A Safe Space – Reflections on BSA PGForum Event “Making Space in Academia”, 8 November 2019
I’d heard the phrase “safe space” before in the context of academia and in all honesty I greeted it disparagingly. As a former secondary school teacher, the concept of a “safe space” evoked memories of liaising with social workers to verify whether or not a vulnerable adolescent should return to her family home or be put into care. The thought that a group of academics needed a “safe space” seemed a little farcical. After all, if this conference was to be a “safe space” then it suggested that other conferences may be “unsafe spaces”. Although I’ve only experienced a few, I couldn’t equate the sitting and listening demands of a conference to something “unsafe”; uncomfortable maybe (both physically and mentally) but not unsafe.
From the outset of the BSA PGF event, something struck me as different. For starters, people spoke to me and seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying. This made me realise just how quickly I’ve become used to denigrating my own research interests as not as “worthy/relevant/on trend” as others. Speakers spoke from personal experience. They used real, lived examples to frame discussion, rather than name-dropping theorists. This meant I understood what they were saying and I could actually engage with it, rather than beating myself up about there being yet more theory I didn’t even know existed, let alone understand .
It seemed that the normal “rules” of the conference “game” didn’t apply. The other people in the room seemed like real people. I didn’t feel that I had to put my academic front on (the one where I spend so much time worrying about how and even if I’m going to ask a question that by the time I’ve got it clear in my own mind, the discussion has completely moved on). The discussions certainly challenged my thinking. This usually results in me feeling that my own arguments are nowhere near as well developed as those of others. That didn’t happen. Instead I was able to see how my own thinking could be enhanced, rather than undermined. With this came a sense within me that I wasn’t just a wannabe academic watching others. I could contribute because doing so wasn’t scary; it felt safe.
Unsafe spaces in society continue to exist. As a result, countless individuals strive on a daily basis to ensure that those who, for whatever reason, occupy these spaces have every possible chance of remaining safe. Within academia, each one of us can do something to support each other in the “unsafe” spaces. This does not require the homogenisation of opinion but does necessitate recognition that safe spaces foster contributions from those who may otherwise go unheard. Respect, inclusion and diversity play their part, but the ultimate responsibility lies with each of us.
Francesca McCarthy is a PhD student at UCL Institute of Education. Her PhD is examining the impact that academically selective education systems have on student aspiration which stems from her 11 year career as a secondary school teacher. Francesca’s research interests include the relationship between education and social class and the use of creative methodologies. You can follow her on Twitter @Francesca_McCy