Academic freedom can mean refusing to teach material that is too traumatic

Many hands in silhouette pressed against frosted glass as a metaphor for Academic freedom can mean acknowledging trauma

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It was during the process of seeking a new job that I became aware of how deeply painful the impact of the pandemic has been.

Although I am grateful to be in a full-time faculty position, I recently sent in an application for a similar post that happened to combine my research and teaching areas. So, after the search committee had sent requests for letters and writing samples, I was invited for a 45-minute Zoom interview.

The interview proved to be warm and inviting, with interesting potential colleagues and friendly conversation about real estate near the campus and departmental solidarity. The job was at a college that focuses on the performing arts, and I enjoyed answering the committee’s questions – about diversity in the classroom, what I would most enjoy teaching and the value of the social sciences to young artists and musicians. I learned about the institution’s curriculum and its needs for the position, and I showcased my teaching and research. Unlike in graduate school, when interviews seemed more desperate, interviews now make my work feel relevant and are an opportunity to meet colleagues I wouldn’t get to meet otherwise.

Yet this very positive experience took place within the context of an academic year shaped by the pandemic. Like many faculty, I have coped with the stress of online and hybrid teaching, being home with young children while trying to school them. My spouse also works from home, so when it was time to teach I hid in my young daughter’s bedroom, the only room with a lock on the door.

We have now experienced three semesters of what faculty call “the black boxes” of Zoom teaching – online classes populated by students who log in to a session but leave their cameras off. We suggest they turn their cameras on, but many are unable to. This raises doubts and insecurities, both about our own teaching practice and the stress of the situation for undergraduates.

Many students are distressed and quarantined, unsure how to finish, how to see people, how to live normally. They worry intensely about graduate school and the lack of job opportunities. They write projects that fall flat, turn things in late and ask to arrive late to class after their Covid tests.

Some have also experienced major personal tragedies. At the start of the spring semester, a student told me that his father had Covid and, later, that he had died, far away, in their home country. My student could neither go to the funeral nor take time away from school and risk losing his student visa. Another student dedicated her project in a public health course to her uncle who died from Covid in New Jersey. A third student, who runs for the track team, told me she would miss class for a heart X-ray, part of being evaluated for permanent heart damage after Covid. “What if I can’t run again?” she asked me, in tears – one more question to which I could provide no answer. Universities often provide little support in helping us deal with traumas such as these.

Just after the semester ended, I heard from the search committee again. I was invited for what, in most other years, would have been a campus visit, but they instead asked for a teaching demonstration over Zoom. They wanted me to prepare Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a story that describes an idyllic setting by the sea and an exuberant summer festival that reveals how the town of Omelas thinks of itself as a problem-free utopia. Only the existence of an abused child under the city contaminates that happiness, making Omelas an ugly dystopia instead. The story, often interpreted as a political allegory, can certainly lead a classroom full of students to important ethical questions about suffering and happiness.

So I agreed to the teaching demonstration and reread Le Guin’s story. 

Yet that very same week my cousin lost her 21-year-old son in a tragic accident. How do we do our work amid so much death and destruction?

Of course, there have always been traumas. When I was a graduate student, my first daughter died at birth. I have even written about this event in academic texts in an effort to speak about personal loss amid a culture of academic overwork, in a profession where the family is often invisible and motherhood and loss are considered private.

When I was in Guatemala for field research in 2006, I posed for a photograph in front of a sign describing the UN exhumation of mass graves in the mountain town I was living in, where massacres were carried out by the state during the 1980s and where justice has been repeatedly denied. 

I have colleagues who study migrant children on the US-Mexican border, children unsafe at home who can’t go to school this year. It is crucial that scholars find the emotional energy to explore these issues and so bring us greater understanding of the darkest areas of life. We also need stories by writers such as Le Guin, who can offer us important insights into our relationships and the human condition.

Universities, of course, should be places where we dare to consider and address terrible events and connect them to larger questions about the role of human suffering. I am glad to know that Le Guin’s story is part of the core curriculum at an institution that takes its role in liberal arts education seriously, and I certainly wouldn’t want to work at a place where these issues remain unaddressed. They should be front and centre in our education, and considered fully by young people as they learn about the world. But sometimes reality may be too much for us to be able to take in what Le Guin has to say.

Person shadow on wall desk with laptop and stationary in front as a metaphor for Many students are distressed  and quarantined, unsure how to  finish, how to see people, how to live normally


Jasmin Merdan/Getty

The movie theatres had just reopened when I was asked to prepare a presentation on Le Guin, so I went to see Jasmila Žbanić’s film Quo Vadis, Aida?, screened at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. The film shows the reality of the planned Bosnian genocide, from the buses that pull up to gather those who will be killed to the United Nations’ incompetence in stopping it, but it is really the story of a mother trying everything in her power to save her children. After seeing the film, I couldn’t sleep for days.

I called a friend and told her I didn’t think I could bring myself to teach “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. Something really haunted me about that tortured child. To the committee, I proposed a piece I usually teach about the political economy of organ trafficking, but, given its place on their core curriculum, they insisted that I teach that particular story.

So I wrote and asked to be removed from the search before the teaching demonstration. As anyone who has sat on a search committee will know, this is an extremely unwelcome act. Perhaps this was just not the job for me.

Yet there are also wider issues about how trauma is ignored in many university settings. We almost never comment on the emotional impact of what we teach. It is inevitable, however, that we feel strongly about the material we teach, especially when it involves death, especially when we see suffering around us or have endured what we have this past year.

This is, of course, not to conflate ordinary human suffering such as the toll on us in universities during Covid with genocides and other global atrocities. Yet despite the obvious differences in scale, there are also similarities in their impact. The relationship between trauma and affect has been pointed out by academics for decades, with suffering sometimes described as “engraved” on the mind or “etched” into the brain.

So how will we talk about the trauma of this past year in the coming semester? Teaching is a very public activity, and, as classroom instructors, we mostly keep our personal lives private. We maintain decorum in interactions with students especially, and offer restrained answers if personal questions arise. Colleagues often say they feel like they are on stage in front of the classroom, maintaining the persona of a wise and knowledgeable professor who doesn’t doubt herself, reprimand her children or drink heavily, all things I have done repeatedly this past year.

I have dropped the professor persona a number of times in the classroom, mostly through crying. A student imagining a different future for a war-torn area brought me to tears. So did a student who remembered her response as an adolescent to hearing about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American boy shot to death in 2012. In fact, I even choked up during my Zoom interview when I spoke about teaching material from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in Dakota that describes what private security forces did to protesters against a proposed pipeline in 2016. Such violence prompts feelings that are not easily contained.

Perhaps those of us who have done fieldwork on genocide, or lost children or lost family members to Covid are best placed to help struggling and traumatised students. Or perhaps we are struggling too much ourselves to do this adequately. We certainly need more mental health support on campus. Yet this pandemic may have also revealed an important new dimension of academic freedom: that we should be required to teach only what we feel able to teach during a pandemic, for the sake of both our students and ourselves.

Rachel O’Donnell is an assistant professor in the Writing, Speaking, and Argument Program at the University of Rochester in New York State.

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