A hall at University of Chicago

Roundup: Feminist Perspectives on That University of Chicago Letter

This week, John Ellison, the dean of students at University of Chicago sent a letter to first-year undergraduate students. The letter states that the institution does not support either trigger warnings or safe space:

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.

With its letter, UChicago has entered into a raucous debate around political correctness, social justice, and the role of higher educational institutions in the intellectual — but also moral — growth of today’s college students. Having apparently rocked Yale, Wesleyan, Oberlin” and many other campuses across the U.S., the debate also concerns feminists. Digital feminism is often credited with the rise of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” concepts that still impact how we discuss feminist issues and concepts today. And it’s worth noting that the right has seized onto the UChicago letter as a victory against social justice warriors, which provides the ground for “political in-correctness.”

Personally, I echo the sentiment one of my friends expressed on Facebook: “…when people say they are against trigger warnings, it is mostly because they are usually pulling the triggers.” But don’t take it from me. Here’s a roundup of smart feminist thoughts on power, trigger warnings, safe spaces, as well as the general relationship between freedom of expression and structural inequalities on college campuses, to help you process this UChicago BS:

  1. I’d highly recommend dedicating 9 minutes to reading “Hey, University of Chicago: I am an academic. I am a survivor. I use trigger warnings in my classes. Here’s why.” by Erika D Price at Medium. Price’s perspective as an educator and a survivor is simply the most insightful I’ve read so far.
  2. In “Against Students,” the feministkilljoys blog dives into how the system reacts when “[s]tudents have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing the failure of a whole system.”
  3. WithUChicago’s anti-safe spaces letter isn’t about academic freedom. It’s about power,” Kevin Gannon at Vox brings in another perspective by an educator: “Ableism, misogyny, racism, elitism, and intellectual sloppiness deserve to be called out. That’s not a threat, that’s our students doing what they’re supposed to as engaged citizens of an academic community. This year, we should challenge ourselves to quit fixating on caricatures and hypotheticals and instead acknowledge the actual landscape of teaching and learning in all its messiness and complexity.”
  4. I also recommend Scott Stern’s take in the Yale Daily News, “The real speech crisis” due to its sharp analysis of how university administration, rather than students, is the true threat to speech on campus.
  5. It’s worth re-reading “Pathological, noticeable: another note on trigger warnings by our one and only Alexandra Brodsky. And a quick reminder of “Reasons Why We Need Safe Spaces — in real life, and online.
  6. A Dialogue on Race and Speech at Yale with Bria Godley and Conor Friedersdorf at Atlantic illustrates how hard dialogues are on campus speech in relation to structural violence — but also how fruitful they can be.
  7. Henry Farrell’s blog titled “The University of Chicago is made of safe spaces” provides a fascinating refresher: “If the university is made up of safe spaces (we call them departments, schools, research programs and academic disciplines), then demands for safe spaces are nothing particularly new (except that they come from students), and should be examined in just the same kinds of ways as the safe spaces that academics have created for themselves.” Haven’t the Chicago Boys since Milton Friedman already created an intellectual “safe space” for themselves (and along the way, destroyed lives in the U.S. and abroad)?
  8. But frankly, sometimes we should realize that “There are no safe spaces.

While differences exists, most of the articles above fall on the “Come the f*ck on, UChicago” side. I also wonder whether the UChicago policy will — or can — be equally enforced. The institution’s neoliberal economists have historically been provided with a safe space, for example, while UChicago’s recent student body president was threatened with expulsion in Spring 2016, when he allowed protests aimed at providing living wages for workers, campus police accountability, and fossil fuel divestment. Maybe Dean Ellison should write a letter explaining that to the members of the University of Chicago class of 2020.

Header image via Phil Roeder. 

New Haven, CT

Nancy Tang aspires to become a legal advocate for the marginalized and the indigent. A second-year J.D. candidate at Yale Law School, Nancy co-directs the Rebellious Lawyering Conference (RebLaw), the largest student-run public interest law conference. She grew up in Beijing, China, attended Amherst College, and was a former Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research interests include: law & gender-based violence, Chinese politics & social movements, reproductive justice & population control, criminal justice reforms, and immigrant rights. Nancy enjoys podcasts, pocketed dresses, and procrastination (in addition to alliterations, of course).

A feminist from Beijing, Nancy Tang is an aspiring legal advocate studying at Yale Law School.

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