By Associate Professor Sue Joseph
My first experience of a university ethics committee was as a candidate in the latter days of my doctorate, investigating voicelessness and the media. I was a new academic, teaching into the journalism school. Industrial ethics in my journalism was front and centre throughout my career; research ethics within the Humanities, particularly and ironically in the field of journalism, was a relatively new notion at the time, and I had no concrete understanding of its depth or virtue. A committee member asked: “How can we be sure you have not scrabbled through your subjects’ garbage bins for information?”
Understandably, this question created a white hot rage, my research mapped against the worst type of stereotypical trope. How to answer?
Trying to calm, I simply asked him: “Have you any idea what and how we teach over there?” pointing to the building housing the journalism school.
The white hot rage took many hours to recede.
Thinking of this exchange, it’s a wonder how I ever got my job as an academic; I had no comprehension of these research processes or their rationale. The committee member’s question was profoundly out of order but I do remember he looked as quizzically at me as I looked stormily at him. Retrospectively, possibly the most chilling issue was that there was no discussion of minimising harm to myself, as witness of my trauma narrative research.
But when discussing what I later came to appreciate is the deep, deep merit of the ethics process within the Humanities’ tertiary sector, I use this story to describe the divergence between the academy and industry, and the understanding of ethical practice.
As practice-led lessons, I use field stories where I have made ethical decisions not to chase the headline, and challenge students and candidates to ponder what they would do in the same situation. An example: in London interviewing a Special Forces soldier who’d survived the Falklands War, I made a decision to withhold information from the final story and my editor. His story was about the last battle on Goose Green – it was dark, raining, and suddenly, he heard his dying friend, crying out for him; he hunkered down behind a rock, dropped his rifle and just sobbed. Then he collected a bullet in the mouth and was sent home. He shared the whole story. I never told anyone until I started using it anecdotally in my classes. Because when I spoke with this man, he was in clinical shock. And if his story was published, in terms of elite soldier unit status, it would have harmed him even more. It was not in the public interest – well, the only public interest is how warfare damages soldiers, the inhumanity of it, and a de-identified sociological study/survey of the military would be worthwhile. But not this story, not in a newspaper.
Some students agree with my actions; others deem them too safe; that I should have chased the big story, at all costs, even the human ones.
I always listen, then quietly talk about integrity – theirs, coupled with the integrity of the story. Their decision is their right choice – their individual moral compass – but I urge them, please, stop and think about harm minimisation, and only then make that choice. I need to believe some of them hear me.
The ethics process in the tertiary sector is a polarising one. It is time consuming and often iterative, but in journalism research out in the field, the process reminds researchers of the manifold layers of people’s lives; creative writers, of their relational responsibilities to their subjects, as well as themselves.
Early on in the appropriation of the science model of ethics imposed on the humanities, and possibly still today, many ethics committees believed that life writing does not require ethical approval. It does, possibly more so than any other. Often life writing is underpinned by trauma or what Dutro writes the: “exposed wounds and the exposing of wounds”. It is a fraught and potentially dangerous space for candidate as well as supervisor, and the burgeoning of trauma narrative within the tertiary HDR sector is palpable.
I do believe now, 20 years after I locked heads with the ethics committee, there is movement towards a safer more ethical space around trauma narrative within doctoral spaces, but it has come from the bottom up; from those of us, relaying and managing fraught experiences. Institutions across the country have responded, slowly.
Several years ago with a colleague, we reached out to Australian HDR supervisors to ask if they felt trauma narrative was appropriately handled within tertiary institutions. Interviewing 13 senior academic supervisors, all agreed more explicit guidelines are needed for this specific supervision. Most agreed that universities offer ethical and supervisory protocols but very little support for differing supervisory modes, claiming training is about operational aspects rather than relational. Most called for workshops addressing issues of trauma, and the ethics of trauma narrative.
The ethical tensions are still not adequately addressed in the academy, nor a prescribed training for supervisors. Commodifying trauma can only become an ethical offering when the sector dealing with these modes of creativity recognises both its ubiquity, coupled with ramifications.
 Dutro 2011, 194
 Joseph & Rickett 2017
Dutro, Elizabeth 2011, Writing Wounded: Trauma, Testimony, and Critical Witness in Literacy Classrooms, English Education, January, pp. 193-211
Joseph, Sue, & Rickett, Carolyn 2017, Supervisors’ perspectives on the ethical supervision of long form writing and managing trauma narrative within the Australian tertiary sector. Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, 14(2/3), pp. 61-71.
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, 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.