Retention and belonging over safety

This semester, instead of using ‘trigger warning’ or ‘safe zone’ statement, I decided to frame the course policies regarding language around ‘belonging’ and ‘retention.’

  1. I wrote the percentage of students graduating or still on campus after six years. I explained how and why I came across that number when I looked to work on this campus. I explained the limitation of the percentage (79%) because of what it included.
  2. I then wrote the number of nonwhites on the university 55%. I wrote that number to begin to explain the concerns with discourse and discriminatory language. I then stated some truths about those numbers.
  3. Finally, I explained why, not believing in the caste created by my ‘title,’ why I insisted on being called professor or doctor.
  4. In explaining all of this, I reminded them that we would be talking about difficult material. I told them I didn’t care where their politics or their perceptions lay. That the readings/materials in the course were to be considered.
  5. At this politically tumultuous moment, retention and belonging become important. Because regardless of what’s going on outside the classroom, my classroom is where we will do what we can to address the 79%, to change that number.
  6. I return to this throughout the semester, especially when students’ questions on the discussion board were asking for their opinions. I reminded them that they were not graded on their opinions, rather on their ability to apply the readings to the assignments. They were being graded on their ability to critically engage with the text.


I have to remind them that their retention is important in my class. I frame sensitivity because a family member of mine used to be undocumented when students raise that as a concern. Outraged that the first speech wasn’t enough leads me to go personal–and family all documented at this point so not a thing–still, these are the things to worry about now.  Students do not know a lot about each other and, disclosing about their experiences may not be/feel safe for them. For those who are being  criminalized as a result of new policies and for those who perceive that supporting these turns will isolate them in their community. A large enough percentage of that 55% are immigrants or children of immigrants for disclosure to feel scary.

Language changed from safe to retention & belonging because that number’s questions reflects on the value of their education. Numbers are also not about who’s worth more than another. At least, that’s what I tell myself at this point. As much as the safety and human rights of marginalized matter to me, the demonization of safe space discourse and even trigger warnings necessitated an alternative.


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