Trigger warnings, safe houses—and writing

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Most teachers of writing have no doubt read—or read of—the letter written by University of Chicago Dean Jay Ellison and sent to the incoming class of 2010 telling them that the University is deeply committed to free speech and that they should expect to encounter controversial material in their classes as a matter of course; no trigger warnings necessary. In Ellison’s view, giving such warnings and establishing “safe places” are a threat not only to freedom of speech but to intellectual development.

The topic of trigger warnings has been a hot one for some time now on campuses across the country, and it has been exacerbated, in my view, by a rise in the number of colleges and universities that have “open carry” laws: students packing guns to class may, some argue, be in a position to do more than complain if they encounter views with which they disagree or find threatening. I expect that you’ve been engaged in conversations on your own campus.

At any rate, the Ellison letter drew quite a bit of response, starting on his own campus with a letter in response, signed by 150 professors, challenging the sweeping condemnation of trigger warnings and safe spaces. While those signing the letter say they hold a wide range of views on these issues, they are in agreement that a more nuanced approach is necessary.

What interested me more than this faculty letter, however, was one written by a University of Chicago senior, Sophie Downes, and published in the editorial pages of the New York Times. Downes takes exception to the Dean’s letter, arguing that the Dean’s letter misrepresents both “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” In her view, the letter is a “public relations maneuver” that shifts attention away from other pressing issues. As she says,

the administration has refused to meet with student groups who have asked to discuss these issues, and it has threatened to discipline students who staged a sit-in protest. The university even hired a provost who specializes in corporate crisis management and dealing with "activist pressure." While the university accuses students of silencing opposing voices, it continues to insulate itself against difficult questions.

It seems to me that these letters offer a rich resource for teachers of writing and our students and that they would make for an excellent exercise in analysis: students could bring the lens of Toulmin rhetoric, especially to the Dean’s letter, where the “warrants” carry great weight. Or they could examine the use of personal experience along with ethical and emotional appeals. Such an analysis could lead to deep engagement with the issues raised. It could also lead to strong student writing, in letters to editors, blog or wiki postings, or letters in response to the Dean, the faculty, or to the senior student.

As writing teachers, we have a real advantage in terms of getting to know our students: we are likely to know when and if trigger warnings would be beneficial, and we are expert at creating classroom communities that value listening and respect for all as well as freedom to speak truth to power—and to one another. We remember—even if those embroiled in the current discussion do not—the culture wars and Mary Louise Pratt’s important elaboration of what she called the “contact zone” and its corollary, the safe house. In it she provides a description of Guzman Pomo’s 1200 page letter to Phillip III, written in 1613, along with a brilliant analysis of how the writing and illustrations in this letter turn Spanish norms on their heads and establish a very productive “contact zone” between the two cultures. It’s worth looking up Pratt’s original essay just to read about this amazing letter, but after that analysis, Pratt applies the concept to her own courses, showing the ways in which they function as contact zones but also arguing for “safe houses” to balance that contact. Those arguing about trigger warnings today would do well to return to Pratt’s analysis. Or to the long tradition of “hush harbors” where slaves could gather to exercise religious freedom and to practice literate acts. In fact, the civil rights movement in general provides another very good example of the necessity of both contact zones and safe houses.

So as this academic year gets under way in earnest, writing teachers across the country have an opportunity to engage students in some exploration of these concepts, to help them trace forerunners of the concepts, and most importantly, to craft their own definitions, ones that can serve as a set of guiding principles for building a strong and effective, a daring and respectful classroom community.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.