Writing Centers, Safe Spaces, and the Rhetoric of Expression

For the past few weeks, I’ve been swept up in the high winds of pedagogical controversy summoned by a letter from John Ellison, the dean of students, to incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago. The letter disavows the usefulness of trigger warnings and safe spaces by promising students that such concepts fly in the face of a “commitment to academic freedom.” Ellison’s message prompted a flurry of response. Some welcomed his bold stand against an atmosphere of comfort and intellectual cowardice in modern higher education. Others questioned his hostile rhetoric and his basic misunderstanding of the purpose and function of tools intended to cultivate expression, not to stem it. To lay all my own political cards on the table: when I take on the role of instructor, I’m a whole-hearted provider of trigger warnings and an enthusiastic creator of safe spaces. But today I want to think about how the “safe space” discussion might affect writing centers and how writing centers, as places of learning, collaboration, and trust, can enrich the “safe space” debate.

When I first read through Dean Ellison’s letter, I was startled to see the spirit of “inquiry and expression” diametrically opposed to the concept of “safety.” If there’s one thing my time as a writing center consultant has taught me, it’s that inquiry and expression seldom exist without some sense of safety. This feeling can enter the consulting experience in a variety of different ways. Some students walk into the center confident of their own abilities, sure of the quality of their contributions to the discussion. They’re comfortable with speaking up. This sense of safety looks quite a bit like personal confidence, but I think there’s some distinguishing nuance. Confidence largely has to do with your assurance that what you project outward has merit; a sense of safety, on the other hand, seems to rely on your understanding that you will not suffer from forces outside of you firing in. An anxious writer might have confidence in her voice, but be worried that others won’t listen, that they will be aggressive, that they will be dismissive. Students like these are often helped by a promise of safety, implicit or explicit, from their audience. Consultants can introduce safety into a session by validating a writer’s message, commiserating with the writer, or by simply being friendly and welcoming. Once a writer intuits that she can speak up without fear of recrimination, she can actually begin to make inquiries, to express herself. The idea that a sense of safety has educational value is one of the foundations of writing centers today.

Perhaps because writing centers consider the writer’s development in addition to her wellness ,they seem able to provide examples of safety leading to learning. According to Dean Ellison, in safe spaces people “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is an anecdotal follow-up (and I would welcome debate!), but I have always found that students need to feel personally safe before they are willing to engage with challenging ideas. Again, sometimes this sense of safety is brought to the discussion by the student, but, sometimes, a student needs reassurance before she can feel comfortable within the learning process. In the writing center, creating a safe space for students means accommodating and validating each individual’s personhood. As counterintuitive as this may seem to some, it’s about putting respect for the writer or the student before more direct educational goals. Perhaps this pedagogical detour explains the difficulty many have with the concept of the safe space, but a commitment to respect enables, not precludes, learning.

It bears mentioning that, of course, students in marginalized or underserved communities often benefit from the respectful atmosphere of the safe space. My own experiences with and as part of the LGBTQ community have demonstrated again and again that nothing quite silences you like the denial of your basic humanity. Expression and inquiry can only exist in a community of peers, not in a haphazard collective of persons and "non-persons." Writing center policies and practices foreground the personhood of the writer, and this simple ethical stance goes a long way towards generating a safe space where consultants and consultees can challenge one another, support one another, and learn together.