Safe Space: the new trigger word

Safe Space: the new trigger word

 Photo by Brad Eischens

Photo by Brad Eischens

In a letter to incoming freshman, the University of Chicago administration wrote that “we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own."

The move brought the discussion of safe spaces, or locations where people can be free to express themselves without fear of being made uncomfortable and insecure, back into headlines across the country.

Here at UMD, however, the commitment to maintaining the concept of safe spaces remains. Lisa Erwin, Vice Chancellor for Student Life, says that safe spaces are invaluable.

“The whole campus should be safe, but the reality is that’s just not true,” Erwin said. She describes safe spaces as “an approach that takes into account the human experience.”

“We know from our research that some students do experience UMD as an unwelcoming and not inclusive environment, and those feelings are real,” Erwin said.

Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Fernando Delgado, looks at the controversy as a shifting of the politics, particularly in older generations.

“How racially, ethnically, genderly... how diverse their educational experience was in terms of who their classmates where and who their faculty were...” Delgado said. “You had whole swaths of our society that weren’t even allowed in your classrooms. How many tough conversations did you have?”

According to Delgado, the presence or absence of safe spaces is an important discussion for teachers to have as well.

“You might not think you need to have a trigger warning, but what happens if you trigger something? How are you going to manage that in your classroom? Are you ready to manage that dynamic in the classroom?” Delgado asked.

“A lot of would probably say ‘I’m not so sure I’m ready,’” Delgado said.

Delgado explains himself through a hypothetical scenario.

“I teach a criminology class and today I’m going to talk about and show you some material that might include some court testimony regarding physical assault,” Delgado said. “Now, do I know in my class of thirty students how many of those students have recently been touched in a physical assault? Nope. Would the data suggest to me that at least one person in the class, statistically, had recently been touched directly by some form of physical assault? Yes.”

“Now, can I still have the conversation?” Delgado asked. “Probably, but how I introduce the topic, how I manage the topic, how I allow students to enter in or step away from the topic is relevant because I also am just going to teach the class and seventy five minutes later I’ll send those students out.”

“I may have just retraumatized a student. And because I’m not aware of that,” Delgado said, “I’m sending that student emotionally unplugged and unhinged into the world.”

If a researcher working with undergraduate students has a responsibility to de-escalate that student emotionally, Delgado said, “Why couldn’t I be held to a similar standard or a different set of strategies if I’m teaching a student in a classroom?”

“If we were to do that in a classroom full of US army veterans I think everybody would want us to create safe spaces. So why wouldn’t we extend those considerations and that sensitivity to every student?” Delgado asked.

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