On Safe Spaces and Samuel Richardson

“Now all we have to worry about is all the other books, and, of course, life, which is huge and complicated and will not warn you before it hurts you.”

Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Two weeks ago I found myself encountering an interesting pedagogical challenge: teaching a book that centres upon a woman surviving a sexually traumatic event and reframing her recovery by marrying her would-be rapist. As a book historian with an an interest in serialisation, I am not altogether accustomed to reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela in this exact way, but as I am suddenly responsible for a class of young people, this is how my re-reading was shaped. I do not personally know my students very well, but I do know that, on average, they are more clued up about consent and rape culture than any generation before them, and that they have recently been bombarded with news stories, each more depressing than the last, about the sexual iniquities of powerful men. It was difficult to re-read Pamela in any other way, given the circumstances. How do I teach this book in a way that fulfils my duty to my students, while caring for those unidentified students who would need it, and paying due respect to the literature?

Mr B- reads Pamela’s letters.[1]
Much has been written about the culture of safety on university and college campuses. It’s difficult to know exactly how to strike the right balance. On the one hand, the students who are most in need of extra protective measures are perhaps the ones who will feel least empowered to speak out should they feel they are not being provided for, missing out on crucial moments in their education that their peers may take for granted. On the other hand, critiques of so-called ‘safe spaces’ are often valid; they do create a mere illusion of safety that the real world cannot possibly match; they do shut out ideas which are challenging; the version of safety needed by any two individuals can be radically different; and so on. I think it’s important to be realistic about the limits of this concept before we begin to implement classroom policies based around it.

In my own experience, I have been perplexed to receive emails from students who refused to come to class the week we read The Handmaid’s Tale because they found it excessively disrespectful to their faith. I remembered becoming quite animated when discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in an undergraduate seminar, finding the novella’s racism unacceptable. I still hold this belief, and I appreciate that I entered the discussion of racism as a white person who, although upset by the content of the book, would not be reflecting on personal and perhaps traumatic experiences of racism while reading it. That said, the experience of being able to passionately and rigorously defend my evaluation of a text – while others in the room equally passionately disagreed with me – was an intellectually useful one, and one which I reflect upon often. It is equally as important to learn when not to compromise your point of view as it is to learn when it is appropriate to do so. It seemed to me that these students were denying themselves the right to reply to a text that they felt had affronted them, and I couldn’t understand this position, though I didn’t push the matter with them. We are being intellectually dishonest if we uncritically accept the demand for academic spaces to be, by various metrics, ‘safe’. We have to ask what that safety means, what it entails, and who or what would be shut out by it. It is with these reflections in mind that I began to consider: how do you solve a problem like Pamela?

It is not mere coddling to be thoughtful about the potential history of trauma in our classrooms. While it’s highly unlikely that any of my students had been kidnapped under sexual threat and held captive as was poor Pamela, the prevalence of sexual violence in universities is higher versus other types of crime, and female students aged 18-24 are three times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than women as a broader group.[2] We also know that the symptoms of PTSD that can be triggered by survivors experiencing vivid memories of their trauma can be derailing to their education. How do we as educators balance the importance and value of a work (which, in my opinion, Pamela has in spades), the education and emotional needs of our students, the contexts in which the work existed, and the contexts in which it exists today?

I found Roxane Gay’s work to be instrumental in developing my response. Dr Gay advocates for a student-led, trusting approach, acknowledging the limitations of the safe space while approaching the challenge of learning as a kind of safety in its own right. “Rather than use trigger warnings, I try to provide students with the context they will need to engage productively in complicated discussions. I consider my classroom a safe space in that students can come as they are, regardless of their identities or sociopolitical affiliations,” she writes. “They can trust that they might become uncomfortable but they won’t be persecuted or judged. They can trust that they will be challenged but they won’t be tormented.”[3] This, for me, is the key element. We should be challenging our students – education is most effective when it brings us out of our comfort zone and eye-to-eye with a problem. But there is a gulf of difference between discomfort and trauma, a fact that many university administrators and education commentators seem keen to ignore.

In the end, Dr Gay’s approach was the one that worked best for my seminar style, which is very much based around loosely directed thematic conversations on the text. At the beginning of the class I reminded the students that my colleague’s earlier lecture mentioned the extent of sexual victimisation inherent in the novel, told them we would not not be discussing it, and advised them to be mindful of their language and careful with their emotions as the discussion progressed. And it worked. They were able to maturely differentiate between the sexual context of 1729 and that of 2018, while also brilliantly critiquing the sexual freedoms and justices that have been won in the interim and how much further we have to go. They were able to understand why it is important to be mindful that the past is a different country, but they also mostly believed that it was equally as important to not use that as an excuse to be uncritical I do not think that Pamela will be the most popular text on the module, but I do think our conversation has been influential. Last week, as we discussed The Rape of the Lock, one student was able to brilliantly make connections between private and public virtue and autonomy across the two texts. This was an especially proud moment for me as a teacher. Virtue rewarded indeed.

[1] Illustration from Pamela (1741 edition) by Hubert Gravelot [cropped]. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

[2] ‘Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics’, RAINN [https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence], accessed 22 February 2018

[3] Roxane Gay, ‘The Seduction of Safety, On Campus and Beyond’, The New York Times, 13th November 2015. [https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/opinion/sunday/the-seduction-of-safety-on-campus-and-beyond.html], access 22 February 2018


Author: Danni

Glaswegian in Northern Ireland. Writer, recent PhD completer, cyclist, camp cinephile.

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