NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Trauma narrative and empathy within the Academy

The first time we met was 22 years ago at an information session on the remote delivery of courses convened in Melbourne, for the university where I then worked. She enrolled, so the second time we met was the first weekend of that remote delivery, a Master of Arts class in journalism held in Melbourne. She was a young lawyer, head hunted by a top firm in Australia.

By Dr Sue Joseph

The first time we met was 22 years ago at an information session on the remote delivery of courses convened in Melbourne, for the university where I then worked. She enrolled, so the second time we met was the first weekend of that remote delivery, a Master of Arts class in journalism held in Melbourne. She was a young lawyer, head hunted by a top firm in Australia. She was bright, sassy, funny and quick. She had a searing intelligence and a wild intellect. She made us all laugh as well as think, that first weekend.

Already I knew, despite my naivety and “newness” to the academy and academic pedagogy, that this was a red-flag situation. Something was wrong and I sensed the space I created was to blame.

And then on the Sunday, the students took part in a mock press conference where Indigenous Elder Lyn Austin graciously shared her story as a member of the Stolen Generations. Her narrative included the systematic sexual assault she endured at the hands of the teenage son of the white family where she was placed.

Watching the student during the mock conference, I noticed a strange affect: “…looking a little vague. She somehow seemed all of a sudden smaller – definitely quieter than usual”.[1]  After the session I asked if she was all right; already I knew, despite my naivety and “newness” to the academy and academic pedagogy, that this was a red-flag situation. Something was wrong and I sensed the space I created was to blame. She eventually let me know that “something” had happened to her when younger.

Creative doctorates are seldom objective and rational – they are tense, emotional and sometimes messy; ultimately fluent and often flagrant; sometimes shocking. And sometimes, they revisit psychic injury.

The following week she rang requesting an extension for her assignment. She was ringing from a psychiatric unit, admitted for depression and suicidal ideation triggered as a consequence of the mock press conference session. She shared over the phone more of her story of systematic sexual abuse by an uncle, from the age of 11 to 15.*

I have written – with her permission – about what happened that day in my classroom.[2]  This incident created a deeply haunting echo throughout my career, insistent and incessant. This was a journalism class, and journalism deals at its basest with the basest of topics and occurrences; the baser the better. But back then, there was no training or discussion about how to handle damaging stories or experiences with students; stories that could damage them; experiences that had; and definitely no guidance on any vicarious sort of damage to myself.

So I went searching and found the writing-as-therapy canon and began to read and study – all the foundational leaders in the field, from James Pennebaker (1986, 1997, 2004, 2011) through to Cathy Caruth (1996); Herman (1997), Louise DeSalvo (1999), Leigh Gilmore (2001a, 2001b, 2007) to Nancy Miller and Jason Tougaw (2002) Weinstein (2004); van der Kolk (2015) and Atkinson (2018). And the list keeps growing today – considered, informed and innovative techniques to think about trauma; and then apply them to witnessing/supervising trauma narrative from candidates and students.

Most trauma narrative within creative writing HDR supervision evolves through memoir, autobiographical or auto-ethnographic works – all are collated as modes of life writing. (Care must also be taken when fictional works are rendered, often personal trauma narrative at their edges.) But as Aitchison and Mowbray write: “… the emotional aspects of doctoral education are rarely openly discussed … The research culture of higher education is deeply rooted in notions of scholarship that favour objectivity, disembodied rationality and autonomy”.[3] Creative doctorates are seldom objective and rational – they are tense, emotional and sometimes messy; ultimately fluent and often flagrant; sometimes shocking. And sometimes, they revisit psychic injury.

Completion of a trauma narrative HDR is not the whole story; an ultimate achievement, but nowhere near the whole story. The story is the process, the conquering, the wrangling of emotional, psychological, temporal, psychic and sometimes physical injury onto the page. Dutro writes: “We need to let our hearts break in the face of some of the stories our students bring to us and let their hearts bleed a bit for us”.[4] She writes into a space rarely interrogated within academia but it is this space that makes the difference in supervising trauma narrative – an empathetic response to the story first and foremost; a witnessing and an honouring of that story, before rigour and disciplinary technique is imposed. It is a human space, where academia is demystified and the supervisor is standing there, potentially as vulnerable as the candidate. The rigour and disciplinary technique must come, and always does come, otherwise we as supervisors are not doing our jobs. But initially, empathy must take centre stage.

 

References

[1] Joseph 2012, pp.198-9

[2] Joseph 2011; 2012; 2019

[3] Aitchison and Mowbray 2013, p. 861

[4] Dutro 2011, p. 209


Sue Joseph (PhD) began working as an academic, teaching print journalism at the University of Technology Sydney in 1997. As Senior Lecturer, she taught in journalism and creative writing, particularly creative non-fiction writing. Now as Associate Professor, she holds an Adjunct position at Avondale University College, is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of South Australia and is a doctoral supervisor at the University of Sydney and Central Queensland University. She is currently Joint Editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics and Editor of TEXT Special Issues.

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