Is the classroom a safe space?

Posted September 14, 2015 by Nicholas Chan

Community Agreements

Image from SWANK (Sex Workers Action New York)

Nowadays, social justice norms have become second nature to activists. These hail from conferences and are marked by early mornings with lots of coffee, round after round of challenging conversations, and checking our privilege at the door. These norms, also called community agreements, stick with us. Agreements we set as a community like “what’s shared here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here,” gender inclusive language, and my personal favorite, the snaps of encouragement for agreeing with someone else’s idea create vulnerable, yet possibly very empowering spaces. Creating these safe/brave spaces allow us to unapologetically be ourselves, learn from one another, and engage in critical dialogue on many pervasive social issues. We’re asked to take what we learned back to our communities.
In higher education, we fill lecture halls with peers we barely know and are not guaranteed that same comfort we create in activist spaces. And really, should we always be this critical, even when sitting in our college classrooms? Granted, ethnic studies or gender/sexuality studies courses might be more susceptible to the concept of a brave space, but it often leads to even more heated discussions on these topics. I’ve had numerous experiences where activist friends have struggled to navigate their personal politics within a classroom. Should we correct the professor for their gendered language? What if our classmate makes a comment and uses “illegal” instead of undocumented? What if the reading assigned was heavily transphobic? I’m often left conflicted myself.
If you’re like me you spend a lot of time uncomfortably squirming in your seat internally screaming throughout the lecture. On one hand, critical comments, calling out, language correction, and alternative theories could spark a necessary deep discussion. Students have paid a very expensive tuition to sit in this class. They might have different goals for the class like paying to learn from the professor with credentials. Is it more appropriate to use office hours and email to raise concerns with the professor? Should we save these conversations for a one-on-one with our classmate? If the professor is not prepared for “disruption” will it impact your grade for the class? Sometimes making comments in class labels us automatically and we are then expected to react to all controversial comments. You become tokenized and, if you’re like me, you might struggle knowing what to do. I pay my tuition, I choose to add the course, and I must sit through the lecture but does that mean I can’t hold my professors and classmates accountable?
We need to always be critical in every setting. We deserve to be in a comfortable and safe learning environment. We need to be honest with ourselves and brave when we are called to speak up. We must know our worth, we must demand our education, but we must also remember our energy can sometimes be spent elsewhere. In the end, it’s about picking your battles and knowing a comment, may impact someone else’s path towards a more inclusive education. Ethnic and gender studies cannot be the only places we have courageous conversations because there are necessary conversations to be had about sexism in STEM courses and racism in fine arts. We always take a part of our deeply ingrained activist selves into new learning spaces. It is our duty to create intentional change with who we learn with and learn from.

Snaps to that?