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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century
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Setting the Stage: Safe to Be Uncomfortable

Understanding the crucial role of the temenos, I set out to use improv games in hope of facilitating a safe space. The notion of social work classrooms as “safe spaces” has been explored by Holley and Steiner (2005), who found that students most often associated an instructor's nonjudgmental attitude with feeling safe. Then again, what do we mean by “safe space”?

Fook and Askeland (2007) nicely troubled a simplistic view of “safe space” in the social work classroom when they pointed out how social work improvisations may be inadvertently “disciplined” through the internalized frames of curriculum, habitus, or conventions. Considering the challenges of critical reflection in classroom discussions, the authors found “clinical” tendencies in social work education that may lead educators and students to believe that “safe” means “comfortable” and keep them from the discomfort of challenging ideas. Not only do notions of “professional objectivity” discourage discussion of anything that is considered “subjective” but also therapeutic habits in social work may hamper critical “why” questions of oneself or others because they might be considered judgmental, intrusive, too personal, or otherwise inappropriate. The increasingly bureaucratic-technical focus of work routines and an “argument culture,” in which only one side can be right, heightens anxieties about having it done “right” (according to protocol). Therefore, it becomes all the more important—although difficult—to critically inquire into ambivalences, ambiguities, or uncertainties (Fook & Askeland, 2007).

To this end, social work education as an improvisational activity requires creating a “safe (enough) space” that must not be mistaken for “feeling comfortable” at all times. Quite the opposite: The space is safe to take risks, to “play” in ways that challenge, push, and disturb the ostensibly “common- sense” practices in which we engage and which we encounter. Hence, the temenos is ideally a space making it safe to be challenged, to be vulnerable, to be changed, and to be uncomfortable for students and teachers each in their own ways.

Because this space is created not by declaration but in the continuous experience and exchange of those who are present, I am not the only person in the room making a space safe enough. I discuss with students what this means to them as we go over the syllabus, in which one section explicitly asks students to help make seminars a place to “think out loud,” to try things out, and be constructive in the giving and receiving of feedback. But more important, before I enter into this discussion, I typically invite students to play games that provide an opportunity to explore what I am trying to communicate in a joint experience and model a combination of risk-taking and playfulness, openness and critical thinking.

 
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