Teaching toolbox: Creating classrooms that are brave spaces

30 April 2019

Last term, the LTC teaching toolbox lunch tackled the topic how to create classrooms that are brave spaces, and how to calibrate students expectations about classroom environment. Diana Ali’s NASPA policy paper on safe spaces and brave spaces provided important historical context for the meaning and development of safe spaces, within movement-building, academic theory, and student support services. While the word has somewhat different implications in each context, one of the key takeaways is that using the terminology of classroom as “safe space” can lead to a mismatch of student expectations and the reality of the classroom environment. The alternative? Referring to classrooms as “brave spaces.” As Ali notes, “By using the term brave space, faculty are able to distinguish an inclusive classroom discussion from programming on campus that commonly provides respite space for traditionally marginalized communities.”

The term “brave spaces” was originally proposed by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens in 2013 in the context of social justice education to describe mechanisms for creating supportive environments so that all students may participate in challenging dialogue. Brave spaces are not “safe”; the risk of discomfort exists, but there is an effort to provide support for those who are vulnerable. There are five key elements to a “brave space” set out by Arao and Clemens and summarized by Ali in her NASPA paper, but we also discussed a 2018 article by Lynn Verduzco-Baker that highlighted the need to consider that the principles of “brave spaces” were developed with social justice contexts or dialogic courses in mind. Faculty must be mindful of the differences in the goals, power dynamics, and formats of conventional courses and may want to modify the brave space framework accordingly. For example, the faculty member can make it their responsibility to integrate personal experiences of people with marginalized identities through videos, blogs, essays, and qualitative research. That lifts some of the burden from students with marginalized identities who otherwise have to make difficult choices about when to step in or step out of a challenging conversation.

Verduzco-Baker lays out a framework that she presents in the first week of her class to “call in” a student in a conventional classroom who makes a problematic or offensive comment. Assuming that everyone engaged in a classroom discussion is making a good faith effort to understand an issue and that comments are made of ignorance rather than intent to harm, Verduzco-Bakers uses a five point strategy that includes repeating the problematic statement in a revised (and more appropriate) manner, once again stating the assumption that no harm was intended, explaining the misconception in the comment, describing the harm caused by the comment, and drawing on class content to reveal the flawed assumptions underlying the content. She also notes that instructors need to let students know that they can call in instructors when they make mistakes. 

The discussion provided lots of food for thought. Here are the relevant references for those who want to explore more: