No, not that kind of safe space. Well, maybe not that kind of safe space.
Let me begin at the beginning. Hello! I teach classes about the Middle East to undergraduates who often have taken few, if any courses on the region.
For the last two years, I’ve taught a required junior-level elective (the course number is required; my particular course is one of around 16 offered under said course number), and on the first day of class, I’ve asked the students to tell me why they’ve enrolled (“because I have to in order to graduate” not being an option). Most of them tell me that they know little to nothing about the region, and that’s whey they’re there. (The second time I offered this course, I also took that explanation off the table, although it was not as satisfactory an exercise as I wanted it to be).
Then I go into my rules for class, and the first thing I say is, simply this: this is a safe space.
What do I mean by that?
I did public scholarship–the term we used was “outreach” but nowadays we’d call it public scholarship–for 18 years as a full time job, based out of a university, traveling around the state of Texas, working with teachers who wanted to know more about the Middle East — usually so that they felt smarter than their students. The textbooks that the state assigns are pretty bad, and when it comes to describing the browner, non-Christian parts of the world, some of them are downright awful.
I’d been doing this for a couple of years when I noticed that, at these sessions, there was always a group of people who would prevent me from running to the bathroom at breaks because they had lots of questions. Questions are good.
As any professor, lecturer, TA, teacher, trainer, or educator of any variety quickly learns, the questions are what keeps the job interesting. I have literally found myself compiling grocery lists and writing emails in my head while talking out loud, so checked out am I from the content I’m giving. The questions are what change every time, what keeps me on my toes. What keeps it interesting for me after I have delivered the joke about taking the water buffalo out for a walk for what seems like the four hundredth time in a given week (from a lecture about the geography of Egypt).
And, honestly, a lot of these inter-session questions were good. Insightful. Well thought out.
“Why,” I asked one day, “didn’t you ask this in front of everyone? In fact, when we come back to session, I’d like you to ask it and then we can talk about it.”
“Well,” came the sheepish response, “I didn’t know if it was an offensive question.”
Aha. There it is.
I didn’t ask because I was afraid my question would be offensive.
I get it. No one wants to have a room full of people turn to them with hot eyes and tight lips and facial expressions that ask, How dare you?
On the other hand, I’ve noticed that people who aren’t concerned about being offensive have no such qualms. Like the day I asked a group if they knew what defines someone as an Arab, and one participant responded, “They’re ragheads.” (For the record: the answer I was looking for is their first language is Arabic because Arab as an ethnicity is actually defined culturo-linguistically).
That one…took me a moment to recover from.
So, my question then became How do I get these questions out in front of anyone? Even the “Ragheads” comment had its value. Okay, now we have a base level of understanding in the group … in this case, one that’s fairly low … that we can begin to build on. If I had blathered on about cultural-linguistic identities and not engaged with the remark (“Where do stereotypes come from?”) I would have lost the audience entirely because I was operating on a completely different level than they were. (And, yes, for the record, the fact that I was in a room full of teachers who are educating the next generation was not lost on me. Some things you just can’t let bother you in the moment or you’ll freeze up, or at least that’s what my therapist told me at our following session).
This is why I decided that, when I went into the college classroom and found myself on the other side of the podium, that I had to encourage such questions. The painful ones. The ones that students are struggling to address. The ones that they don’t want to ask because they’re not sure if it might be offensive, or that they’re using the right word, or name, or whatever else. This sets the pace for me as an educator. Where do I need to start? What expectations or stereotypes do I need to address? If the question isn’t asked, I assume they know. And experience has shown me I’m usually wrong.
So, I start off by explaining that the classroom is a safe space. I ask students not to rush to judgement when questions are asked. Let’s hear our colleagues out. A question asked from a place of honesty needs to be addressed in a like fashion–without fear that classmates are going to jump on you if you don’t phrase it in just the right way.
This extends to me as well. I admit, I’ve had a couple of students whose English is weak who have made comments in class and actually been saying the opposite of what I thought. This happened just last semester, and, when I realized I was having a negative reaction to a comment from a student that I had misunderstood, I actually stopped myself and told the class what was happening.
“I’m having a strong reaction because I misunderstood what [x] was saying. Remember when I said this class was a safe space? Well, that applies to me, too.” And I took a beat, refocused, and continued by addressing what the student had actually said.
Part of this arrangement, I tell students, is that if they are offended by something a classmate says, is that I want them to bring it to my attention – it doesn’t have to be in front of everyone, they can stop me after class, or send me an e-mail.
Every campus has an office that exists to deal with student concerns–and I’m certainly not trying to circumvent that established process if the situation calls for it.
I think here of a colleague who taught a course on Modern Egypt, who assigned as one of his texts The Yacoubian Building, an Egyptian novel by Alaa Al-Aswany that became the Peyton Place of early 2000s Egypt. The book is notable in that it was a bestseller in Egypt–and it includes a gay character. The characterization is clunky (al-Aswany was a dentist before taking up writing; the novel isn’t exactly fine literature), and he meets a bad end at the end of the book – but the point is that even this was revolutionary for Egypt, something my colleague wanted to discuss. However, a student, on reading the novel, reported my colleague for assigning homophobic material.
Hence, my plea was: if there is an issue about the suitability of course material or course discussion, please bring it to my attention first. After all, I do occasionally assign problematic material because I want students to appreciate why it’s problematic.
My first actual test of this policy was, perhaps not unpredictably, during one of our discussions on the Israel/Palestine conflict. One student was a bit uncomfortable because he felt that another student–of Arab descent–was using the word “Jew” just a little too broadly in some of their comments, when they should have been using “Israeli,” or, even more accurately, “Israeli military forces.”
In this case, the student making the observation did have a point. Rather than singling out the other student, I made an announcement at the beginning of the next class, not as a reprimand, but just a clarification that terms are important, and, now that we were discussing post-1948 Israel, when discussing Israeli actions and policies, students should distinguish between “Israeli” and “Jewish” in order to clarify their meaning. This worked: in class that day the student corrected themself in mid sentence, and that was that.
As an educator, I can’t help students learn or grow if they don’t trust me. And I have to learn to trust them (which, believe me, is harder than I expected). It’s a work in progress that I refine a little bit each semester.
After all, even though I’m (probably) months away from having those coveted initials after my name … I’m still learning, too.