On Teaching Trauma and Witness

Most of us who teach about war likely worry at times about whether we really should continue to subject our students to such dark subjects. In her course Trauma and Witness, Wendy Eberle-Sinatra encourages her students to recognize that averting their gaze is not the answer by exposing them to disturbing materials about the Holocaust, while also giving them the opportunity to “take control of their own traumas”.


The Globe and Mail recently published a column about an emerging practice in some American universities to demand “trigger warnings” from professors. These warnings are statements issued with the course description informing the prospective student that the material included in the course syllabus may be potentially upsetting to them, should they have sensitivities around certain issues. In some instances, apparently, professors have even been asked to exclude such possibly troubling content, or to allow students to opt out of participating in the study of it should they choose to enroll in the course.

This column caught and held my attention because I may be one of very few teachers who have already taken it upon herself to issue such a warning at the start of her course. Arguably a title like Trauma and Witness might be considered warning in itself. But as one who has trained and worked as a rape crisis counsellor, I am sensitive to the fact that anyone suffering from post-traumatic stress can be deeply disturbed by certain material in a way that others might not be. I am careful to let my prospective students know exactly what they are signing up to study. Some of them decide not to take the course.

That said …

It is impossible, much of the time, to know what will trigger a flashback; almost anything, unpredictably, can, depending on the trauma. The column mocked the array of texts excluded, mentioning The Great Gatsby — in fact most world literature could be excluded as unsettling to some. In fact, many would argue that this is the point: that we read widely to challenge ourselves, and we teach a diverse range of texts to challenge our students, on many levels. I designed this course, many years ago now, in response to an all-too-common English class student complaint: “what’s the point of reading this”? I wanted to teach a course full of texts that no-one would question the power and validity of studying.  The texts that inspired and shaped the course include some that most profoundly affected me when I was the age of our college students. To my deep pleasure as a teacher, the plan has worked well: every time I teach this course the group bonds, the discussions are profound, the writing is thoughtful, and at the end we all feel we have gained something through the experience beyond the satisfaction of improved reading and writing skills on the students’ part.

I think it is important, even imperative, to offer disturbing content to students. I feel strongly about teaching to sensitize students to the power of literature, and not just to what I perceive as its beauty or greatness. But I also believe that it is very important to present such material – all material – in an atmosphere of shared trust and respect, and one in which the students’ input is sought out. To that end not only do we read material I have chosen, but each student is also asked to prepare a presentation on a relevant topic or literary work of their choice: to select an issue, an event, a text that supports and broadens our studies of the literature of trauma and of witness, to conduct sufficient research, to present the subject and their own critical perspective of it, and to invite and lead an open-ended class discussion about it.

These presentations run throughout the semester, supplementing the assigned readings: some give useful background information, some widen our horizons to include topics not explored otherwise.  Over the years I have also noticed that is has allowed many students to bring forward events or issues of personal importance to them: presentations on homophobia, on the Armenian genocide, the Ukrainian famine, the rape of Nanking, the bombing of the Sikh temple at Amritsar, the civil war in Sri Lanka, the war in Bosnia, the genocide in Rwanda, Dawson school shooting, the cycle of domestic abuse, female circumcision… Not only are students given a certain ownership of the course material, they get something else, in a very strong counter to the “trigger warning”: they have a therapeutic opportunity to take control of their own traumas. While this is an English course, not a course in psychology, it is common knowledge that therapeutic practice dealing with trauma often uses a form of talk therapy in which a trauma survivor tells and retells their story until it become just that for them: a story.

Another positive outcome is that the other students are then also made aware of, and often sensitized to, an issue that may be new, or has simply not caught their attention before, because they see their classmate being brave enough not just to give an oral (arguably a traumatic undertaking in itself, for many!) but to give an oral about something difficult, painful, and deeply important, something that matters to this classmate, that this classmate has identified as essential knowledge.

Finally, a key aspect to all this is that there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance established from day one. I let them know what they are signing on for, and give them the opportunity to write a response essay as their initial diagnostic, so I have a sense of who is in my class. I give a lot of room for response. I also hit them hard early, with material they think they know all about, in showing them Alain Resnais’ early Holocaust documentary, Night and Fog: while many feel they have seen and know all about the Holocaust, rarely have they seen this raw, early black and white film; and even if they have read the first text, Elie Wiesel’s Night, in high school, they bring a different pair of eyes to bear their own witness to that text once having seen a film very far indeed from Schindler’s List.

By choosing their own materials worthy of studying alongside such compelling examples, they also do more than look or read: they internalize a kind of moral imperative, a sense of responsibility. We achieve, together, a consensus that these works matter. We cannot, and should not, avert our eyes; that will not make our wounds, or those of others, heal. It is only by bearing honest witness that we can hope in some small way to push back: to learn what the signs of emerging genocide, of racism, of bigotry, of oppression are; to perhaps help sensitize those around us so that they, too, may see.


Wendy Eberle-Sinatra

English, John Abbott College


, , ,

3 Responses to On Teaching Trauma and Witness

  1. Gabrielle P. April 16, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    The teachers that students remember most and admire are usually the ones that push our understanding of common or uncommon topics as well as our limits on what can be absorbed without a feeling of complete violation. As a student I can understand the reasoning behind wanting to ensure that trigger warnings are given but I think that they can be limiting. Perhaps the people who would opt-out of taking the class because of the trigger warning may have been the ones who most needed to be present for that knowledge and who may have been the most positively affected by it. This is very individual, and can seem heartless to those who it could negatively impact, but as a student – broadening my understanding of issues is what I came to College to do. I chose to pursue a college experience that could enlighten me rather than coddle me (which is what I feel occurred throughout high school). For such a topic as Trauma, however, I can appreciate the reason to why a trigger warning would be given. The goal is to have an open and accepting classroom environment where students can feel comfortable while learning emotionally difficult material.

  2. Emily November 28, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    I think that classes like these are important to take. Terrible and cruel things happen in this world and they shouldn’t be ignored. If we don’t learn and expand our horizons then we are sheltered from the world around us. A very rude awakening will occur when we, as students, enter the world ourselves . I understand why a trigger warning is given for a course such as this, but as long as there are constant open discussions that give you the opportunity to express your feelings and opinions, then this kind of course can provide an overall rewarding experience.

  3. Olivia Rotondo May 7, 2016 at 1:06 am #

    I believe that classes like these are the type of classes that enrich a student’s education and leave them wanting more at the end of the semester. Not only does the teacher give a type of disclaimer at the beginning of the course to warn students, but the teacher also establishes respect and trust at the very beginning of class to let students know that they are allowed to express themselves and their inner thoughts in a safe environment. I think it is very important to have classes like these where the students play an important role in what is taught and discussed in class. This way, the material being learned is actually looked at as interesting and not a waste of time. I think it is also important to recount past atrocities in a way that sheds light on just how horrible the atrocities committed were. Instead of turning a blind eye to what has happened in the past, classes like these force people to look at and acknowledge the atrocities. By collectively remembering past cruelty, I believe that a given society will put certain measures in place to prevent future atrocities from occurring.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes