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My class needs to be a safe space

Flickr photo of safety pin by Dano

My class needs to be a safe space


Guest column by Chadron Hazelbaker

Winter break is wrapping up, and students head back to our campus next week as we kick off another quarter.  When classes start, I am going to walk into the classroom and unabashedly give a trigger-warning to my students.

I know that the phrases “trigger-warning” and “safe-space” have become incredibly loaded in our politicized post-truth world, driven in some respects by social media.  Saying I am seeking to provide safe spaces will cause a visceral reaction in some of my Facebook friends.  During the past year, I’ve seen the memes, postings, and rantings demonizing college students for being soft, privileged, weak, and entitled. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and in the shadow of the January inauguration, maybe these people’s rantings are right.  Maybe this generation of students are entitled and they’ve been given too many participation trophies.  They may be over reacting.  They may be off base.  Maybe.  However, maybe they need something from us.  Maybe they need a little time and a little space as they try to process what it all means.  While they may not be seasoned cynics of our generation, we may be able to learn something about our world as we listen to these students.  The nerves are raw, and the wounds are fresh, and they’re bringing unique experiences, deficiencies, and pains to our campus and our classrooms.

In some ways, I really think it is silly as an academic to make the argument that those outside of academics just don’t understand what we do on a college campus. This sort of statement tends to end up in arguments about campus elitists and impractical ivory towers.  However, I think it is important for those outside of academics to understand a couple of things about why it is important for those of us on campus to create areas where safe dialog and learning can occur – and why, even with our best efforts, we sometimes fall short of that goal.

I haven’t always been a safe-space providing teacher. My personality lends me to the “sage on the stage” mode of education.  I have been trained to know what is right – and how it should best be presented.  In many ways, I can place blame for my lack of understanding student needs on my own education, including my graduate work where I had little formal training in pedagogy and in helping to best reach, lead, and teach students.  After many years of trial and error, I’ve begun to focus more of my time, energy, and efforts on listening to students and trying to understand their perspectives.  While I don’t agree with many of their ideas and the notions they bring to the classroom, part of my job is to move them away from their preconceptions and help them to see broader perspectives and to explore complex societal issues in new ways so that those students begin to be equipped to tackle the challenges they face as they hit the ‘real world’.  Sometimes, students simply don’t know what they don’t know.  Sometimes they simply take the comfortable path.  Sometimes, however, they bring history and life experiences to their education that I can’t comprehend.

The very nature and goal of the university has changed in the eyes of society, politicians, students, and some academics over the past 15 years. Originally, universities were not founded as a vehicle for people to get jobs.  Job skills were life-learned for the most part, and colleges were focused on giving tools and ideas that were focused on big world problems. The ivory tower thoughts were focused on creating thinkers, philosophers, and leaders to be equipped to help society as a whole – not to help the individual get a job.   Culturally in the United States, we’ve seen a major shift, so that now college degrees are seen as vital to the job market.  C’s get degrees, and degrees lead to jobs.  This train of thought has created tension in universities as many faculty still cling to the university ideals of training tomorrow’s leaders to tackle huge societal problems, and students, parents, and legislators who pressure universities to simply provide job skills, certifications, and knowledge.  If a university is meant to provide job skills, and most jobs are unforgiving, non-relational, and full of triggers, why would a faculty member waste time and resources seeking relational and safe learning environments?  As an academic, I understand that students and parents value the degree and the doors it will open, but I also push back against the idea that the job is the most important part of college.   I firmly believe that the process – and through that process the critical analysis of world problems – is vitally important to our students’ lives as individuals, and most importantly, as future leaders.

Because I have changed my own thoughts on the role of the university, students, and faculty, I have become more aware of what students bring to the classroom.  Yes.  I am one of those teachers who gave a student a break on the Wednesday following the election, not requiring her to come to class after her anxiety attack brought on by the election results.  I did this because I thought of the male student who cried in my office as he described his own sexual and physical abuse as a child.  As an adult student, he is struggling to find balance as he is working full-time and is a full-time student working in order to provide a more stable and safe future for his own son. I thought of another student who I cried with when, two years ago, she showed strength and courage enough to tell me she wouldn’t be able to come to my class the day after we talked about male privilege and toxic masculinity.  She was a 4.0 student, a budding professional who was always in class. She also is a survivor who struggled with the pain, guilt, and emptiness of her own rape.  She was physically pained by the discussion of sexual assault in my lecture.  My simple teaching moment in the classroom took on an amplified intensity for her.  I cannot fully comprehend the deep scars that these survivors have and how the choices of others will have an effect on them for the rest of their lives, including in our college classrooms.  After the election, I thought giving the student a safe space to find her path was more important than my class activity that was planned months ago.

Along with receiving trophies, these students have been raised in our “boys will be boys” culture, full of strong images and definitions of what it means to be masculine and feminine. They know how good boys and girls should act.  They’ve been raised in the confusion of the Rolling Stone campus rape report and the outrage of the Brock Turner sexual assault sentencing.  They have received conflicting and confusing messages from their peers, their media, their parents, and their teachers.  As some critics who are removed from campuses either pass judgement or simply dismiss these students, I get to look them in the eyes and try to help them find a voice and a path to their future.  I don’t know what the proper response should be.  I struggle to know what to do. What should our response as faculty and staff on campus when our students’ experiences don’t match the societal definitions about what good boys and good girls are and should do?  Do we tell them to toughen up?  Do we tell them to stop acting entitled?  Do we go to the parenting standard “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”?

As I reflect on the challenges our students face, I really don’t have sage wisdom or advice to offer them.  I don’t know how to guide them into a place of understanding and hope. However, I do want to help them find a voice.  I want to give them space to explore.  I want to help them find answers to the complex issues they face.  I want to challenge them, get them to think deeply, and to explore the corners of our sometimes crazy world.   To do this, I need them to be a part of the discussion.  I need them to feel safe, and be aware of some of the tough, dark, and triggering topics we’ll tackle in class. I need, for students and faculty, a safe space.




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