A Safe Space for Dangerous Ideas; a Dangerous Space for Safe Thinking

A Safe Space for Dangerous Ideas; a Dangerous Space for Safe Thinking

This article is a response submitted for our series about critical digital pedagogy. See the original CFP for details.


Danger and safety are both integral to education, particularly if one ascribes to critical pedagogy, which is, in many respects, about balancing the two elements. On one hand, it invites students and teachers alike to break free from safe thinking: to consider what they have been taught; to rethink the narratives, systems and hierarchies that have shaped their lives; and to make room for new and sometimes uncomfortable perspectives. To do this effectively one must be willing to leave the security of assuredness and embrace the fact that learning can be a difficult and even painful process that shakes your foundations, changes you, and transforms the way you see the world.

However, critical pedagogy is also about recognizing and challenging the violence that is engendered in the social and political systems that surround us. It advocates for ongoing self-reflection and communication in education in order to cultivate safe spaces for critical engagement, dialogue, and even intimacy. It asks us to respect each other’s personhood, to work towards addressing the assumptions and prejudices that make learning environments unsafe and uninhabitable for so many, and to be mindful of the power we have to inflict damage on others. As a teacher I struggle to balance these two elements in my curriculum and my classroom. I find myself wondering: how can I create a safe space for dangerous ideas, and a dangerous space for safe thinking?

In a world of trigger warnings and mental health concerns, there are growing expectations that teachers guard their students’ well-being. While some have argued that it is empathetic and reasonable to give students a warning about material that may disturb them, recent events have shown that students and administrators often want far more than a trigger warning on a syllabus or a willingness to provide extensions and compassion to students who are struggling. Requests have been made for trigger warnings before every passage, classroom discussion, or lecture that could trigger a traumatic response, and the Equity Office at Oberlin College made headlines when it suggested that instructors “Remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.”  At Queen’s University — where I am a PhD candidate and sometimes-teacher — professors, teaching fellows and teaching assistants are given pamphlets to help them recognize signs of mental illness and provide support and even referrals to students in crisis. While some have dismissed these demands as oversensitive and even absurd, others have pointed out these requirements have the potential to hurt both students and teachers. Health professionals train for years to recognize the many different manifestations of mental illness and trauma, and to learn how to intervene appropriately and safely. Most post-secondary teachers have no such training, and interventions based on limited knowledge can be risky for all parties involved. Furthermore, trigger warnings have the potential to limit the meaningful and important, but potentially distressing, forms of learning that arise out of critical pedagogy.

Online and blended learning environments bring yet another set of considerations to the debate. Students often have far more control in online spaces; unlike in a classroom setting, a student can close a forum window if class discussion proves triggering, or leave and come back to material later. However, without seeing our students face-to-face it can be difficult to gauge emotional reactions, to guide conversation, and to support students who are struggling or in crisis. Do our responsibilities to our students change when the environment changes?

Too many of us are already overworked, underpaid, and contingent, and additional demands to simultaneously protect our students from and expose them to the world’s ills can feel impossible and unfair. The choice to take a pedagogical risk and the choice to mitigate risk in favour of personal or student health can both be anxiety-ridden when it is clear that either could be career-ending. Now more than ever it is unclear what our responsibilities are, how they change depending on the learning environment, and what the consequences will be for failing to meet them.

In all of the theoretical discussion about curriculum and policy, what often gets lost is the nuance and complexity of the moments when danger and safety meet (be it in person or online). Policies can demand a trigger warning on a syllabus, but they provide no guidance for what to do when one student’s acknowledgement of privilege and internalized racism angers and upsets the student next to him, or for how to respond when something that seemed innocuous — such as a discussion of the characteristics of friendship or the literary tropes associated with femininity — leaves a student visibly triggered and upset in a large lecture hall. Teachers are provided with mental health warning signs, but we rarely talk about the doubt that occurs after encouraging an overwhelmed and anxious student to stick with a difficult essay topic. Did it empower her and remind her that it is ok to be frustrated and unsure while learning, that deep thinking is fraught and imperfect? Or did it make her feel pressured and inadequate when she really needed permission to take care of herself, move on, and try something different? It is these moments, shrouded in ambiguity, that often lead to the best and worst educational moments for students and teachers alike. Even in retrospect it can be hard to decipher their impact, and many of us will return to those decisions, those discussions, again and again.

Although I have been teaching in various settings for nearly ten years, I am early in my academic career and my choices are hour-by-hour and day-by-day. I like to think that with time and experience I will gain a better idea of how to create a safe space for dangerous ideas and a dangerous space for safe thinking, but I know that it will be an ongoing process. In the meantime I am weary of additional policies or procedures that add to my already-overwhelming list of things to do, but provide little guidance in moments of conflict or pedagogical uncertainty. Instead, I have decided that I will ask two things of myself and my students: be brave and be kind.

These are vague terms that are not without tension, but they provide me with some guidance when making decisions and establishing a learning space. Encouraging bravery means modelling, facilitating and rewarding brave thinking — asking big questions in class, presenting multiple and opposing views, and taking intellectual risk into account while marking. Encouraging kindness means promoting collaboration, dialogue and community, and making students aware of the pitfalls of seeing fellow scholars as adversaries and critical thinking as an exercise in locating weakness. This means modeling respectful dialogue and critique, and asking students to invest in the classroom community and in the success of their peers by creating and upholding classroom guidelines and working to strengthen each other’s ideas — not tear them apart. Ultimately, I want my students to be brave enough to speak their truths and kind enough to understand the truths of others. As a teacher, I want to be brave enough to teach challenging, contentious and impactful material, and kind enough to understand the fact that, for some students, it is too real, too overwhelming, and too painful. I hope my students are kind enough to forgive me when my balance is off.

There is no perfect, easy way to cultivate these spaces and foster these dialogues. In the absence of easy answers what I want and value the most are individual stories from fellow teachers who have made messy, difficult decisions when trying to balance danger and safety. I am forever grateful for those who share the strategies, successes, and horror stories that come from trying to make the right choice at a moment’s notice without all of the information. These conversations can be yet another source of anxiety — did I share too much? Are my colleagues judging me? Am I breaking my students’ confidentiality by asking for advice? — but the benefits of mindful, honest sharing are numerous. Talking about difficult moments and decisions allows us to see the nuance and complexity of a challenge that can be adequately addressed neither by instituting trigger warnings and mental health checklists nor by dismissing the need for such policies out of hand. Hearing from one another encourages us to think carefully about what happens when we are confronted with conflicting responsibilities — to our students’ emotional and intellectual well-being, to our material, to society, and to ourselves.

We — students and teachers alike — need to be willing to take risks, to enter dangerous spaces, and to push a little farther when we can. The world is not a comfortable place, and learning about it cannot, and should not, be safe. And that is precisely why bravery should always go hand in hand with kindness. In a world where so much is hard and so many of our most important lessons are difficult and painful, it is important to have compassion for ourselves and each other. Deep learning will never be perfect or easy, and many of us will make poor decisions when attempting to share dangerous ideas in safe ways. In those moments of conflict the best we can do is acknowledge our choices, extend compassion to ourselves and our students, and try again tomorrow.


Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Valerie Robin.

 [Photo, Balance on these, by Nina Matthews licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

About the Author

Jennifer Hardwick

Jennifer Hardwick (@Jen_Hardwick) is a PhD candidate in English at Queen's University. Her interests include youth culture, Indigenous studies, pedagogy, poverty and the digital humanities. Jen strives for a life where she can teach literature to university students and karate to children, read excellent books and watch terrible movies, and facilitate public events and sit quietly with a cup of tea all in equal parts.

2 Comments
Discussions from the Community.
  1. Nate M says:

    Wonderful. Thanks for the morning read.

  2. Susanne Murphy says:

    I thank you for sharing your personal reflections, and I want to add my personal belief that face to face interactions help to foster the trust required to be both brave and kind. I remain skeptical that strictly screen mediated interactions can have the same effect. Virtual for me is still a substitute for real.

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