Spaces and Trigger Warnings

The University of Chicago made news earlier this year when its dean of students, John Ellison, sent a letter welcoming freshman to the school. Unfortunately, the letter was not perceived as welcoming by all. Why? Because its primary purpose was to warn incoming students that the leading U.S. university does not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’.”  While this may have been the first many people had heard of safe spaces and trigger warnings, it’s far from the last. In fact, the floodgates have since burst open with people coming down strongly on one side or the other.

All of which begs the question: What are safe spaces and trigger warnings, and are they necessary? Let’s take a closer look at this controversial topic, along with highlighting some arguments for and against their use in academia.

Defining Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a trigger warning as, “A statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.”  It defines a safe space as, “A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.”

The concept of trigger warnings is nothing new in the context of the entertainment and media industries. Referred to as a “content warning,” it advises people about the presence of graphic content. Meanwhile, the underlying idea of safe spaces is a hard one to argue against: After all, in which settings should we as a society tolerate bigotry, racism, and other behaviors which threaten our collective wellbeing?

The debate arises, however, when these two ideas are transferred to university campuses — bastions of free thought, free speech and information exchange. Do trigger warnings and safe spaces become a form of censorship? And in doing so do they end up limiting understanding and ultimately doing more harm than good? That depends on who you ask.

The Case Against Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces argue that their existence puts political correctness over academic freedom.

In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal, University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer reinforced the school’s anti-trigger warning position explaining that, “Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments. Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society.”

Specifically, academic leaders worry that in disinviting speakers with unpopular beliefs and putting ideas which make students uncomfortable off-limits, we’re ultimately shutting down the opportunity to confront these ideas, learn from them, and apply them to their own decision-making as they move on with their lives.

This viewpoint is also backed by a report on trigger warnings from the American University of College Professors (AUCP) which determines that, “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual….Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.”

In Defense of Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

But there are plenty of people who believe that the benefits of trigger warnings and safe spaces far outweigh their potential downsides. In fact, while those in the opposing camp argue that trigger warnings and safe spaces creature a culture of fear rather than fearlessness, proponents counter that they are actually necessary for students to truly learn without fear.

One Huffington Post piece contends that the arguments against these are due to a “fundamental misunderstanding” about triggers and triggering — a phenomenon which transcends academic discourse.

Says the piece, “The problem with this interpretation of trigger warnings is that it presumes all participants have the same level of privilege. But many discussions are not just intellectual exercises for everyone ― people who face discrimination, have experienced violence or simply struggle with brain chemistry are at a disadvantage because they’re potentially dealing with a mental health issue. A desire to be warned about potential triggers has nothing to do with people not wanting to “challenge” themselves academically.”

In other words, they’re not about shutting down or avoiding conflict, but rather they serve as an essential mental health measure. Not only that, but failure to acknowledge triggers and the need for safe spaces can further victimize and marginalize people and lead to more significant mental health issues. And just as it’s a college’s responsibility to educate students, advocates insist, they’re equally obligated to safeguard student health and wellbeing.

Supporters further argue that trigger warnings and safe spaces do not actually pose a risk to freedom of expression in a world in which there are near-endless outlets for idea exchange due to the unmoderated internet. In other words, it’s not that difficult concepts and topics shouldn’t be explored, just that they shouldn’t be explored in university settings if they threaten the wellbeing of students.

A recent Gallup poll reveals that 78 percent of students believe that higher education institutions should strive to expose students to a broad range of ideas in order to facilitate open environments. However, 69 percent were also in favor of limiting content that was intentionally upsetting to certain groups. Can these two beliefs co-exist on campus? Seen through this lens, perhaps the larger issue becomes not one of either/or, but of how to reconcile these viewpoints in a way that promotes freedom of expression without supporting oppression.

The Secret for Study in Russia

Russia may not be the first country that comes up when thoughts turn to international studies. But the truth is that this oft-underestimated, increasingly innovative country boast a long list of amazing offerings for students from all over the globe. Wondering what’s waiting for you there? Let’s count down five reasons to include Russia on your list of prospective international study destinations.

1. It’s home to a breadth and depth of prestigious universities.

As the world’s largest country, it’s hardly surprising that Russia is home to so many universities — 950 of them, to be exact. What may come as a surprise? How many of its higher education institutions offer world-class, globally-recognized educational opportunities. Russia now participates in the Bologna Process, and many of its premier universities are members of the European Universities Association.  A whopping 22 Russian universities, meanwhile, earned spots on the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017.

Russia recently earned a plum spot on Bloomberg’s roundup of the world’s most innovative economies, but its innovative spirit is not limited to the financial sector. A Russian education uniquely fuses traditional academic rigors with a commitment to innovation in the form of competency-based education across a breadth and depth of areas of study. And while we’d be lying if we didn’t say that studying in Russia was demanding, a degree from a Russian institution is highly prized by the world’s employers — making it well worth the effort.

There’s a reason why Russia’s best and brightest high school grads fight so fiercely for sought-after spots at the country’s universities. From engineering and economics to law and medicine, Russia offers near-endless opportunities for academic enrichment.

2. You can get a top-notch education for much less than you’d find elsewhere.

According to data provided by Study in Russia, the maximum cost of tuition at the country’s most elite universities tops out at 344,000 roubles annually — that’s $6,100 a year. Meanwhile, full-time bachelor’s degree programs start at just 63,000 roubles a year — or $1,100.

The only thing better than cheap tuition? Free tuition. The Russian government grants thousands of scholarships to international students every year. In 2016, for example, 15,000 scholarships were granted to international applicants covering full tuition, a maintenance allowance, and dormitory accommodations.

Lastly, university academic competitions also offer financial incentives to academic superstars.

And while Moscow may be expensive compared to other parts of Russia, the cost of living there is still significantly lower than it would be in spendier spots, such as the UK.

3. Innovation and research are alive, well and heavily prioritized in Russia.

While mention of the word Russia may initially bring to mind the austerity of a post-Cold War landscape, the country has come a very long way since then. Not only are many of its facilities state-of-the-art, but it also places a premium on international collaboration. If you’re looking for a truly global, cutting edge international study experience, it may well be waiting for you in Russia.

4. You can learn an in-demand language.

Not only is Russia currently a regional power, but it is returning as a world power. Because of its emerging status, everyone from the federal government to global corporations are looking for Russian language specialists.

Planning on a career in science or technology, meanwhile? Russian is also increasingly important in these fields — following only English in terms of number of academic publications in fields like mathematics, geology, physics, chemistry, and biology.

5. It’s an amazing place to live.

From its glorious architecture and fabled history to its vibrant culture and dazzling nightlife, there’s no end of things to see, do and discover in Russia. Lovers of the arts and sporting enthusiasts are equally likely to find plenty to love in Russia.

While your own host university will surely have plenty of activities to keep you busy, traveling throughout offers an amplified experience. Not only is Russia home to multiple climate zones, it also lays claim to 26 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including Red Square, the Kremlin, the Golden Mountains of Altai, Lake Baikal, the Holy Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, and many amazing others. Many Russian universities even organize student trips to these landmarks.

While the US, the UK and Australia have collectively earned a reputation as the “big three” of international study destinations, Russia’s promise is monumental in its own right. Wondering where to start when it comes to finding the perfect Russian university for your international study experience? Check out Masterstudies comprehensive list of universities, colleges and programs in Russia.