Monday, August 29, 2016

Safe Spaces at Commuter Colleges

I’ve been reading some of the commentary on “safe spaces” at elite universities with a sense of remove.  The straw man versions of the extreme sides of the issue look like this:

Conservative: Students are lily-livered cowards who know nothing of the real world.  Give them a cold-water splash of reality, and then another, before they start failing at jobs!

Liberal: Stop blaming the victims of your many biases.  If we’re going to make progress, we need to get stupid barriers out of the way.

What the two sides share is a sense that students are constantly exposed to hot-button issues, and that the lived environment of students is substantially, maybe even primarily, subject to the social engineering of college leaders.  The dispute is over how to charge the engineers.

That’s not how it works here.  Not at all.

At most community colleges, student diversity is a visible fact of life.  (Brookdale is in an affluent area, but its student body is more diverse than the population of its county.)  So are part-time or even full-time jobs off campus.  We don’t have dorms.  A slim majority of the student body is part-time.  Many have children, and/or extended family obligations.  More than I’d like to believe are only precariously housed.  Steady and sufficient food can’t be assumed.

For many students, college is the relatively safe space in their lives.  It functions the way that Arlie Hochschild described work functioning for adults in The Time Bind: it’s the island of relative stability and sanity in otherwise chaotic lives.  It’s where they can find some peace, and raise their sights above the day-to-day.  

At Holyoke, I had the library establish a quiet study room for students who needed one.  It quickly became both popular and self-enforcing.  We couldn’t assume that students have a quiet place at home to study.  Libraries as social centers may make sense elsewhere, and group study rooms serve a purpose, but sometimes you just need some quiet, a chair, a table, and a lamp.  For students at elite places, that may be redundant; here, not so much.

Students’ home environments are entirely out of our control.  This is not a “total institution” in the same sense that a residential college or university can be.  And some students come to us as fully formed adults, well into their thirties or beyond; at that point, talk of ‘character formation’ comes off even more arrogant than it usually does.  We have students who already have degrees from elsewhere, and plenty of students with previous college experience.  The “tabula rasa” assumption simply doesn’t hold here.

That said, the social fissures that are sometimes treated as controversial in other places simply slap you in the face here.  Some students grasp for ways to make sense of those fissures.  Our job is to help them develop the vocabulary, the historical context, and the theoretical chops to do that.

(“Theoretical Chops” would make a great name for a band.  But I digress.)

At this level, the major issue around students and social issues isn’t bias in one direction or another.  It’s a lack of perceived standing to address the issues at all.

That lack of perceived standing -- of what the poli sci literature calls “efficacy” -- is learned from a thousand sources.  We try to help students un-learn it here.  A few do, but judging by the almost complete absence of discussion of political issues, I’d say the numbers are small.  

Put differently, I’d love to see and hear heated theoretical debates among students about broad social and political issues.  The problem that elite places are trying to solve with “safe spaces” -- a shelter from politics -- is the wrong issue here.  My great fear for our students isn’t that they’ll take political positions different from my own.  It’s that they won’t take any positions at all.  They’ll ignore the larger questions altogether, in favor of the immediate demands of the present.  Given the intensity of those demands, it’s an understandable response.  But it cedes power to those who already have it, and whose agendas may be very different.

Here, the need is for enough felt daily safety that students feel capable of venturing into slightly unfamiliar ground.  Students here aren’t shrinking violets, and they aren’t dorm-room socialists.  They’re struggling with the demands of daily life.  If we could find ways to give them time, and reasonable security, we could probably nudge more of them towards the bigger questions.  How they answer those bigger questions is entirely up to them.