Magazine Perspective

Discomfort Is the Point

Why ‘safe spaces’ do a disservice to students

By David Sterling Brown

Winter 2024

Students’ yearning for “safe spaces” on campus is real: 87 percent of students want colleges and universities to provide such environments, according to a 2018 Gallup survey. Often this includes a desire for classrooms free of contentious debates or ideas and words that students deem hurtful or objectionable. In theory, safe spaces are critical for mental well-being, especially for oppressed people. Whether created through support groups, online forums, or physical locations, these spaces should allow individuals to feel secure and protected from harassment, discrimination, and other forms of harm.

However, despite their theoretical benefits, such protected educational experiences often fail to instill the most important attributes of a liberal education: critical thinking, persuasive argumentation, close reading, and cultural understanding. Indeed, students’ desire for safe spaces can limit their ability to traverse the real world—where strong disagreements and challenging experiences are part of life. Many students see their campus as their home away from home, but I know my campus is not a protective bubble that can shield students from reality. Rather, it’s a microcosm of the real world—and I’m not doing my job as an educator if I perpetuate the illusion of safety at the expense of challenging students’ ideas and beliefs.

As a Black man who teaches Shakespeare at a predominantly white institution, I realized years ago that the classroom can never be a safe space. When I teach Othello, a tragedy replete with anti-Black racism and misogyny, am I safe from silent criticisms that I’m an assimilated Black person with a “white voice” teaching a white author? If there is only one Black female student in the class, is she safe? Rather than asking a non-Black colleague to teach the play for me, I lean into discomfort and use it to my pedagogical advantage. I carefully address whatever arises from the class’s collective exposure to the text and its racist moments, because that is my job as a professor.

In my classroom, I eschew safe space rhetoric—such as the truism that all opinions are equally valid—in favor of a pedagogical practice I call “productive discomfort.” This practice leans into difficult discourses on a variety of contentious topics and fearlessly engages students’ personal backgrounds, identities, and experiences. It uses the learning process to expand the boundaries of students’ comfort zones by challenging their existing assumptions and biases.

In her writings about education, cultural critic and activist bell hooks advocated for an “engaged pedagogy [that] values student expression.” Indeed, education should disrupt the status quo and promote active critical thinking. When instructors prioritize ensuring students’ comfort over challenging students’ opinions and ideas, students lose valuable opportunities for intellectual development. Thus, I refuse to coddle students or excuse them from engaging with content some may deem objectionable or uncomfortable, such as the homosexuality and homophobia in Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play Edward II. Rather than safeguarding students from challenging learning experiences, I use the approach of productive discomfort to help students learn to embrace difficult feelings and engage with tough
intellectual problems.

Productive discomfort recognizes that at any moment in a faculty meeting, classroom, conference seminar, or other higher education setting, someone might become uncomfortable because of their inner responses to legitimate external triggers, such as the utterance of a slur. For instance, when different identities and personalities meet in a classroom, the potential for friction is high. To manage those frictions, I need to know my classroom audience. So, I observe my students’ verbal and nonverbal cues. These include their classroom interactions, their choice of seat, their tone of voice and body language, and whose contributions they respect or dismiss. This information helps me to see my students as, in hooks’ words, “whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge.”

In a classroom full of whole beings with diverse lived experiences—including painful encounters with racism, sexism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, poverty, and other forms of violence and abuse—productive discomfort resists guaranteeing everyone’s emotional safety, including my own.

For example, when I taught Othello in my spring 2023 Shakespeare’s Other “Race Plays” course, I blended the play’s critical issues—such as the white characters’ contempt for Othello’s Blackness and their opposition to his interracial marriage to Desdemona—with a discussion about racial dynamics on campus. During the discussion, I learned that most white students frequented one campus coffee shop while students of color frequented another. Intrigued, I asked my students to examine the reasons behind this seeming segregation. That led students to question their own choices.

While my students of color were already aware of the racial divides, most of my white students confronted the existence of such divides and their roles in maintaining them for the first time. My sincere interest and concern unlocked my students’ vulnerability. As they reflected on their conscious and unconscious choices to sustain racial divides in their lives, a heavy energy filled the room. In that aha moment, some students’ eyes welled with tears and their faces flushed.

Education should disrupt the status quo and promote critical thinking.

We took a ten-minute break to allow everyone to regroup. Upon their return, I asked my students to freewrite for ten minutes. They had the option to share their reflections or keep them private. Ultimately, an honest and cathartic conversation ensued in which students began to confront how they render racial whiteness invisible and thus perpetuate white dominance, albeit unconsciously. That day, they learned they had much to unlearn. Ultimately, like me, my students have a job in the classroom. They must learn to deal with challenges that are intended to promote their educational and personal development.

To implement productive discomfort, I must take calculated pedagogical risks and push my students. For instance, in one course, I administer a 1960s literacy test that Louisiana made Blacks take as part of registering to vote. To win a nominal award, students must correctly answer all thirty questions in ten
minutes—success is impossible. This challenging task helps them begin to understand the frustrations Black voters experienced under the Jim Crow laws, the statutes that legalized racial segregation.

An education with a foundation built on productive discomfort resists championing naivety. By learning how to deal with challenging texts, topics, and ideas, students develop resilience. We must teach students about the world as it is and not present a curated, feel-good version of what they—or even we—desire. It’s through exposure to challenging ideas that we prepare students to become empowered individuals who can productively address conflicts rather than avoid them.

When educators adopt the pedagogical practice of productive discomfort, they help ensure that their students can effectively respond to challenges—both the ones they face as individuals and the larger difficulties confronting our world. As one student wrote when reflecting on my spring 2023 class, “The feelings that were generated while learning in the course are now the compass I use for discernment.” That is why I teach what I teach how I teach it: I must equip my students with the tools they’ll need to survive and thrive in their lives.

Illustration by Lucy Jones


  • David Sterling Brown

    David Sterling Brown is an associate professor of English at Trinity College and the author of Shakespeare’s White Others.