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Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Microaggressions: Discussing Questions of Freedom of Speech on Campus

The student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called for professors to warn students about graphic material presented in their classes. Related Article Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

This August, as a new school year was about to begin, the University of Chicago captured media attention with the letter it addressed to incoming first-years.

As The Times reported in “University of Chicago Strikes Back Against Campus Political Correctness“:
The anodyne welcome letter to incoming freshmen is a college staple, but this week the University of Chicago took a different approach: It sent new students a blunt statement opposing some hallmarks of campus political correctness, drawing thousands of impassioned responses, for and against, as it caromed around cyberspace.

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the class of 2020, who will arrive next month.

The letter comes in response to what Greg Lukianoff, president and chief executive of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, calls an “epic” year last year when colleges and universities around the country were forced to publicly and painfully deal with issues of race, sexual assault, gay and transgender rights and free speech — mirrored and magnified in the microcosm of campus life, and amplified by social media.

In this lesson, we offer some starting points for helping high school students wrestle with the questions this letter, and last year’s incidents, raise — and apply them to their own learning and school experiences.

Four Corners + Room for Debate to Introduce the Issues

According to a poll recently released by the Gallup Organization, 78 percent of 3,072 students from 32 four-year private and public colleges said they believed their campuses should strive to create an open environment where they would be exposed to a range of speech and views. Twenty-two percent noted that “colleges should prohibit biased or offensive speech in the furtherance of a positive learning environment.” But 69 percent favored limitations on speech when it came to language that was deliberately upsetting to some groups.

How can colleges and universities best balance a need to foster intellectual discourse about difficult topics with a need to protect students who may feel marginalized for some reason?

Before you take that question on, you might want to define the concepts of trigger warningsmicroaggressions and safe spaces if students are not familiar with them. Then, to gauge their initial thoughts about these issues, you might try a four-corners activity.

Post signs in the four corners of the room saying “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree” and “Strongly Disagree.” Then tell students you will read them several statements. For each, you will ask them to move to the corner of the room that best represents their opinion. (If this is too public, you could create a handout with the statements and have students anonymously rate their degree of agreement.)

Here are some statements, drawn from Times reporting and Opinion essays, which you might use:
--Schools should be places where students are exposed to many viewpoints, even if some groups or individuals might find them offensive.
--Classrooms should be places where all students should have the freedom to share their opinions.
--Classrooms should be places where all teachers should have the freedom to share their opinions.
--Teachers should warn middle and high school students about sensitive content in the books they will read for school.
--Students should be allowed to opt out of curriculum they disagree with or find offensive.
--Professors should warn college and university students about sensitive content in literature.
--Outright harassment and subtle norms steeped in racism, sexism and homophobia are real in many classrooms and schools.
--Students going to college should expect to be safe from hurtful language and ideas.
--Colleges should be places where uncomfortable ideas can be debated openly.
--A college or university should cancel a speaker a majority of students object to.
--All speech should be free, including speech we find offensive.
--Free speech is not truly available to all, especially members of marginalized groups, so additional protections for them are needed.
--Calling for safer academic environments is infantilizing to students.
--Colleges and universities should have speech codes to protect students from intentionally hurtful language.
--Students today expect to be coddled, not challenged.
--Concepts like “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on campus are antithetical to academic freedom.
--Students are not avoiding or silencing difficult conversations by asking for trigger warnings and safe spaces. Instead, they are trying to learn how to face them in ways that are both academically rigorous and sensitive to the needs of everyone in the room.

As students assemble in corners after each statement is read, ask them to talk with the others gathered there about the idea for a few minutes and ask any clarifying questions of the teacher. Once they have done so, give students a chance to move around if they have changed their minds before moving on to the next statement.

After the exercise is over, ask students to share the issues discussed in their small groups; talk about which questions were hardest to answer; and reflect on what they noticed during the exercise. Did any of their answers contradict each other? How?

Then invite them to read the short responses from six experts in this November 2015 Room for Debate forum, When a Generation Becomes Less Tolerant of Free Speech.

As they read, have them annotate their reactions and thoughts. Students might think and write about questions like:
--Which of the six responses challenged your thinking most? Why?
--With which do you most agree in the end?
--What personal experiences have you had that have influenced and informed your opinions on these subjects?
--In what circumstances do you learn best? How, if at all, does this debate relate to that for you?

Finally, you might repeat the four-corners exercise with the same statements. What, if anything, changed after students learned more? Why?

Pair the University of Chicago Letter With a Student Rebuttal

Invite students to read both the article about the letter from the University of Chicago and this response to it, by Sophie Downes, a senior at the university, who contends that “the letter betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what the terms ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ mean, and came across as an embarrassing attempt to deflect attention from serious issues on campus.”

She writes:
A little heads-up can help students engage with uncomfortable and complex topics, and a little sensitivity to others, at the most basic level, isn’t coddling. Civic discourse in this country has become pretty ugly, so maybe it’s not surprising that students are trying to create ways to have compassionate, civil dialogue.

What do students think? Was the letter more “public relations maneuver” than a genuine policy, or was the University of Chicago taking a much-needed stand? Would they like to receive a letter like this from a college just before they begin their studies?

Plan the Freshman Orientation You Would Like to Attend

A September 2016 article, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” begins this way:

A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?”

The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”

The exchange was included in Ms. Marlowe’s presentation to recently arriving first-year students focusing on subtle “microaggressions,” part of a new campus vocabulary that also includes “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”

Read the article with students and have them react through writing or discussion. Do they agree that programs like these are needed on campus today? Does their own school need one?

Regardless of where they stand, you might then invite them to work alone, in pairs or in small groups to plan the freshman orientation they would like to attend — one that addresses these issues in ways that feel meaningful and useful, but that also reflects what they think about where a school should stand on these issues.

First Amendment Satire

Show students this short film by the satirist Ami Horowitz.

Together examine what the film is trying to show. What questions does it raise? What do you think is its purpose? Should the First Amendment be scrapped? What would happen if it was? What would happen if someone came to their campus with a similar petition?

After the discussion, have students read this Daily Beast article in which a Yale University spokesman expresses skepticism about the video. Did students raise some of the same questions as they watched?

Research and Debate

If your class would like to read and learn more, assign small groups of students one of the recent campus protests to research each. They have been gathered here by The Times and here by The Atlantic, but we provide Times links below as well.

Ask students to be prepared to share what sparked the protest, what happened, what resolution the students and school reached, if any, and what questions the protest has raised for them.

Here are some starting points, but you might also direct students to the student publications at each of these institutions for more information.

Yale’s Halloween Advice Stokes a Racially Charged Debate
Yale Professor and Wife, Targets of Protests, Resign as College Heads
Yale Educator Recounts ‘Painful Experience’ of Halloween Email Furor
Yale College Dean Torn by Racial Protests

University of Missouri
Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech
At University of Missouri, Black Students See a Campus Riven by Race
University of Missouri Protests Spur a Day of Change

Demonstrators Address Demands to University
Where Does Georgetown Start? By Listening
Georgetown University Plans Steps to Atone for Slave Past
Georgetown Confronts Its Ugly Past

University of Chicago
On Eve of Graduation, University of Chicago Student President Faces Expulsion
Student Body President Can Graduate, University of Chicago Says

Claremont McKenna
Dean at Calremont McKenna College Resigns Amid Protests

With Diversity Comes Intensity in Amherst Free Speech Debate
Amherst Mascot Gets Thumbs Down From Faculty

Princeton Students Hold Sit-In on Racial Injustice
Princeton Board Votes to Keep Woodrow Wilson’s Name on Campus Buildings

Harvard to Discontinue Use of House Master Title

Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall

Now that students are armed with basic knowledge about the context for this debate, invite them to respond to the Daily Beast piece, “The Craziest Demands of College Kids in 2016,” that asserts, “Sometimes, change is good, and these kids deserve to be heard. But the demands of student activists have increasingly taken an Orwellian bent—and, if met, would eviscerate the free speech rights of faculty members, campus visitors, and even other students.”

Ask: “Based on what you know now, do these demands seem reasonable? Or have students gone too far?”

Tell students that you will engage in a simplified Oxford-style debate to look more deeply at both sides of this issue. Alternatively, if you prefer and have the time, you could watch this debate on the Intelligence Squared website.

As a class decide upon the resolution you want to debate. You can see the IQ2 debate resolutions here. This is a good time to focus students on the aspect of these events and the issues they raise that you want them to think more about. For example, if you wanted to focus on academic freedom or students’ First Amendment rights, the resolution could be focused on that. If this is a moment you want to zero in on race, privilege and identity politics, guide students to craft resolution (s) focused around those issues. You might also divide the class into smaller groups around different resolutions and then hold the debates for one another.

Once students have held their debate, debrief together. Ask students if their opinions have changed, given what they have read and heard.

Finally, ask how this applies to their own secondary school education. Is the purpose of education at this level to coddle or to challenge — or, if it is to do both, where would they draw a line? What are the differences between a high school and college environment when it comes to freedom of expression, microaggressions, safe spaces and trigger warnings? Has their school done an adequate job to helping them in these areas? Is there anything they would recommend to their own current administration after studying the way colleges and universities are handling them?

Additional Related Readings

From The New York Times
--Article | The New Student Activists
--Opinion | Will the Left Survive the Millennials?
--Article | Studies in the First Amendment Playing Out on Campus
--Article | Students Say Free Speech Is Alive, With One Big Exception
--Opinion | Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech
--Article | Fighting for Free Speech on America’s Campuses
--Opinion | When a Generation Becomes Less Tolerant of Free Speech
--Opinion | The Seduction of Safety on Campus and Beyond
--Opinion | Why are Student Protesters so Fearful?
--Opinion | Racial Justice and Freedom of Speech: Readers on Missouri and Yale
--Article | Racism on Campus: Stories From New York Times Readers
--Article | Racial Discrimination Protests Ignite at Colleges Across the U.S.
--Opinion | Political Correctness and Its Real Enemies
--Article | In College Turmoil, Signs of a Changed Relationship With Students
--Article | Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm

From Around the Web
--The New Yorker | The Big Uneasy
--The Atlantic | The Coddling of the American Mind
--The Atlantic | Grading the University of Chicago’s Letter on Academic Freedom
--The Atlantic | Educators Respond to the University of Chicago Letter
--The Atlantic | Should Any Ideas Be ‘Off the Table’ in Campus Debates?
--The Atlantic | Debating the Campus Protests at Mizzou, Yale, and Elsewhere
--Yale News | Is free speech threatened on college campuses? An audience casts its vote
--Inside Higher Ed | Yale President Urges Freshmen to Defend Free Expression