This past year has seen a recent increase in the debate regarding freedom of speech on college campuses, and the issue of “safe spaces”. (See the Washington Post
for one editorial from the fall.) And while we often do not think of Hearing and Speech as being the type of topic that is likely to lead to major dissension, neither are we immune from the issues. In the past year, I’ve encountered a number of discussions that can lead to discomfort for some students: gender differences in language use, non-mainstream dialects, socioeconomic-related differences in school readiness, Deaf Culture vs. cochlear implantation, and approaches for working with 2nd language learners all jump immediately to mind as potentially emotionally-charged topics. Moreover, issues about health insurance coverage are closely tied to both our field and to current political debates, such that discussions that seem innocuous to start can quickly slide into acrimony.
…discussions that seem innocuous to start can quickly slide into acrimony.
Much of the recent discussion has centered on a document from the University of Chicago, stating “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.” Others have argued against the U of C document, focusing on the need to be inclusive, to be sensitive to those who may be offended by certain topics.
Universities cannot be safe spaces…But that doesn’t mean that a university cannot have safe spaces within it, places where students can feel safer to discuss ideas without fear of microaggression.
Yet it seems to me that the debates have missed a critical distinction: being a “safe space” versus having a safe space. Universities cannot be safe spaces; rigorous debate and freedom of speech are fundamental to what it means to be an institution of learning. Uncomfortable topics need to be contested, not concealed. But that doesn’t mean that a university cannot have safe spaces within it, places where students can feel safer to discuss ideas without fear of microaggression. Moreover, the real debate shouldn’t be on whether to have safe spaces – it should be on identifying the best ways to challenge our students without them feeling that they need them.
Rochelle Newman is Chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, as well as Associate Director of the Maryland Language Science Center. She helped found the UMD Infant & Child Studies Consortium and the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium. She is interested in how the brain recognizes words from fluent speech, especially in the context of noise, and how this ability changes with development.