Discomfort and the college experience

College can be a place of uncomfortable challenges.

Trent M. Kays

College is often considered a place of discovery. However, discovery isn’t always a comfortable one. I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced many different teaching styles, learning environments and classroom attitudes. What I often hear from fellow teachers and students is we must provide students with a comfortable learning space.

Being “comfortable” can be interpreted broadly, but, comfortable in terms of the university seems to be translated into nonthreatening. We should provide a nonthreatening learning space, and our teachers should teach in a nonthreatening way. These are things with which I wholly agree. However, it seems that nonthreatening or comfortable are used to discourage some interactions in language and material.

Yet, shouldn’t college be a place where we are uncomfortable on occasion? Isn’t that the point? College is an experience, and one that is supposed to prepare you for the world outside its cloistered walls. But, this is often not the case. College teaches you how to interact in college. It teaches you how to interact with professors you may only encounter once. It pushes you into a position where you are often forced to respect those providing your education. The element of force is inherently uncomfortable.

The nature of college is  experiencing material that will bother us. It will make us uncomfortable. This is because we normally encounter perspectives we’ve never encountered before. We come across different cultural norms, different people and different issues that make us squeamish. Of course, there is a difference between being uncomfortable with material and being so uncomfortable you can’t fully participate. The former is something that inspires thought while the latter is one that can impair your ability to learn. But, how do we know the difference?

If you are unable to focus on your studies because of the learning space, you should probably say something. I know the Minnesota mentality often overrides some students’ abilities to speak up to their instructors; this is something we need to get over. It’s imperative to challenge your peers and instructors because it’s through that process we learn something about ourselves. We learn about what makes us uncomfortable, but more importantly, we can begin to learn about why we are uncomfortable.

This act of discomfort is vital to understanding our privilege. We often do not realize how privileged we are living in the United States. The mere fact most of the population has clean running water and indoor plumbing puts us way ahead of some other countries around the world. Consider how uncomfortable your college experience would be if you didn’t have indoor plumbing. Despite this fact, some issues arise that seem to make a small contingent of students uncomfortable.

For example: Some students are uncomfortable experiencing different world views in the classroom. Yet, outside of the protection of the university, you will encounter similar and even more diverse world views. Or, some students are uncomfortable with the occasional use of profanity or divisive language in the classroom. Yet, once again, these are things you will encounter outside the university. These are real things; they aren’t imaginary or sound bites from action movies. These elements of discomfort become necessary to the learning experience, not because some people want to purposefully act in such ways but because these elements organically exist and arise out of cultural contexts.

I certainly am not advocating a learning experience where the instructor only uses profanity. However, if the occasional curse word makes you uncomfortable and the millions of starving people around the world don’t, then that’s a problem. The amount of time spent in a college learning space is minimal compared to the trajectory of one’s life. Should it not be a teacher’s job to expose, if only cursorily, a student to uncomfortable elements of culture, society and life? In this way, a teacher is preparing a student so they are not shocked or caught off-guard by the reality of the world.

We should use these opportunities of discomfort to learn about the cultural diversity surrounding us. If we are uncomfortable, the question should be, “Why?” Even if our gut reaction may be, “I don’t like this” — the question of why is more important. By answering the why of our discomfort, we may be able to understand our own cultural upbringing and the cultural contexts of those with whom we interact and disagree.

These experiences, whether uncomfortable or comfortable, teach us something about the world. Unfortunately, the former is much more noticeable in the world around us. But, perhaps, this is also good because it gives us ample opportunities to learn. As a teacher, I want to provide my students with a comfortable learning space where discussion is supported and prized. However, I also don’t want to mislead my students into thinking they will never encounter discomfort. I struggle with these opposing views, but I know there can be a balance.

The issue of discomfort is a sensitive one because the university should always be a safe place. Like a vaccine for real world diseases, higher education involves a controlled discomfort that vitally prepares us for experiences in the real world.