The University of Chicago made news by telling its incoming students not to expect trigger warnings or safe spaces, and not to bother petitioning the administration to disinvite problematic speakers. Responses have varied from “good for them!” to “how authoritarian!” In between sweeping bans on a major component of campus culture and the sweeping fear that administrations are trying to silent student voices is the possibility that some trigger warnings in some situations are a good idea and some student protests are valuable contributions to campus culture.
U. of C. is just the latest university to try to craft a policy to deal with the expectations that today’s college students have that their institution has a responiblity to protect them psychologically. In the 14 years that I’ve been in higher education, I’ve definitely noticed an increase in anxiety among students, and had a number of students ask that I change my pedagogy to make them feel more comfortable. In particular, whereas I have always positioned myself as co-learner with my students, students increasingly want their professors to be more like their parents than their colleagues. In one review, I even had a student use the phrase “grown ups” to refer to faculty members. Having to be a next-level babysitter while also providing an educational experience can make co-learning difficult.
Successfully democratizing my own classroom is especially difficult if the college and/or department culture leans more towards professors having to be distant, uncollaborative authority figures. For the students and faculty who see college as an extension of high school with no change in the nature of their relationships with their teachers, this works well. For faculty who see college as a time to train adolescents to be adults by treating them like adults, this can be deadly.
These issues all come together even more dramatically in theater departments. A college rehearsal room – which is often, by virtue of the students getting academic credit to be in a show, also a classroom – is not a safe space. I don’t mean to say that it is a space in which students have to put up with being psychologically abused, I mean that it is a space where people have to take risks and fail. This is a scary thing to do. It’s not safe because failure feels bad, no matter how you experience it. Unfortunately, there is no other way to make good theater – no way around the fact that art is always an experiment. The artist is always venturing an idea – whether it’s an image or a metaphor or a character choice or a feeling – the artist must have an impulse, follow it through, and share it with an audience. That will never feel safe, and I don’t think it should.
The possibility for abuse in these situations is an obvious but unnecessary evil. Artists are required to be vulnerable with one another, and some people prey on the vulnerable. Therefore, director/teachers should have the same professional boundaries they would have in a professional theater, which is to say that they should not use this space to become sexually intimate with the actors/students, they should not physically endanger the actors/students in this space, and they shouldn’t force them to work in conditions or for hours that have been deemed excessive by the people who do this professionally. (This is as much a liability issue as a pedagogical one.) Thus, ironically, the theater classroom is a place where “safe space” rules become almost a must, not so that the students can be protected from experiencing discomfort and vulnerability, but so that they can do so knowing that they will not be preyed upon in the process.
Alas, most theater departments have yet to bridge this gap between “no trigger warnings/no democracy” and “students can complain about anything and genuinely expect their professors to fix it for them.” What I hope to find eventually is a department culture that doesn’t infantilize students but rather actually protects them by making space for them to learn to experience unsafe things as adults. Processes, guidelines, transparency, and safety standards that address both the physical and psychological risks of making theater are essential to achieving this. And giving students a voice in creating those standards is a great way to push them beyond demanding that we keep them safe to learning how to keep themselves safe.