Safe Spaces And Difficult Discussions

College campuses all across the country are wrestling with the balance between "safe spaces" and open discussions that may challenge students, and others, to move out of their comfort zone. The viewpoints that have been expressed on both sides of the argument have ranged from a collegial discussion, to a hostile exchange, to calling for the resignation of administrators. I suspect colleges, like FM, will be contemplating the balance between these points of view for some time. This article reflects my thoughts on the matter and should not be construed as policy at FM.

College campuses are places where students come to learn about technology, arts, literature, history, science, and many other disciplines in which college delves much deeper into subject matter than high school studies. College looks at opposing viewpoints in various subjects - how these viewpoints may be misinterpreted and the possible effects on our society. With topics such as race relations, religion, human sexuality, or history that didn't always show human-kind at its best; these are discussions that could, for some, challenge their basic beliefs and cause discomfort.

As we have become more sensitive to people from a variety of backgrounds and strive to not offend anyone, the concept of safe spaces has entered the college campus culture. One example of safe spaces is designated by a rainbow triangle signifying that anyone who is LGBT can talk here and not be judged. Other derivatives of safe spaces can be found on a faculty member's syllabus alerting students that a difficult topic may be brought up in class. Still other iterations of this are referred to as "trigger words" - words and phrases that may make students (or others) feel uncomfortable or marginalized. The concept is to avoid such words in our lectures and discussions.

Here is where I venture into dangerous water. Let's start with asserting that it is never our aim or desire to marginalize any persons on or off campus. My experience is that the faculty and staff here truly value our students. However, I suspect that we, myself included, may wander into discussions and use words or say things that offend someone all-be-it unintentionally.

That said, it seems to me that colleges should foster a culture that allows discussions of topics that make us uncomfortable. We should hear viewpoints from those who don't share our history, our values, our religion, our race, etc. We must foster an environment where we can confront issues that trouble us in an intellectual and respectful fashion; and we must teach students to express their discomfort in a constructive way asking, "Why does it make you uncomfortable? How might one express their thoughts in a way that isn't uncomfortable? Share your personal experience so that we may learn from it; learn about you, your culture, your religion, etc."

Again, while we should never attack anyone or any group of people, talking about topics that are uncomfortable is what makes us grow as learners and as a society. The key to those discussions is respect. While I may not understand you, I must show you respect so we can have a meaningful exchange. It takes training and practice to lead these discussions. Many of our faculty do it every day.

While FM has had, and will continue to have these discussions on our campus, it is my hope that we can foster them in our community. Our country, state and region are changing. We must explore how we embrace that change in a productive and respectful manner.