students’ identities: as patriots, as defender of human rights, as members of groups that might be targeted in such pre-emptive strikes.

It should be obvious that in a course intended to cultivate judgment, hospitality looks somewhat different than it does in a fact- or skills-based course. Precisely because the capacity for judgment is more existentially central to one’s identity, a course that intends to cultivate and develop that capacity is necessarily a course that aims to affect a student’s identity in some way. So the resulting classroom cannot, by definition, be a safe space that affirms every identity attribute, because some of those identity attributes will be challenged as the course unfolds. This applies equally to those courses that have a distinct ethical or political “line” along which they aim to educate the students, and those courses that operate without such a line and aim instead to, as Max Weber once put it, “loosen the solid soil of contemplative thought” and call every position into question. (Should the former kind of course even happen in a university? That’s a separate set of considerations, and not central to my argument here.) One cannot ignore identity attributes in such a classroom, and one cannot rely on the logic of mutual subordination to the subject to keep the class centered on issues that are in important ways equally distant from everyone’s identities.

Hospitality in a classroom where the cultivation of judgment is central — and let’s be honest, these are ideal-types, and almost every classroom I have ever been in has at least some aspects of an intention to cultivate judgment — takes the form of a generous and charitable spirit towards difference. Palmer again:

The classroom where truth is central will be a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome. This may suggest a classroom lacking essential rigor, a place in which questions of true and false, right and wrong, are subordinated to making sure that everyone “has a nice day.” But that would be a false understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not an end in itself. It is offered for the sake of what it can allow, permit, encourage, and yield. A learning space needs to be hospitable not to make learning painless but to make the painful things possible, things without which no learning can occur — things like exposing ignorance, testing tentative hypotheses, challenging false or partial information, and mutual criticism of thought. Each of these is essential to obedience to truth. But none of them can happen in an atmosphere where people feel threatened and judged.

(Palmer’s notion of “obedience to truth” is another way of expressing the same central purpose of the classroom that I’ve called, with more of a nod to Dewey, the enhancement of the student’s capacity. In the Introduction to the reprinted edition of the book, Palmer offers “to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced” as an alternative formulation to that deployed in the main text.)

Palmer’s discussion strikes me as uniquely appropriate for classrooms in which the cultivation of judgment is the principal “learning outcome.” In such a situation, a hospitable classroom that invites participation draws the students together and enables collective wrestling with difficult issues, in an atmosphere that affirms the possibility of multiple perspectives that are equally defensible. Whether this is understood as a stage on the road to some future unification of perspectives, or as a permanent condition of human knowing, is less important; what matters is that in a hospitable classroom students are actively invited in rather than just neutrally tolerated, and that challenges to the coherence of particular identities are advanced gently, respectfully, and in a spirit of mutual humility.

An example might help here. In many of my courses, the issue of public displays of patriotic loyalty and support for members of the military comes up: my World Politics class attends a baseball game and the next day in class we talk about why the national anthem preceded the game and whether that was appropriate for a sports competition, and why the crowd was prominently asked to stand and applaud for combat veterans in attendance at the game in seats considerably better than ours; a student in ROTC attends class in her uniform and wonders why we do not get Veterans’ Day off as a holiday; Arlington Cemetery is a short metro ride away from our campus, and students wonder why such prime real estate is dedicated to graves. These are moments when the hospitality of our classroom space is tested, because things can easily go sideways, devolving into shouting matches that produce no learning precisely because they invoke core attributes of people’s identities. So everyone digs in their heels and no judgment of any kind is cultivated. But the solution, I submit, is not to designate the classroom a “safe space” and rule out any kind of challenge to identity; claims like “if you live here then you benefit from what the military does so you owe members of the military some respect” are identity challenges, but can be handled in ways that promote learning rather than ideological assertion. My favorite way to do this is to instruct partisans on either side of the issue to take up the opposite position for the sake of a structured, formal debate — the resulting distancing of positions from persons enables a calmer consideration of things, and in the best instances the development of a more nuanced appreciation of the opposing point of view.

Shutting down the discussion because it was making people feel uncomfortable would not, in my view, have been the correct response. In one way I agree with the Chicago letter: classrooms can’t and shouldn’t be “safe spaces” in the full sense, because they are not about providing a harbor or a haven, and because certain kinds of challenges are inevitable in certain kinds of classrooms. (Other parts of campus are a different matter; my office, where I meet with students outside of class, is a safe space, and prominently displays logos indicating it to be such.) But challenging classrooms in particular should be hospitable spaces. Whether we are teaching facts, skills, or judgment, we can be hospitable, both as teachers and as students. To do otherwise is to betray the mission of the classroom, which is to let learning take place.