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Blog April 26, 2021

“Safe Space” Classrooms within “Communities of Care”

There is a lot of talk (and some action) around safe spaces these days. While not in any way downplaying the needs for sanctuary even in a prosperous country like Canada, and for venues where one can exercise democratic and expressive rights without fear of violence or other forms of intimidation and attempted silencing, I would like to register a caveat about the colloquial tendency to conflate “space” and “place” and use these terms interchangeably in talking about post-secondary education and the harms currently attributed to it.  

Notions of space and place are kept distinct but physically or metaphorically contiguous as far back as ancient Greece. In Plato, for instance, space (chora) is an indeterminate interval in time or territory beyond  boundaries of the known, and place (topos) a standpoint, residence, or settled destination beyond which lies unregulated extension. Space and place need each other in order to understand themselves.    

Keeping that cautionary history in mind, I would suggest that a classroom, whether physical or virtual, is a place within which space can be found or created beyond  place-specific behaviour stipulated and regulated by a formal or informal code of conduct. This as yet inchoate space-within-place can then be located beyond the predictabilities and prescriptions announced in a course’s academic agenda and agreed upon modes of assessing student performance, while also usually inviting ongoing and then summative reactions from students to their instructor’s teaching and the course “experience.”  

The course description that brings instructor(s) and students to a teaching venue inaugurates multiple conversations, clarifications, negotiations, and adaptations widely understood as “par for the course” in post-secondary education and often continuing informally long after a particular course is completed.   

In other words, in post-secondary teaching, institutional place comes first, pedagogical space later, and through creative or remedial, individual or collective, planned or impromptu, action. Place has a campus address or an online equivalent understood as a compliant derivative from the physical classroom and academic staff office or carrel. Pedagogical space has no permanent address but emerges to meet an unscripted need or seizable opportunity, a teachable moment interrupting while enriching established intellectual momentum.      

The ‘spirit’ of an institutionally enabled pedagogical place, its genius loci, is deliberative, rigorous inquiry, and such inquiry’s expressive requirements and academic outcomes. The spirit of that place presumes and rewards  attentive, critical engagement, not surveillance, accusation, and self-censorship.  This pedagogical place’s primary (but not exclusive) commitment is to educational effect, not psychological affect.  

An academic campus featuring a variety of classrooms is not to be thought of primarily as a “community of care” focused on affect but as the locus amoenus of teaching, learning, and inquiry.  The reflection that the campus promises and demands is not a reflecting back to the inquirer or expositor of his/her/their own image and currently held values, beliefs, and comfort zone. It is, rather, a reflecting--and refracting--forward via a mix of internal questioning and external observation in the process of envisaging and helping bring about a different future, an altered state of affairs requiring openness of interactive encounter and a recognition that uncertainty is a permanent and often beneficial property of such openness and recognition. 

Teaching, therefore, should not willingly succumb to curriculum as the tyranny of content.  This tyranny, an a priori literalism and decontextualized projection of meaning as a self-evident, inadvertent or uncaring, real presence of the harmful, reduces or significantly subordinates intellectual interpretation and meaning- making to emotional exposure and the litmus test of personal comfort (aka the New Inquisition wherein the faithful try to take over from the clerisy in a well intentioned effort to root out racism and other vestiges of colonialism but are overzealous in accusing, interrogating, punishing or exiling those teachers and program administrators deemed to harbour tendencies and values of the heretic, the infidel, or the oppressor).             

In linking the potentiality of harm in the classroom to “real presence,” I am using blogger’s shorthand, no doubt mischievously, to remind us of the Christian theological foundations of modern Canadian universities and colleges. From those foundations were developed broader notions of the canon and apocrypha, orthodoxy and heresy, and a variety of claims that are articles of faith not the products of rational analysis. One such article affirms the “real presence” of Christ in the sacramental bread and wine, although that reality is understood literally by Catholics and symbolically by Lutherans, thereby generating one of many tales of sectarian difference, intolerance, and conflict.     

The tyranny of content relies on curriculum mis- understood as a collection of viscerally testable, potentially detestable containers of fixed meanings dependent on acceptable or unacceptable signifiers and modes of representation. However, such a view is seriously incomplete, misleading, and alarmingly like a secular, polarizing faith test for which rational debate can offer neither balm nor remedy.   

Curriculum is never a static assembly of canonical objects and apocryphal interlopers, but rather a series of convergent and then divergent or mutually overlapping and transformative processes involving expectation, encounter, interpretation, explication, and revisiting. The unpredictability of experience and outcome is not evidence of irresponsible or incompetent infliction of harm, but instead the best assurance of pedagogy’s escape from indoctrination into education, from faith into reason. 

This education confirms its past and refreshes its present because of the double infinity of the signified: inherent and contextual.  Significance can be augmented or contested endlessly on the basis of evidence internal to any representation or phenomenon; and it can vary on the basis of an endless series of discrete contexts within which or in relation to which it is examined.    

As a result, the argument from decontextualized content is not so much an argument as it is a recipe for self-enclosure and self-impoverishment of interpreter and that which is interpreted. In other words, this pseudo-argument against harm is an act of self-harm. Moreover, it entails a potentially harmful chilling and circumscription of the exploratory and discursive rights of other interpreters. 

In sum, the place/space distinction is not the precondition and fuel of performative polarization but of an ancient, persistent, fraught but invaluable dialectical and dialogical process which generates coalitions of concern rather than the medicalizing or pathologizing of difference in the name of one or another community of care.  

Northrop Frye’s Christian turn to a “myth of concern” located identity “out there,” beyond individuals as an aspirational and elusive presence in culture and religion. For Frye, identity ought not to be a fractious fixture in human exchange that brooks no modification or appropriation. Identity is instead something we would like to have but cannot, mired as we are in the micro-regressions and mega-resentments of the hour.   

In pursuing a secular, rational successor to Frye’s version of concern, perhaps post-secondary institutions can best serve their communities and the public interest by using institutional place and pedagogical space to develop dynamic coalitions of informed, analytical concern that can address more effectively the constitutive, systemic injustices exposed and grievously  intensified “out there” by the current  pandemic. Otherwise, nowhere is “safe,” and none of us is “safe.”