Teaching About Trauma & Sexual Violence As Contingent Faculty

Photo by Erik Mayes

Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, dancer and sex educator. Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, women’s folklore, and the body in folklore. Her work in/on sex education addresses professional boundaries, the intersections of belief and sexuality, and understanding the cultural and historical contexts informing public sex education. She is a regular contributor to Conditionally Accepted, Patheos and MySexProfessor.com. You can follow Dr. Jorgensen on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Teaching Trauma While Contingent

I have been on a trauma-research kick for a couple of years now, and the topic has found its way into my teaching. But as an adjunct professor — thereby lacking job security — I must be mindful of the potential professional costs of teaching about trauma.

I am especially concerned about teaching triggering material because I am an adjunct. I worry about complaints from students, parents and perhaps colleagues — not for mishandling contentious material (which would concern me, too), but for bringing it into the classroom in the first place.

Adjuncts often teach on semester- or yearlong contracts, lacking the job security of a guaranteed renewal and the protection of tenure. In an earlier blog post, “Adjuncting and Academic Freedom,” I reflected on how that affects my ability to teach contentious subjects: “At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor.” When we choose or feel compelled to teach about controversial issues, we become vulnerable to negative responses that could hasten the end of our time at a given institution.

Sexual violence and trauma are still, in my experience, considered edgy or controversial topics to include in one’s curriculum. While it is certainly possible to misstep by handling those issues poorly or insensitively, merely including them should not be a risk. I say this based both on their deplorable prevalence historically as well as on my work today in the sex education world, which has taught me that trauma-informed education is essential.

Based on lessons that I have learned while teaching as an adjunct about trauma (mostly related to sexual violence), I offer the following advice to other contingent faculty members.

Start creating a civil classroom environment immediately. I do not usually lead with trauma topics on the first day or even in the first week of the semester. Instead, I begin to craft a civil classroom from day one, trusting that it will support discussion of tough topics later.

I share my guidelines for discussion in lecture, and the students and I talk about whether we should add anything to this shared agreement about how to comport ourselves in class. It contains basics of adult communication: things like using “I” statements when discussing your response to topics, respecting people’s boundaries and so on.

Instructing students on how to interact with difficult topics and each other is not a panacea. But it does give me something to fall back on if I need to intervene in a discussion in which someone begins to say something that sounds like victim blaming.

That relates back to the precarity of teaching trauma as a contingent faculty member because, if nothing else, we can point at our scaffolding and preparation as evidence that we did our best to create a safe classroom environment. Our best may not be good enough when facing a hostile administration, but it is something.

Learn about and implement trauma-informed approaches. In my time among sex educators and therapists, I have learned that trauma-informed approaches are a must. That means being aware of how trauma impacts the brain and memory, knowing what flashbacks and triggers are, and understanding how to provide social support in appropriate ways. (For example, if you are an educator, then your tool set is different than a clinician’s.)

I have blogged about crafting trauma-aware interactions. Whatever the situation, it boils down to giving the people with whom you are interacting agency in terms of what and how they disclose, and not judging or diagnosing them.

I guarantee that, in most classrooms, you will have someone who has a trauma history, whether it is neglect or sexual violence. It is so statistically likely, especially compounded by intersectional factors (e.g., with college students more likely to have experienced sexual assault), that we need to adjust our teaching to account for this.

Unfortunately, most adjuncts do not have the time or resources to pursue training in trauma awareness. I have attended workshops on my own dime to acquire that knowledge. That is a disservice to students, but I do not see college administrations changing their orientation toward trauma awareness any time soon. And even if that were to change, I cynically believe that full-time faculty and staff members would see the first wave of trauma training before adjuncts and part-time faculty would.

If you only read one book on trauma, I highly recommend Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. It is my guide to teaching about trauma.

Destigmatize the experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about what counts as normal and how normativizing discourse is deployed. I appreciate Dr. Debby Herbenick’s Tumblr project, Make Sex Normal, which aims to normalize the daily discussion of sexuality topics. I also think my colleagues who take issue with the word “normal” have a point in stating that it can have negative connotations, implying that normal is something for which people should strive.

For those reasons, I prefer to think about destigmatizing the study of sexualities and its various practices/experiences. I have received some pushback here, but luckily it has not come with consequences (yet?). It has mostly come in the form of students relaying parental complaints at my assigned reading for being “trash” when it focuses on alternative sexualities.

In a gender, women and sexuality studies course I taught on sexuality in fairy tales, we did a unit on abuse and incest in fairy tales, drawing on both texts from the Grimms’ collection and recent rewritten tales. Students spoke up about their own abuse in class and how it was helpful to see trauma and abuse reflected in literary and cultural sources.

When teaching about sexual assault and trauma, I try to destigmatize the very widespread experience of surviving abuse by including statistics about its prevalence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That helps students to realize how common it is, which can lead to a conversation about how we handle the topic. Hopefully, this also makes students who have experienced it — whether they disclose — feel seen and included rather than marginalized.

I have started to incorporate trauma every semester I teach, because it relates to most aspects of human experience. While I am still learning the ropes, I believe that following the aforementioned methods has been helpful, both for my own experience and for my students’.

Recently, I did an hour-long lecture about trauma and folklore in The Forms of Folklore, my large lecture class at the University of California, Berkeley. I was only a visiting lecturer without the possibility of renewal, but I believed that my students deserved to have access to information about how trauma works and how it might impact their fieldwork experiences while collecting folklore. It was nerve-racking for me to prepare this lecture, but it went extremely well. Lots of people thanked me afterward, including a few who identified as survivors.

It can be disheartening to study and teach sexual violence and trauma, especially when faced with the apparent contradiction of administrations who are either apathetic about what we as adjuncts do in the classroom or unduly vigilant about controversial topics that might damage the brand. But students need access to this information as humans traveling a world that is rife with abuse. Knowing that this helps students makes it worthwhile for me to teach trauma, no matter how precarious my situation might be, and I am curious to hear if it is the same for others.