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Letter to the Editor: Why classrooms should make students learn rather than merely feel safe

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Amid all the words, some inflammatory and others helpful, about safe spaces and trigger warnings, how am I, a teacher, supposed to think about my pedagogy? Our own President has opined on the matter as has The Daily. Not to mention the dean at the University of Chicago. Without agreeing or attacking these administrators, may I offer my working thoughts?

Let me begin simply: I teach classes about horrific events such as genocide, famine, civil wars and failed states. In other words, murder, starvation, rape, pillage and plunder are frequent subjects of my classes. I was an undergraduate when the Black House began, and it was a badly needed addition to other physical spaces which were dedicated to minority cultures, such as Jews and Catholics, who were just starting to lose their status as marginalized groups at Northwestern. Later came the Women’s Center. All for the good in my opinion.

There is a sharp distinction between the idea of safe spaces and classroom culture. To the degree it can be provided, all students should feel physically safe on this and any other campus. We ban guns for that reason. We ban harassment. And to provide a place where someone need not have to defend his or her identity seems so obvious that universities have been doing it for years.

But what about the classroom? Todd Gitlin wrote an article in Tablet Magazine entitled “Why You Should Be Disturbed in College” and that sums up my attitude towards classroom culture. I teach African Studies and Political Science and, as I said earlier, classes about real world ugliness. To not be disturbed by murder and famine scares me far more than being disturbed. I challenge you to disagree with that claim. So should I worry about framing this material by providing “trigger warnings” or some other means of softening or padding the material? Or perhaps not teach classes about our inhumanity to our fellow humans? Obviously not.

I would like to pose my solution, and I quote from my most recent syllabus: “The classroom will be run according to two principles: the first is respect for each other and differing opinions; the second is that controversies, frankness and some strong images (this is a class about famine) will be part of this class. I believe that these two principles can go together very nicely within the classroom …”

In other words, the way the classroom is managed, and how teaching is delivered, determines how and whether students are in a supportive environment while learning highly uncomfortable material. As a teacher I believe that we have an obligation to disrupt your comfort zone, make you consider points of view with which you are unfamiliar, consider opinions other than your own and all the other clichés. If we fail to do that, we fail to educate you properly. Classrooms should not be “safe” environments where your existing knowledge and beliefs are not questioned. Whether we consider the origins of famines or nationalisms in the Middle East, students deserve, indeed should be forced, to put interpretations against one another in an effort to develop better and more accurate analyses. This is how knowledge production does and should work.

So should we warn our students before an image comes up on the screen or a description appears in a book which they might find traumatic? In a way I would want to defer to psychologists who know better as to how to prevent PTSD flare-ups, which is a clinical issue. But excluding PTSD and moving to a more common situation in which students might encounter pictures and accounts of starving children or the story of a mother killing her baby as in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” the power of these images is part of the class and a good teacher will frame these in ways that put space between the student and the text. And it is that space where teaching and learning occurs. If you as a student are uncomfortable, then think about why and speak with your professor about it (that has happened in my classes) or someone who is professionally equipped. But don’t preempt your encounter with tough material — or your fellow students’. Education is not easy and is not supposed to happen without challenges.

So let’s make one thing clear, safe space is one issue; classroom engagement with rough material is another. And as I tell my own classes, in the end the classroom must remain civil and that civility must be based on respect for one another. That way knowledge will grow and education will take place. After all, that’s the primary goal of education, right?

Jeff Rice (WCAS ’72)

Senior Lecturer in African Studies

If you would like to respond publicly to this letter, send a Letter to the Editor The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.