Safe Space and the University (Trigger Warning)

I’m turning over a lot of thoughts about safe spaces and triggers at the moment.

Next year, I’m going to go into a lecture hall, hopefully with about 50-70 undergraduates, and I’m going to talk to them about how a brutal rape becomes funny, and then, about how men use it as an excuse to act out violent homoerotic fantasies. I’m going to talk about how the rapist – like most rapists in this context – is an immigrant, a foreigner. Many of his co-rapists are black. They are all monstrous, probably by nature. But then, most women are natural liars, with no sense of loyalty. Even supposedly impartial observers are so disgusted with them (or so bored?) they’ll write whole accounts of this brutal rape narrative, without ever mentioning the word rape.

Well, ok. You know, if you’re reading this, that I’m talking about a fictional narrative, and a fictional narrative written over 500 years ago (though that ‘impartial observer’ I’m thinking of is a scholar, who deserves a ‘WTF were you thinking’ for his article on the Alliterative Morte). You probably know, if you read this blog regularly, that I won’t go into the lecture hall and say it all just as I’ve written it here. I will explain context; I will talk to my students about how insidiously damaging this narrative is, how it still influences us, how it lies to us. I will name the problems: I will call it misogynistic and racist. But, it will still upset a lot of those students.

I know that, statistically, in that class of 50-70 students, some will be survivors of rape or sexual assault. Some will be students of ethnic minorities. Well over half will be women. That lecture hall will not be a ‘safe space’ for them to learn about literature in. It’s really difficult to know what to do about that. Do I give these lectures – which I firmly believe are good literary criticism, and provide us with good tools to be wise to the ways in which literature perpetuates racism and misogyny? Or do I avoid saying anything that will have these students shrinking inside, and feeling personally exposed, and upset?

The context of this question is this letter, which I’ve signed, and which went out in the Observer today. The gist of it is that, at the moment, there’s a big debate about what ‘safe space’ should mean in a university. Should speakers who may be controversial – or worse, who may say profoundly upsetting things – be allowed to speak? Should students feel duty-bound to protest?

I want to be clear: this is not, for me, about ‘censorship’. That letter only mentions the word ‘censorship’ once – in the quoted title of an article providing context. I don’t think no-platforming any individual is censorship (I don’t like it, but that’s not what it amounts to). It seems reasonable enough to decide you don’t want someone to speak – and it’s certainly reasonable to demonstrate, or protest, against invitations to speakers with whose views you profoundly disagree. No. The problem is that, when you look at the bigger pattern, we are still much more willing to silence women than men, feminists than not. That’s a pattern that worries me.

It worries me because I would like to keep teaching in a context where I can talk about things that are profoundly upsetting, and triggering, and on which I do have an ideological perspective. I want to teach in a context where people feel able to disagree with me – absolutely, categorically, without reservations – but where they’ll talk to me about it. I don’t want to see a university where we never mention questions like the politics of rape, of heterosex, of prostitution, of race relations.

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5 thoughts on “Safe Space and the University (Trigger Warning)

  1. My first thought? That the module handbook could highlight this issue and the thinking that lies behind the decision to base a lecture upon it. This offers students who maybe have been subject to sexual assault or rape or racism the opportunity to either bow out or contact you privately.

    I cannot condone the erasure of such subjects from the syllabus because they are upsetting. To educate oneself means having to negotiate a subject or content that may not feel safe. How it is taught is the safe space, not the decision to NOT teach or discuss it.

    • It does – all my lectures have trigger warnings on it.

      I just don’t think there can ever be a perfect way to teach these subjects. I mean, I think I’m on the side of the angels, but so does every other bigot, you know? So while I am teaching that these are rape myth narratives that prop up racism, someone else may be teaching that my views are misandrist propaganda that subverts historically specific situations to make a political point. Who’s right?

  2. My feeling on this is that there is no such thing as a safe space – but we can aim to make our lecture halls safer spaces, in which these painful, challenging and uncomfortable issues are looked at clearly and honestly, thus giving them the same amount of careful attention we would any other issue raised in a text. For me, it’s not about putting cotton wool around students, but about creating environments where this stuff is given due attention and intellectual consideration, part of which is facing up to how the contemporary experience of the class interacts with the source material.

    • I agree with you.

      But that is not surprising, since my teaching has been so informed by reading what you have to say. I think I have said before, but I’ve found your posts on teaching potentially triggering issues enormously helpful.

  3. Pingback: On failures to understand what ‘free speech’ does and does not mean: Starkey again | Jeanne de Montbaston

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