There seems to be a misconception lately that creating a safe learning environment will hinder a free discourse of ideas, because it requires that some voices will be stifled or censored. I would argue that the opposite is true: There can only be open and dynamic academic discussions in environments where all participants feel safe. If the key to a safe learning environment is mutual respect among all parties, then only disrespectful voices would be censored. Forcing students to interact with peers who insult and deny their humanity should not be seen as integral to their development or education. What then does a safe academic environment look like? It means a foundation of genuine respect for the humanity of everyone in the room. It means people are actively educating themselves about experiences that differ from their own. It means teachers acknowledging and accommodating the fact that students have lives outside of their classrooms. Cultivating this sort of environment is the responsibility of everyone involved, but especially that of the administrators and teachers/professors who are in charge of educational institutions. Currently, however, it is students who are pushing for these measures to be taken. At Oberlin College, my alma mater, there are many student-led initiatives for self-education on experiences that differ from your own. For example, in the student-run co-op system, it is required that every co-op member (around 600 students total) attends a workshop on privilege and oppression every semester. There are a huge variety of workshops to pick from, but you must attend one. In this student-run organization, all members are held accountable for working to educate themselves. It is time for larger academic institutions to require the same self-education. Teachers and administrators must also be acknowledging and accommodating the lives students have beyond the classroom. Trigger warnings have become a buzzword, used as evidence of the way college
students are coddled and entitled. If they expect trigger warnings, skeptics argue, how will students be ready for the “real world”? What these sentiments ignore is that the necessity of trigger warnings demonstrates that students have already had plenty of experiences with the “real world.” This isn’t to say that teachers should refrain from teaching controversial materials or that students should get a carte blanche to not do their homework. Rather, trigger warnings are merely an acknowledgement that due to certain past experiences, some students need a heads-up before dealing with some subject matter. It doesn’t have to be a big deal — it can be as simple as professors making themselves available to answer questions about the content of the readings in advance. Students are already taking the initiative to create these resources for themselves and to advocate for what they need and want from their schools in order to feel safe and supported in the classroom. Now it’s time for administrators and educators to listen and follow through, rather than debating whether or not student requests are justified. Jennifer Kneebone ’13, earned her B.A. from Oberlin College in spring 2017, with a major in theater. She is as an admissions counselor at Earlham College.
I think this may the biggest challenge we face today in our classrooms. Tackling discussion topics that invite a range of opinions, many of which are deeply held and intensely personal, can feel like a minefield. I can recall times where we set down the road of a difficult conversation in class, got to the point where it was messy and unsettled, only to have the bell ring. It is upsetting to know that I only had time to expose the range of ideas without offering students the experience of being able to process through together. When that happens, it is natural to want to avoid challenging topics altogether, but that would be a mistake. There are many aspects to supporting students as they learn to deal in the marketplace of ideas. One way I approach it from the discipline of history is to talk about the historical context that underpins whatever we are talking about. In order to understand the wealth gap between races Artist’s Viewpoint in America, students The project was to 3-D print an object have to understand local that represents an emotion or a feeling. and federal housing I chose the feeling of running out of time. policies in the 20th That’s why the clock has a bite out of it. century, for example. The process was long and I messed it up a Beyond the history, it is lot, but I think I came out with a good piece. essential to help students —Emerson Rea ’20
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