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  • Writer's pictureLauren Cardon

Engaging Traumatic Content

Updated: Jul 7, 2022

*Note: portions of this post (the content at the end) are taken from Inclusive College Classrooms: Teaching Methods for Diverse Learners, co-authored with Anne-Marie Womack and forthcoming from Routledge.

I’ll never forget the first time a student walked out of my class.

About twenty years ago, I was teaching a class focused on race relations in American literature. As part of this course, I provided historical context, so students understood the events that likely inflected how race was represented in a given work.

On the day in question, I was discussing the Post-Reconstruction South. As I prepared this lesson, I kept thinking of how this period was glossed over in my own history classes, and how shocked I was when I read the work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and others who documented lynch law in the Jim Crow South. I imagined that many of my students (though not all) had received a similarly sanitized version of this period in history, and therefore, I leaned into some of the horrific realities of the period as I gave my historical overview.

About halfway through my lecture, the one Black student in the room got up and left. In tears.

I froze mid-sentence, but managed to recover and transition into a short writing/reflection exercise. That allowed me to leave the room and check on the student, who was crying in the hallway. I asked if there was anything I could do, and I let her know that if she needed to leave, she could. She thanked me and said she needed to go home. I offered to get her stuff for her, and she left soon afterward.

I sensed, in this moment, what I had done wrong, but I needed to talk to someone about it. My mentor, a Black professor who had been teaching African American literature for over twenty years, helped me craft an email to the student, in which I expressed my support. The student responded with an apology for leaving. She explained that the content had deeply impacted her, and that she felt very aware all of the sudden that she was “the only Black person in the room.” She expressed feeling “alone.”

To this day it’s difficult to recall this moment and the trauma that my lesson likely caused. I am grateful to this student for the grace she extended me, for coming back to the class the next day and continuing to do excellent work.

Sometimes, in the interest of promoting social justice, educators lean into detailed chronicles of historical and contemporary trauma. As an example, instructors often recount detailed, sometimes graphic accounts of racial violence––as I did in the case above. Education scholar Deshayla Mitchem (2021) notes that many faculty attempt to “invoke empathy for the experiences of BIPOC from their white peers in the name of education”; however, in focusing on white students’ learning, faculty disregard the mental health of BIPOC students.

Mitchem encourages educators to consider why and how they invoke trauma in the classroom. She and others point to how students are particularly retraumatized when they aren’t anticipating such content and have no control over the situation (Donaldson, 2021, p. i). In situations when instructors feel such content is integral, they might begin by thinking about ways to build in flexibility and support. For example, instructors might give content warnings on syllabi, suggest resources students can access outside of class, provide alternate class participation on days when traumatic topics are engaged (Mitchem, 2021), and show support for the mental health of their students (e.g., through statements and resource recommendations).

As a professor of American literature, many novels I teach contain potentially traumatizing content. In selecting content for a class, I always begin by questioning whether the content is necessary to the lesson plan: are there other works that might suffice? If I am wedded to particular texts, I give content warnings at the beginning of the semester and build in options for students who express concern. In a later post, I’ll go into more depth about the “trigger warning” debate and how faculty can show support for students’ mental health.

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