4.1 Teaching (through) Trauma and Grief- by Janine Utell

“The magnitude of loss.”  “When students bring their trauma to writing class how then do we teach?  When students bring their teaching to trauma class, how does the instructor write?”  “Compassion.  Connection.  Self-inquiry.”  These keywords and questions—proffered by Sandra Pinasco, Tanis MacDonald, and Louise Harrington, respectively—offer glimpses of the rich, complex, and deeply humane lines of discussion raised by “Teaching (through) Trauma and Grief” (expertly moderated by Vicki Hallett). This thought-provoking panel offered space for reflection and development of practice in what it means for instructors and for students to grapple with life writing texts of trauma and grief in the classroom, particularly in light of the demands of the neoliberal university so many of us confront as part of our daily professional lives:  the imperative to assess, the stripping away of agency, the dismantling of structures of care and support.  Sandra Pinasco described an undergraduate course on memoirs of grief, in progress during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Pinasco detailed the work of a class diary where students could share their own experiences, but also noted that even during a moment of collective global grief the discussions (save for one student who responded powerfully and personally in writing of a friend’s suicide) remained impersonal.  Pinasco’s contribution raises the question:  what will writing and teaching of trauma and grief look like in the post-COVID era?  Next, Tanis MacDonald offered a provocative discussion of teaching life writing in the creative writing classroom with an emphasis on the pedagogical value of the fragment.  MacDonald made the essential point that any teaching of life writing that allows student trauma to be centered must do so by lifting up and facilitating agency and subjecthood, not by pathologizing student writers as victims.  Can life writing courses such as those discussed during this session offer the means of resisting the pathologizing of trauma?  For MacDonald, life writing can give students the “force” of form and permission to unlimit themselves, to be incomplete.  Finally, Louise Harrington shared the purpose and practicalities of using contemplative pedagogy in a course dedicated to life writing of war, conflict, and trauma along borders (such as those which have led to violence in the United States, Ireland, India, and Pakistan).  Harrington stepped participants through the practice of contemplative pedagogy, prioritizing student reflection and “slow teaching.”  The work of Harrington’s course culminates in research creations with a reflective writing component, again making central the endeavor of student meaning-making and self-inquiry.  The session closed with a call to participants to continue their own thinking on how we ensure the ongoing productional processes of creating safe spaces for the writing of trauma and grief.  As timely as this session feels, its questions, provocations, and imperatives will only become more necessary as we come to terms as researchers and teachers of life writing with the lives we have lost over the last year.

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