The University of Chicago “safe spaces” letter does have one virtue: it’s produced some excellent writing debunking the dense web of strawpersons and urban legends and random anecdotes that seem to be pervasive in discussions of these issues. Mark Tushnet on trigger warnings:
That, I think, is what discussions of trigger warnings should be about – whether pedagogic choices made in a different era, with a different set of students with different values and known backgrounds from those today, should be adhered to. An example: I can imagine – because I think I did it many years ago – referring in a class discussion of Everson v. Board of Education to Justice Jackson’s dissenting reference to Lord Byron’s description in Don Juan of Julia, but I certainly wouldn’t do so today; the pedagogic benefit, which is minor, is clearly outweighed by the interference the reference would cause, particularly because there are many other ways of making Jackson’s point.
Instructors use trigger warnings, when they do so in a sensible manner, to maximize their pedagogic effectiveness as instructors: They want to include material whose content might distract students who weren’t prepared for it, and hope that the warning will be enough to reduce the distraction to a level where the substantive point can still be made. These choices are bound up with a lot of other pedagogic judgments – Can one make the substantive point by using other material? Will giving the trigger warning itself distract students, as they wonder, with respect to each item up for discussion, whether that was what the trigger warning was about? So, it’s quite silly to say, as the University of Chicago letter did, that the University “does not support” giving trigger warnings. At the very least, instructors should have the freedom to make a responsible decision that giving a trigger warning will, in the circumstances, enhance pedagogic effectiveness. If the University doesn’t support their doing so, it doesn’t care about good teaching.
Tushnet on “safe spaces”:
The widely noted University of Chicago letter to freshman is, I’m afraid – with due respect to my friends there – basically quite stupid (in the words that have attracted the most attention). The phrasings are either transparently false or so vague as to obstruct rather than facilitate clear thinking about the issues the letter purports to address.
Quoting: “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe’ spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” That’s either false or an indication that people should think carefully about sending their children to the University. Consider some examples: A war veteran is assigned a dormitory room with a roommate who is aggressively anti-the-war-in-which-the veteran-served. Almost every evening the roommate seeks to engage the veteran in a conversation about the injustice of the war and of specific incidents during it. The veteran goes to the appropriate university authorities and asks to be assigned a different roommate, saying, “I’m perfectly happy to engage in a discussion of the war in a military history class, a philosophy class on justice in wartime, and in many other places. But in the evening I just want to kick back and relax, and study for my classes. My room, in short, should be a safe space with respect to conversations about the war.” I think the university might well be irresponsible if its only response were, “Grown-ups have to learn how to work out for themselves the resolution of these kinds of disputes.” (That’s the “think carefully about sending your kids to the University” prong.) And, in my view, it wouldn’t be acting badly if it reassigned either the veteran or the roommate to another dormitory room, thereby “condon[ing] the creation of [an] intellectual ‘safe space'” for the veteran. (That’s the “it’s false” prong.)
What this all suggests is that questions of preserving academic freedom and academic diversity are more complicated than the University of Chicago’s rather self-congratulatory letter to incoming students would suggest. Lohmann’s fundamental point (and I really hope the book emerges, so that these ideas get the airing they deserve) is that successful universities – surely including the University of Chicago – are congeries of safe spaces that factions of scholars have carved out to protect themselves from their intellectual enemies. More concretely – the University of Chicago has both a very well recognized economics department and a very well recognized sociology department. There is furthermore some overlap in the topics that they study. Yet the professors in these two departments protect themselves from each other – they do not, for example, vote on each other’s tenure decisions. They furthermore have quite different notions (though again, perhaps with some overlap) of what constitutes legitimate and appropriate research. In real life, academics only are able to exercise academic freedom because they have safe spaces that they can be free in.
Thinking about universities in this way doesn’t provide obvious answers to student demands for safe spaces, some of which seem to me to be legitimate, some not (I also suspect that the media has an interest in hyping up the most ridiculous seeming claims because the weird social connections between the American elite and a very small number of colleges mean that this stuff gets an audience – but that’s another matter for a different post). What it does though, is to make clear that universities’ and professors’ own notions (myself included) of what makes for legitimate inquiry, academic freedom etc, and what doesn’t are themselves contested, and the products of social processes that don’t always look particularly good when they’re subjected to sustained inquiry.
Obviously, any useful pedagogical tool can be misused or implemented in a manner inconsistent with academic freedom (although it’s striking how few random anecdotes people whinging about trigger warnings have come up with — we’re still hearing, for example, about the dumb Oberlin policy from 2014 which was never actually implemented.) Some student requests and reasonable and some are not. But this idea that coming out against BIG POLITICALLY CORRECT in this way is taking some kind of bold stance is very silly. As Tushnet observes at the first link, we’re already seeing the two-step of terrific triviality in which the most natural reading of the phrase “do not support so-called trigger warnings” — i.e. that the administration opposes the use of trigger warnings even if it can’t forbid them — is wrong, and actually all that the letter meant is that they aren’t required. Which is 1)not what the letter says and 2)if so, it’s not clear who disagrees, but anyway. It’s also striking how quickly supporters of the letter start bringing up things — such as “Yale students failed to show proper deference to Erika Christakis’s authori-tah” — that do not in fact have anything to do with “trigger warnings” but do suggest that it’s a problem when students object to how administrators exercise their authority. I’m reminded of the movement a couple years ago to suggest that America’s elites have an inalienable right to get five-figure paydays to deliver banalities to a captive audience free of any objections on the part of the campus community.