Food for Thought: “Safety” on Campus and in the Writing Center

by Zoe Ehrenberg, Writing Fellow ’17

What does “safe space” actually mean? This contested term has been relentlessly thrown around in the media, sensationalizing American college students as being “coddled” in the classroom. Roxanne Gay, author of Bad Feminist, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about a week ago, and she defined a safe space as a place that “allows people to feel welcome without being unsafe because of the identities they inhabit. A safe space is a haven from the harsh realities people face in their everyday lives.” In fact, Gay attributes the introduction of “safe space” –as a means of fostering open, productive dialogue—into our cultural vernacular to feminist theory. So where is the line between “safety” and “coddling”? In my experience, I have yet to meet a Barnard student who is uninterested in being intellectually challenged in the classroom. But at the same time, students appreciate being treated as a whole person in the classroom—someone who is more than just a body to be lectured at, but a nuanced and complex human being. How can we create the kind of productive and safe intellectual discomfort in the classroom that comes from tackling challenging, weighty, and convoluted issues?


Determining how to do this is our job, not just as students in our own courses, but also in our role as Fellows. When fellowing, how can we create a hospitable, safe space that simultaneously challenges and pushes students? This question has no easy answer, but it is worth paying mind to. I suspect these issues, which challenge the pedagogical core of higher education, will continue to be talked about for the remainder of our college experiences.


For more on this topic, check out Roxanne Gay’s full article, “The Seduction of Safety, On Campus and Beyond”: