Teaching History in a “Safe Space”

I require my students to read a primary source before every class. My classes last 75 minutes and have 50 students. So I find that opening class with some primary source analysis can integrate discussion into a class structure that often requires straight lecture. While I have used lecture notes as a rough outline of where the class should go for smaller sections, both the size and length of my classes now force me to organize content more clearly using PowerPoint and a slew of audio-visual sources. As a result, my students probably view about 15-20 of these sources for a given class session.

One unintended consequence of this approach is that I often find myself grappling with whether to display visual content containing, by today’s standards, offensive and/or troubling images. Two weeks ago, I showed my students cartoons from the 1860s and 1870s that utilized hate speech and racist images to decry Black activism during Reconstruction. Last week, my students viewed horrid lynching pictures during a brief discussion of Jim Crow. Eventually, I will have to decide how and when to show equally graphic footage involving the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the Emmett Till murder. Professors undoubtedly present these topics in various ways and what individual teachers feel comfortable showing is of course subjective. The broader question, though, is how teachers should balance the need to access the more raw and blunt aspects of history with the need to create a “safe space” for students. Where is the boundary between free speech and offensive language in a college classroom? How should teachers and administrators establish this boundary in a way that both encourages students to participate and acknowledges that some of these ideas may provoke strong emotional reactions and, in turn, cause students to shut down?

Writers have recently debated these questions both inside and outside the academy. Some have criticized the potential excesses and negative consequences of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” One article, for example, has argued that colleges have overstepped in trying to create these “safe spaces” and, in turn, regulated language and speech to a degree that stifles intellectual debate and leaves students lacking critical thinking skills. The criteria by which someone threatens a “safe space,” the article continues, has become so broad that colleges have unintentionally provided students with the ability to use “I’m offended” as an “unbeatable trump card” that stifles academic rigor. While the article acknowledges that some material may very well trigger post-traumatic stress, it cites one author who worried that an emphasis on “safe space” would foster the idea that “there is something dangerous or damaging about discussing difficult aspects of our history.”[1] The New York Times quickly responded to this article, publishing an op-ed from a scholar who argues that “trigger warnings” enable, not discourage, honest debate and likens presenting students with especially graphic material to “throwing a spider at an arachnophobe.”[2] Even President Obama joined the conversation, noting in a Town Hall meeting on college costs that students should not be “coddled and protected from different points of view.”[3]

Personally, I lean towards showing my students graphic material if it furthers the main point of a specific piece of content. If used correctly and not for mere shock value, I believe that this material can lead students to understand history and present teachers with some teachable moments. Nevertheless, I do think that professors need to warn their students before showing unusually graphic and/or explicit material. This practice seems to me a simple matter of good communication, a necessary ingredient for effective teaching and classroom management. Students, most of whom have a set of life experiences of which I know nothing, have a right to know what’s coming their way on most assignments (for the record, I give weekly pop quizzes, but my students know that), not just ones that could cause an intense personal reaction. It seems like the trust that this can build between professor and student is exactly the sort of thing that can foster collective debate and critical thinking.

How have others tried to strike this balance?

[1] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015.

[2] Kate Manne, “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” The New York Times, September 19, 2015.

[3] Thomas B. Edsall, “Trump, Obama, and the Assault on Political Correctness,” The New York Times, December 23, 2015.

3 thoughts on “Teaching History in a “Safe Space”

  1. Such an interesting topic. I’m so happy to read that other’s struggle with how to handle this topic. In fact, I almost didn’t teach this semester because I was so concerned with this discussions over how not to offend, political correctness, etc. But the truth of the matter is that history is messy. It’s offensive. And it’s good. I believe that we shouldn’t coddle students. The “real world” doesn’t provide for safe spaces. The “real world” is gritty and nasty. Our job is to prepare our students to face that world, challenge/acknowledge/respect beliefs that differ from theirs. They can’t do that if we hide things from them.

    I’m a mom. My natural inclination is to protect. But I know, from watching my own children grow, that I won’t always be there and they need to be able to stand on their own two feet.

    Maybe there isn’t one right answer…

    Here’s a link to a post that I wrote on a similar topic: http://bit.ly/1T2xZVC

    • Thanks, Daenel! Glad to hear other educators facing the same issues. I agree with your blog post. By and large, I also find that my students haven’t learned much about the country’s racial past (my classes tend to have a high immigrant, but low African-American population). So I feel that there is a certain obligation to show a fairly uncensored version of history no matter how ugly. As a matter of pedagogy, though, I still think “trigger warnings” (though they’ve been clearly misused and abused at times) have an important role in these situations.

  2. Pingback: Teaching History in a “Safe Space” | Teaching United States History | teaching knowledge and creativity

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