English 881/781: Narrative Inquiry — Chapter 7 – Truth, Trauma, and the Power of Telling

Chapter 7 – Truth, Trauma, and the Power of Telling Required Materials

On Truth and Story Telling

How to Teach Stories That Address Trauma

  • MacDevitt, John. (2013). Responding to Student Traumatic Writing: A Psychologist’s View. Teaching English in the Two Year College. 135-148.
    • This article from a psychologist/composition teacher talks about students’ need “to air pain”
    • “According to Joshua Smyth’s 1998 synthesis of the research on the impact of written emotional expression on health, there is a predictable and very significant rise in writers’ emotional distress as they write about traumas and in the immediate aftermath of writing. However, in the many studies included in Smyth’s analysis, few subjects claimed to have actual difficulty dealing with the feelings that emerged from their writing practice: they just felt distressed. I think of the emergence of emotion as a good thing, an evidence of caring for oneself (why weep or rage over the suffering of someone you dislike?) and a sign that a pain or a tension is relaxing its grip. Rather than attempting to “do” something, to “fix” the situation or feeling, psychotherapists commonly attempt to receive the client empathically and to communicate that empathy to her. Since Carl R. Rogers’s application of ideas from counseling to the educational process, empathy has been suggested to teachers at all levels as a stance that helps free students to learn” (p. 138).
    • “If the composition instructor is perceived by the student as decent, em-pathic, and caring, the instructor need not agonize about exactly what to say: she can just say what is on her mind, as tactfully as possible” (p. 139).
    • Trust the student and respond as an empathetic listener
    • “I think a tactful ‘speaking of one’s mind’ includes using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements. For example, I felt uneasy after I read your essay about cutting, and it nagged at the back of my mind last night. I feel like I’m intruding, asking this, but are you in danger of doing away with yourself? This is much easier for a student to hear than You sound pretty disturbed—are you going to kill yourself? (p. 139).
    • “If writing students choose to create and share personal writing, it may be helpful to them and to their readers. It will not damage them. But whether writing is personal and self-disclosing or impersonal and formal, students will feel discomfort at the prospect of being evaluated. Many may feel far more discomfort writing a research paper than a more personal paper. Regardless of the type of assignment, the teacher’s job is the same: to maintain an environment (including relationships) that promotes students’ learning and to help them become better writers. Treating students with respect and empathizing with their feelings are just part of maintain-ing the learning environment. Sharing an honest but supportive personal reaction and expressing empathy only take a few moments, and those efforts make it much easier and natural to work on the process of improving the piece of writing” (p. 146).
  • Article: DeBacher, Sarah, & Deborah Harris-Moore. First, Do No Harm: Teaching Writing in the Wake of Traumatic. Composition Forum 34, Summer 2016
    • “My biggest teaching crisis that semester came when I faced the unavoidable: I would have to assign grades to my students’ writing, which just felt wrong. I found myself struggling to separate the writing from the writer, the text from the life. Certainly, we writing teachers face this challenge in ordinary circumstances, but suddenly I felt paralyzed by the task. Tangled up in a collective trauma, each ‘F’ took on new meaning, both absurd and perhaps even cruel. My students struggled to meet learning outcomes. They—and I, for that matter—struggled simply to show up—a feat deserving of an ‘A,’ I remember thinking. Inflated grades across the department that semester reflect that this struggle was not mine alone.
                         I soon found myself asking, “Who am I to make my students write about Katrina?” and “Who am I to cause them further potential harm in the form of a grade?” I think trauma theorists would say those are good questions.
    • “With no guidebook or instructions to follow, instructors are often left with their instincts and immediate resources. After reflecting on our unique but overlapping experiences, we don’t have any definitive answers to the challenge of how to teach after and amidst trauma. What’s clear to us both is that while we want very much to help our students, as writers, make sense of their worlds and lives through writing, we also want them to have some choice in how they go about it. And while silence may be an option for them, we writing teachers have an obligation to understand and discuss how—and perhaps even if and when—to teach in traumatic contexts.”
The Narrative Inquiry Tradition

Chapter 7 – Truth, Trauma, and the Power of Telling In Class Activities

Warning: This Lesson Contains Difficult Content

  • In this lesson, we will talk about war, truth, killing, death, and trauma (there will also be some swear words)
  • Narrative Inquiry deals with very powerful real issues that can be upsetting
  • We are living in a world of trauma so it is important to discuss stories that might deal with trauma which students may write whether or not you ask them to
  • If you need to sit this class session out for personal reasons, that is completely acceptable; you do not have to give an explanation, but please let Dr. Pagnucci know that you will not attend the lesson
  • If you need to leave the classroom during the session, that is alright too
  • We will discuss strategies for helping students and teachers respond to trigger events in short term ways
  • For truly serious issues, you always want to encourage people to seek assistance and guide them toward it if you can as their teacher
  • Dr. Pagnucci is not an expert on trauma but he has attended sessions on the topic and spoken to a number of faculty who are experts on this topic; the topics of trauma, health, and well being will only continue to grow in importance in the future, so Dr. Pagnucci’s hope is that this lesson will give you a little preparation for responding (there is, of course, much more you can learn) 

On Telling Stories

Dialogic Questions

A few questions about O’Brien’s war stories:

  • What is the importance of the truth?
  • Is there such a thing as the truth?
  • How do we get at the truth?
  • Does research need to be true?
  • Is it ok to use fiction in research to get at the truth?
  • What is the importance of factual truth?
  • What is the importance of emotional truth?
  • What is our responsibility to tell the truth as researchers?
  • Has the idea of “fake news” changed how we think about the truth?

On Trauma

  • An ordinary response to an extraordinarily bad situation
  • Resides in the body
  • Trauma is also subjective: One person can be traumatized by something that another is not
  • A stress headache is a simple example
  • Peter Levine
    • Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma
    • How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness
  • Bessel Van Der Kolk

Dialogic Questions

Here are some excellent discussion questions raised by Debacher and Harris-Moore:

  • Is it better to confront emotions and difficult topics in times of trauma, or to move forward with business?
  • If we invite the topic of trauma into our classes, should we give students the ability to opt out of particular texts and assignments?
  • If we do allow—or perhaps even encourage—students to express their feelings about recent events in lieu of a traditional assignment, how do we grade this nontraditional reflection?

And thinking about MacDevitt’s article, here’s an even more challenging question:

  • How can we learn to be more empathic teacher/listener/graders?

One More Thought

Three Skills for Self-Regulation Techniques

To help students cope with stress/trauma, here are some techniques to use in a class. This can help if someone gets triggered as well, by helping students return to a state of homeostasis/calm:

  • Strategy One: Self-Hugging
    • One hand on the heart, one hand on the belly
  • Strategy Two: Grounding
    • Bring awareness to yourself in the present room
    • Identify that you are alright in this exact time and space
    • Feel your feet on the floor and your bottom on the chair
  • Strategy Three: Box Breathing
    • Breathe in seven, hold seven, exhale seven, pause seven

And to Guide Us Back