Friday, August 26, 2016

University Speech and "Safe Spaces

Mark Graber

Dr. Naomi Graber on the University of Chicago and "safe spaces." Seems right to me.

Dear Dr. Ellison, 
In your welcome letter to freshman, you maintain that "you do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own." You seem to feel that students cannot "speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship" in such "safe spaces." I respectfully suggest that you do not understand the concept of "intellectual safe space." 
Here is my conception of "safe space," which I include on all of my syllabi for classes that include discussion: 
Discussions as "Safe Space" 
One of the advantages of the college classroom is that it gives students an opportunity to try out new concepts, arguments, and ideas, even though they may be somewhat “half-baked.” Often there will be no “right” or “wrong” answer, merely opinions or positions that are well- or poorly-supported. You should feel free to throw out “half-baked” ideas just to see if they work. 
You may be surprised to find support among other students. Other times you may find that the notion does not hold water, and may be discarded. That is also okay! Trial and error is an essential part of the learning process, and your discussion grade is based on participation, not on “correctness”; you will not be penalized for being “wrong” during discussion sections. In this light, it is imperative all discussions sections remain respectful and collegial. Inevitably, everyone at some point voices an unpopular opinion, or takes a position that turns out to be unsupported, if not in this class, then at some point in the future. We ask that you challenge ideas, not people. 
In my experience, students cannot "speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn" without feeling safe from reprisal, either from their professors or from their colleagues. Students should have a place where they can challenge and be challenged without being demeaned or having their grade lowered, a place where they can learn to admit that they're wrong and not be ridiculed for it. (This is not to say that I do not grade on being right or wrong in my classes---students are tested on facts using traditional exams, and essays are graded on whether or not arguments are well-supported.) There should be room in college for students to fail safely, to re-think and re-conceptualize without worrying about ad hominem attacks. That, to me, is how a classroom should be considered a "intellectual safe space," and from speaking with friends and colleagues, that seems to be the working definition most faculty use. Your chimerical "safe spaces" where "individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own" do not exist in any of the classrooms I have ever been in. 
Far from "fostering the free exchange of ideas," you are telling students they should expect intellectual intimidation, that disagreement itself is unsafe, and that they should always been on the defensive. "Suit up," you tell them, "because this is going to be a fight." I prefer the metaphor of discussions as collective exploration where discoveries are made, rather than as battles which are won or lost. I encourage you to explore how your faculty might be using the term "safe space" before you condemn it.
Naomi Graber, Ph.D.
Hugh Hodgson School of Music
University of Georgia

Older Posts
Newer Posts