Ways of Reading (or, ‘Why is Stuart Hall so hard to read?’)

Writing the theoretical bits of my PhD thesis, I’ve been neck deep in some seriously inscrutable texts (I won’t name names, but those authors who are still alive probably know who they are). Picking through these books can be painstakingly slow, and at the end of a long day of that, reading anything that’s closer to ground level can be a welcome relief. Turning to Twitter for cognitive reprieve, I’ve more than once come upon people bemoaning that ‘Stuart Hall is difficult to read’, or a ‘tough slog’, even. Hall is having a bit of a moment, in part because a bunch of new volumes of his writing have recently been released, and partly because the present historical moment seems preordained for application of his ideas (the two, I suspect, are not unrelated). I see his name crop up a lot, and quite a few people seem to be hitting a wall trying to read his work.

I’m always left just a wee bit perplexed that people find it unpleasant going. I find it precisely the opposite – lyrical and smooth and dense (to be fair, I’m referring here to the political essays, not ‘Encoding and Decoding’, which, yeah, gave me a stress headache on the first try). These complaints about the experience of reading got me thinking about what academic reading feels like. I remember the first time I read one of Hall’s essays. Initially I found it disorientating. This thing didn’t read the way that academic texts usually do – what was going on here? But after the first few pages I understood how the text was meant to work. It was never supposed to be read the way we read most academic texts. Ideas and concepts are woven through sentences and paragraphs in an artistically-minded way, the way a filmmaker constructs images and sounds with precisely the right timings to evoke a holistic experience in the viewer. Some explication gets left out, because only with concepts, images, and allusions juxtaposed in a very particular way do the dots connect in the way that they do. A different style of writing wouldn’t achieve the same thing – it’s writing written along the curvature of the phenomenology of reading, so that the reader builds something in their mind which they’re then able to see properly afterward.

The problem is that it only works if you switch off your usual habits of academic reading. A picture is being painted (or rather, you’re being facilitated in painting it yourself), but if you try to take the brush strokes apart and chemically analyse different bits of the paint, you won’t see the painting. The text has a specific pace and flow, and in order to really take it in, you have to just go along for the ride and then decide what you make of it at the end. This is pretty much precisely the opposite of how academics are trained to read: we’re meant to interrogate each word and sentence, asking what it might be assuming, what it takes for granted, where its limits are, what it implies. What we’re able to take from a text depends to a meaningful degree on how we read it. We all read in lots of different ways; in a sense, we’re each many different readers. Which reader we are when we read a text affects which text we find.

A couple of years ago the divisively-received Coen brothers film Hail, Caesar! came out. A few of my friends and I went to see it. I was the only one who enjoyed it. In our post-cinema debrief in the pub, they all complained that it hadn’t had a story. Coen brothers films always tell such brilliant stories, they said, and they were waiting and waiting as the film progressed for a substantial story which never emerged. I had experienced the film totally differently. On the basis of the advertising (which, in all fairness, was pretty misleading), I had expected a rich plot line as well, but it became apparent within minutes of the start of the film that it was never meant to be a story, but instead a narratively loose genre spoof. Having pretty quickly realised that, I abandoned the expectation of a story and settled in for the film I was actually watching (and as a genre spoof, it was quite enjoyable!). My friends’ frustration proceeded from their straining to somehow see the film they had been promised by the advertising (and perhaps the rest of the Coen brothers film archive), viewing it against the grain of the type of thing that it actually turned out to be.

So the question for us as academics is this: what might we get out of reading if we were less restrictive with which texts we read through which lenses? We each have an array of different ways that we read, but we tend to apply each of those methods only to specific kinds of texts. We read academic journal articles, media articles, colleagues’ early-draft manuscripts, students’ essays, short stories, poetry, novels, Tweets, and pub menus each in their own way. But what might we be missing out on from the texts we read by not playing a bit more loosely with which kinds of reading get applied to which texts? Brian Massumi, in the introduction to his book Parables for the Virtual, helpfully reminds his reader that how they read what follows should be tailored to the experimental and unusual arguments he’s set out. He’s trying something different here, he says. In a good-naturedly self-deprecating way, he warns the reader that his prose has been described as being ‘like a black hole’, but adds that our knowledge will never advance if we don’t go out on limbs and try conceptually unorthodox things. Read this book accordingly, he urges.

So why is Stuart Hall so hard to read? I don’t think that he is, really, as long as we’re willing to be the right kind of reader when we pick up his work. The question of how to read and what array of reading strategies we keep in our toolkits is a timely one which deserves more of our attention. We’re lately seeing the imperative to disseminate and democratise academic knowledge taken more seriously than it has tended to be in the past. More academic conferences are inviting contributions in varied formats and from activists and practitioners as well as academics. There is a growing grappling with the ableism of the single-format approach. The push to decolonise academic disciplines has brought us into serious confrontation with how we define ‘the canon’. Fiction and other arts are increasingly taken seriously not only as objects of study for sociology, but as forms of sociology in themselves. I’m not at all suggesting that we should abandon the necessary practices of critical reading which are necessary for everyone, academic or not (yet another immanent concern of our time, as the question of media literacy asserts itself with uncharacteristically hot-blooded urgency). Rather, I suspect that we might get more out of the material we read and have a more enjoyable time reading it (and as a likely bonus, deliver an always-needed kick in the pants to the capitalist cut-throat academic culture that encourages us to read and think against the grain of everything) if we colour outside the lines with the ways we read.

P.S. For students who want to give this different ways of reading thing a whirl, here’s a cool sociological fiction zine (two editions out now) which you can download for free:


And here’s a seriously too-good animated short about Black American poet Gwendolyn Brooks and her most famous poem, ‘We Real Cool’, which will give you a different, more sociological take on the poem itself:


Choosing an Archive: When Primary Documents are Duplicated

Archival researchers working with published documents are in an enviable position: sometimes the documents we need are archived in more than one place! There are some obvious benefits to that, not the least of which is that we might not have to travel very far, which can dramatically decrease the cost of our research. If documents are available in multiple places, though, it doesn’t automatically follow that they should be accessed in the nearest place that has them (though as it fortuitously happens, that’s what I’ve done – thanks, Glasgow Women’s Library!). There are some other important factors that shape decisions about which archive to head to for data collection.

How much is there?

Many research projects with published documents will require a substantial amount of material. How much material is housed in each of the archives you might use? This includes any key publications you’re specifically targeting, but not only those. It’s limiting to select all the material you’re going to use before you ever get to the archive, so it’s ideal to have a lot to choose from. You’ll also want a good amount of material that isn’t directly in your dataset at all. The writings that aren’t included in your data are the intertext, and they’re pretty nearly just as important to your analysis as the data itself. The people who produced the documents you’re researching with were reading other documents and writing in relation to those. Some they will have used as guidelines with respect to content, some will be in the same genre and others in different ones, some will include content closely related to your subject documents and others will be more distant, and so on. The creators of books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, posters, and other published documents had others which they had in mind when they created their own, and the relationships between the different texts is crucial for making sense of the textual world that your subject documents came from. The more of this sort of intertextual material is available in the archive, the better.

What can you do there?

Different archives have different rules and facilities which dictate what you can do once you get there. How many days a week are they open, and at what hours? Is the archivist there every day, and if not, how often are they there? Do they allow photographing, scanning, and/or copying of documents, and if so, do they have equipment on site for this? (Do check online for scanned copies as well, though – some material will already have been scanned and made available for download.) If you plan to bring your computer to work on, do they have power outlets (and wifi if you need it)? You may be able to access the same material in multiple places with some enabling copying and full-day working and others only having the archivist in for two days a week and no copy machine. Email each archive in advance to find out what the operation of the place is like before you choose one. And of course, no copy machine is of use to you if you can’t afford the transport ticket or accommodation to get to it, so while it’s not the most glamorous of research considerations, whether you can afford to get yourself there is also a guiding factor.

What are your political commitments?

This is perhaps a slightly more controversial one, but one which I and many other feminist researchers find important. Some archives are community-run, open to anyone, and easily accessible. Others are housed in university or other institutional libraries which require key cards to get into (or at minimum that you sign in with imposing security guards at an ominously locked-down entry gate) and which can be intimidating and unwelcoming to people who are not at home in such environments. Archives are sustained by their being used, and depending on the politics and ethics of your research practice, it may be important to you to do your research with materials which are meaningfully, not just technically, open and available for anyone to use. Some material is only available in less democratic archives, of course, and your research decisions should be accountable to the endeavour to answer your research question. Given multiple options, though, you may want to consider which archives you wish to support through your use of their resources and the acknowledgements you will then make to them in your published work.

P.S. Archivists are the best!

Though it goes without saying, it nevertheless needs to be said over and over and over again: archivists are wonderful, supportive, brilliant knowledge producers and facilitators of our research. They were a tremendous resource to me when I was planning my own project, and they’re usually happy to answer questions about their collections and facilities. Contact them early with clear and specific questions, and be patient in waiting for replies (many aren’t in the archive every day). They’re incredibly gracious to researchers like us, and we’re very fortunate to be able to benefit from their vast knowledge and the invaluable work that they do in the public interest. Thank you, archivists!

Josh Larios

Interpreting Documents of Life: Doing Data Analysis with Impostor Syndrome

Doing data analysis with documents of life (i.e., documents not generated in or for research) is challenging under the best of circumstances. This type of material was created for some purpose other than to answer your research question, was made by people about whom you probably have limited information, and may make little to no explicit mention of the thing that you’re trying to learn about. There are many different ways to interpret it, and unlike human subjects, documents won’t helpfully guide you as to which aspects of what they’re telling you are most important (though in all fairness, human subjects often don’t do this, either). The vast array of possible interpretations of a documentary dataset can be overwhelming to contend with, and there’s no way to sneak past that analytic Mt. Everest. Taking a shortcut by having an overly prescriptive research question and framework before the research starts can easily make you miss what’s most important and relevant.

Meanwhile, if you’re a novice researcher, you’re also more than likely beset with impostor syndrome. This sinister malady plays mean-spirited tricks on your brain, making you doubt the viability of every insight and inference. A lot of the chat we hear and read about impostor syndrome focuses on what it does to researchers’ well-being and on aspects of the research which happen after analysis: writing, publication, dissemination, and sometimes teaching. What sometimes gets left out, though, is the havoc that it can wreak on the analysis process itself. In order to produce an analysis, you have to believe that you have standing to be the analyst. This is one of the biggest challenges of documents of life research. You can’t ask a document a follow-up question for clarification or further elaboration. What’s on the page is what you have to work with, and if what’s there doesn’t speak explicitly and incontrovertably to your research question (which it almost certainly doesn’t), then you have no choice but to insert yourself pretty unabashedly into the interpretative process and trust that you know what you’re doing.

Of course all researchers do this – no research does itself, and all sociologists are interpreters and analysts of their data. What’s helpful about many other types of data, though, is that researcher-elicited data was intended to answer research questions, for which reason it tends to be more cooperative in making itself useful for that purpose. What novice documentary researchers will sometimes (often? probably pretty much always) do is try to get documents to behave like interview transcripts. In other words, we want the data to speak for itself – to speak around us – so that we don’t have to adulterate it with our interpretations, which seem self-evidently to render our findings epistemically illegitimate. Of course we know that this isn’t actually how it works. If you ask a documentary researcher at any level whether they have to interpret their data and draw inferences through a historical lens and an analytic framework, they’ll unhesitatingly tell you that obviously they do. The intrusion of impostor syndrome in analysis, though, makes us reticent to actually do this, leaving us immobilized with self-equivocation and our research at a standstill.

So, Card-Carrying Impostor Syndrome-Infected Novice Documents of Life Researchers: you know stuff. Your interpretation doesn’t contaminate your research, and yes, it is possible to make epistemically justified claims from documents of life. You can – and in fact must – make arguments with your data. What you say in your analysis and what the documents themselves say do not have to be different articulations of exactly the same thing, and you’re not doing something wrong if they aren’t. On the contrary, once you get comfortable inhabiting your place in the interpretative process, you’ll find your data telling you all sorts of fascinating and unexpected things. So give yourself permission to be an active presence in the process, and make yourself at home.

Dog reading

Image credit: Clearwater Public Library System

Sharing the Labour: A Trouble and Strife Content Inventory

The nitty-gritty bits of archival research are so. Much. Work. Archives are romantic, magical places (cue the eye rolls?), but after the invigorating effect of the smell of aged books and newspapers has worn off, the tedious part of the project begins. Once an archive of data has been assembled, it’s going to be read, re-read, re-ordered, and analysed many times over. Having a system for organising the data which makes it manageable and easy to re-work in various ways is absolutely essential for making the research workable and saving time later on. The up-front cost in time and energy spent can seem high, but it’s well worth it.

When I started my research with Trouble and Strife, I didn’t know which bits of the magazine I’d be using or what would seem relevant in the analysis. In order to keep things straight, I made an inventory of every piece that ran in the magazine in every issue of its print run, which spanned 1983 to 2002. It’s not high-tech at all – just an ordinary spreadsheet – but it took me days to do. In hindsight, I couldn’t be more relieved that I spent the time on it, because the sample I’m using has changed several times over the course of the project. As tedious as making an inventory several hundred lines long was, the effort has paid for itself many times over in the time I would otherwise have had to spend combing back through individual issues every time I adjusted the sample or needed to quickly discern something about patterns in the magazine’s content. (Incidentally, I highly recommend using spreadsheets for this kind of thing in general, because colour coding the inventory has been a tremendously useful analytic instrument.)

As we all know, there’s a lot of this sort of grinding work going on in the background of academic research, and like many others, I’m a big proponent of sharing that labour. It would be fairly absurd for another researcher working with Trouble and Strife to spend hours duplicating the inventory that I’ve already made. To that end, here it is! For anyone working with Trouble and Strife, use it as you will. The magazine itself, as you’ll surely know, is available in full text for free download as PDFs on the collective’s website at troubleandstrife.org. I’m deeply indebted to them for doing this digitising labour, which I would otherwise have had to do myself. The inventory includes a unique inventory number for each entry and the issue number in which the piece ran, along with titles, authors, and page numbers. Every piece in the magazine is included, with the exception of tables of contents and advertisements. Reader letters are included as individual entries, under the titles that the editorial collective gave them.

For people just starting work with this publication, a couple of notes:

I started out trying to distinguish pieces which include artwork from those that don’t. That endeavour quickly proved fruitless, because there’s artwork on nearly every page, and sometimes it’s not clearly conceptually linked to content (i.e., to use the technical sociological term, occasionally it’s pretty much just cute doodles). If you’re doing a multimodal analysis, you’ll find almost no pieces which unambiguously exclude artwork.

I also initially tried to categorise pieces by topic. As anyone who works on feminism (or on periodicals, probably) will know, virtually every piece, no matter how short, is about at least two different things, and often dozens. I found that anything I put in the inventory delineating what the topic of a piece was would likely cause me to overlook things later – the substance of the feminist debates that unfold in the magazine don’t lend themselves to being chopped up into discrete topics.

I hope this is helpful and saves a few people some tedium in the archive. Please pay it forward and share some of your own grunt work in due course, and enjoy working with this brilliantly rich publication!

Trouble and Strife Inventory

Temporalities in the Archive: Making Time for Reading in Circles

Doing research with archival documents of life is a bit like being Tom Hanks’s character in Cast Away. You spend a lot of time alone, talking to inanimate objects (usually pieces of paper) and imagining what they’re saying back to you, forgetting that talking to objects is an odd thing to do. Before long, you’re the weird sociologist in the corner of the café making faces and murmuring under your breath at a photocopied page, imploring it to answer you. The authors of your archival documents neither knew nor cared that you’d be trying to wrench the answer to a research question from them someday, and getting documents of life to speak to the question you’re posing can be frustrating, confusing, and threatening to your sense of sociological competence.

There’s a lot of advice I would give first-time archival researchers, but one of the most important things to do in planning an archival project is to make time to read in circles. I’m studying emotion culture, and as most students of culture will know, its operation hides underneath the surface of any dataset, sometimes requiring an astonishing amount of digging to get to. For reasons I won’t get into here, I’m doing my analysis the old fashioned way, by hand, with printed copies of scanned documents and a self-indulgently vibrant array of coloured markers. The combination of the rainbow-on-paper analysis approach and the subterranean stealth nature of culture has made for a dataset which looks like it’s been worked on by a mad scientist in Charlie’s chocolate factory. In hindsight, it probably would have been helpful to start over with fresh copies of the data a few times – mid-way into writing up the research, I’m just now breaking into the second print run, having run out of space to squeeze in any more notes on the first. What the chaotic and nearly illegible state of the original copies does do, though, is reveal the evolution of my analysis.

And it’s changed so much that you’d think I was doing several entirely different projects. Seeing my past interpretations of the data scribbled in the margins has done a lot to help me understand how analytic interpretation works, and just how many ways the researcher’s subjectivity can intervene in it. We all know what positionality, historicity, and theoretical framework do in interpretation, but studying emotion, I’ve been struck by how much my own mental state has been entangled with my reading of the data. What on one day I read as feminist anger (or so my two-year-old technicolour notes suggest), I now see as mild irritation. Was I just really pissed off that day? I recall that I was reading the fire-and-brimstone genre of the radical feminist canon at that time, sunk deep into heady demands for full women’s separatism and finding the idea more than slightly compelling as I sat in coffee shops that stood at the far end of a walk across town peppered with street harassment. Would my interpretation have been completely different if I’d just worked from home that afternoon? Or if I’d been reading utopian sociology that week?

The take-away from this isn’t that robust, sociologically-informed interpretation of data is impossible, or that textual readings are ‘subjective’ in the this-is-just-my-personal-opinion sense. What it does show is that a crucial component of interpreting archival data is to interpret it several times over, and to space those readings out across as substantial a period of time as you can. As my thinking on the sociology of emotions has evolved, so has my interpretation of my data, and in order to produce an analysis that I’m confident is right, I’ve had to allow my thinking to change over time and to make the analysis process long enough for me to be able to see that process unfold. In addition to making sense of what’s happening in the data, I can now clearly see what I was assuming to be true about emotions during my earlier readings of the archive. In terms of the findings of my research, this has made my analysis stronger, better thought-through, and more defensible – I’ve done a lot of double-checking and many rounds of re-evaluating whether my interpretation makes sense. But an unanticipated benefit of the long analytic slog is that the evolution of my own thinking has enabled me to see the limitations of the theorising I was thinking with at an earlier stage in the research, informing my intervention into that field and helping me to position my own work.

The principal cost of this highly advantageous way of working, and one which I’m conscious I’m never going have as much freedom to indulge in again after my PhD, is time. The bigger the temporal distance between the first round of data analysis and the last, the better, but time is a difficult thing to come by in academia. There’s only so much that any of us can do about that, so what I would recommend is recklessly early and excessively recurrent reading of the data. Read it too early and too often, read it before you’ve properly reviewed the literature, at different times of day, on a screen and on paper, in good weather and bad, in different orderings, at different tempos, in the archive and the office and the café and the park. Keep your feverish notes and orderly analytic writings accessible and as legible as is realistically practicable, and watch them evolve.

And then remember not to let research take all of your time. Leave your photocopied companions behind, go back to the park, and be the weird sociologist talking to other people’s dogs.

Dog Park

Image credit: Jim’s Photos1 on Flickr

On Authenticity in Academic Communities, or, Why I Don’t Talk to Professors at Conferences

Doing a PhD comes with many pleasures and pitfalls. Under the yoke of the neoliberal university, a lot of those pitfalls have been exacerbated, and their costs heightened. The magnification of academic cultures of competition and self-marketing, the desperate shortage of academic jobs, and increasing casualisation of academic workforces bear down on our shoulders, squeezing and structuring the way that we think and feel in daily academic life. There’s a lot to be angry and grieved about, but of all we’ve lost to the capitalist takeover of what was once, at least in some partial and oblique way, a public good, few things are as stingingly heartbreaking as the strange death of intellectual community in the academic conference.

One of the richest rewards of doctoral study is the people it brings you into contact with. My PhD colleagues are some of the brightest, kindest, and most passionate people I could ever hope to have the privilege of knowing. But because we all study different things, and are in such crushing need of comradeship and support as we survive the PhD process, our conversations tend to centre on doing a PhD, rather than on what our PhDs are about. We talk at length about the practical, legal (looking at you, UKVI), emotional, and financial struggles that consume so much of our consciousness on a daily basis, leaving the substance of our work forgotten.

That’s why academic conferences can be such a source of pleasure. We get to spend at least a full day, and often more, surrounded by colleagues, at least some of whom will share our specific interests, and others of whom will break us out of intellectual ruts that we didn’t know we were in with their work in areas of study which, we must confess, we ought to have gotten our teeth into ages ago. All due cringing about ‘networking’ notwithstanding (and you really can’t cringe too much at such a thing), having lively conversations about big ideas with like-interested colleagues who stimulate our unduly isolated minds and remind us of the almost euphoric joys of thinking with others is one of the most deliciously pleasurable realities of academic life.

That’s what makes the intrusion of late capitalism, and the marketisation and de-funding of higher education that it brings with it, so devastating. Lurking underneath the cheerful clinking of coffee cups and spirited sharing of fieldwork anecdotes, the spectre of power relations darkens the emotional glow of the conference space. Everyone politely pretends not to feel it, but its imposing presence reverberates through our interactions. Every professor approached by a less senior colleague, especially a postgrad student or early career researcher, can hardly be expected to resist the pull of the cynical (and probably accurate) assumption that someone is trying to extract social capital from them. And those postgrads and early career researchers, already likely to be intellectually intimidated by the present company and conscious that a failure to network may manifest later in a failure to pay the rent, are trapped between the imperative to ‘get the most out of the conference’ and the earnest craving for the pleasure of shared thinking which, thanks to the nausea-inducing spectre of power differentials, seems only to be authentically possible between colleagues of like status.

It’s for that reason that I don’t talk to professors at conferences. This is short-sighted and a wasted opportunity, surely, but we can only bear to have so much taken from us by the corporate university, and one has to draw the line somewhere. That what might otherwise be exuberant and mutually enjoyable conversations between sociologically-inclined minds might be contaminated by that sneaking suspicion, universally felt but almost never acknowledged, that what is really going on is essentially a form of currency exchange, is one of the most demoralising of the neoliberal university’s myriad violations of the integrity of our intellectual communities. The only reliably unadulterated meetings of minds at a conference are those between thinkers who serendipitously have the same job title, so those of us who are unwilling or unable to stomach the loss of the academic conference as a moment of intellectual and emotional invigoration unsullied by the bitterness of cynicism and distrust are confined to a relatively small segment of what is actually a much larger collegial community. The taboo on acknowledging this emotional dissonance (rather ironic in a discipline like sociology) prevents its open discussion, leaving PhD students and ECRs no way to gesture that we don’t want to exploit senior colleagues for potential future economic gain than to simply keep our distance.

Les Back, in his Academic Diary, relates a heartwarming anecdote about his being approached after a public talk by a woman who wanted to thank him for what an essay of his had done to help her break through a barrier in her own writing. He notes that their brief conversation ‘wasn’t a networking opportunity, I never knew her name and and we never met again.’ Having never met the author myself, I can’t advance an informed opinion, but based on a reading of Academic Diary, ‘cynical’ seems to be amongst the last adjectives that anyone might use to describe him. It’s highly suggestive, then, that the question of ‘networking opportunities’ would be a felt presence in an interaction with a junior colleague, rendering it noteworthy to him that this wasn’t one.

With the corporatisation of academia unlikely to go anywhere for quite some time, there seems little hope of doing much to reclaim trust and authenticity in our intellectual communities, but where conferences may fail us, we are at least able to revel in the joys of thinking together through one another’s writing. The Academic Diarist concludes his story:

Academic DiaryBack, 2016: 64

Back, L. 2016. Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters. London: Goldsmiths Press

Image credit: Riccatreccia on Flickr

Trauma-Sensitive Teaching in the University: What, Why, and How

Sociology is a discipline with a close eye on social problems, and the political and emotional intensity of the material we teach is a testament to the gravity of many of the social issues we study. Some of these deeply troubling phenomena are present in the biographies of many of our students (and in some of our own), and those experiences introduce the scars of trauma into our classrooms. Sociology itself is not exempt from the linkages between biography and history highlighted by C. Wright Mills, and the historical moment in which we now find ourselves teaching sociology is entwined with broader historical patterns, some of which ensure the presence of trauma survivors in the university. Some universities, such as the University of York, SOAS University of London, the University of Sheffield, and the University of Warwick are offering scholarships to support student refugees and asylum seekers in pursuing higher education, further increasing the likely prevalence of biographies of trauma survival amongst the student body. Just as universities once had no official stance on how they would accommodate women, people of colour, people with disabilities, and other groups with particular access needs, they’re now confronted with how to make the classroom space accessible and safe for survivors of trauma.

But there’s a hot debate brewing about trauma trigger warnings in academic settings. If you use them or propose their use, you’re virtually certain to be met with polarised responses: some will be grateful for your mental health consciousness and good-faith endeavour to protect vulnerable students, while others will be convinced that you’re encouraging critical disengagement in an increasingly consumerised body of students who seem to be growing convinced that their lecturers should only be telling them what they want to hear. Heavily pressured and over-worked teaching staff aren’t exactly chomping at the bit for one more thing they need to take into consideration in their teaching practice. Our fatigued aversion to these kinds of changes is producing a lot of resistance to the implementation of reflexive teaching practices which take the omnipresence of trauma survivors into account.

Further complicating our relationship to teaching trauma-triggering material are our own biographies of trauma. As we all know but others tend to sometimes forget, academics are people, and we are no less likely to have survived traumatic experiences than our students. Indeed, in our discipline of social critique, many of us may have had our intellectual interests inspired by traumatic personal life experiences, and must find ways to manage our own trauma responses in the progress of our teaching. Far from ensuring a trauma-sensitive brigade of teachers, however, this can have counter-intuitively mixed results, with some trauma-surviving academic staff convinced of the importance of accommodating students, and others persuaded that students should be able to cope without particular accommodations, as many teaching staff have often had to do.

Disgruntled aversions notwithstanding, it’s become increasingly clear that this issue needs to be addressed clearly and explicitly in academic institutions. Educators are beginning to sort out what is involved in trauma and the protection of trauma survivors, and differentiating this from (needlessly) shielding students from ideas they may find intellectually or emotionally challenging. These issues take a lot of awareness of what trauma does to people and careful thinking through. I’d like to shed some light on the rationales for the use of trauma-sensitive teaching and explain why it’s necessary. I’ll also clarify the difference between students being challenged by course material and trauma-surviving students being triggered by it. Lastly, I offer some practical advice about how to implement the use of trigger warnings and trauma-sensitive coursework design in a way which will be practically viable in your teaching and will minimise confusion between trauma and non-traumatic distress.

Trauma isn’t just ‘upsetting’

Much of the resistance to the use of trigger warnings in teaching proceeds from the view that academic material, especially in a social science discipline, ought to be challenging on both an intellectual and an emotional level. Finding material offensive or upsetting is not sufficient reason to expect to be shielded from it, and with the student populations of our courses being comprised of future academics, researchers, social workers, third sector and government workers, policy makers, and the like, it’s not (necessarily) insensitivity that leads us to the position that part of educating students of sociology involves teaching them to work through emotionally confronting material.

If this were all that trauma triggering amounted to, there would be little debate to be had. However, that’s not at all what a student survivor of trauma is dealing with when they’re triggered. Many of us will have had the experience of being confronted by an upset student who found something in the course material deeply offensive. As the lexicon of trauma and triggers has pervaded the zeitgeist, our students have become increasingly equipped to deploy this language to assert their preference for less emotionally challenging material, and many of us will have become accustomed to thinking of trauma sensitivity as a concession to a lexically empowered student body with the weight of the National Student Survey at their backs. We imagine the experience of trauma-triggered students to be much like what we ourselves feel when reading an outrageously offensive cover story in The Sun (or the feedback from reviewer number three).

This is an especially easy equivalence to assume when what a student is describing is precisely that experience. However, trauma-surviving students who’ve been triggered (who, by the way, are generally not the angry students you’re getting emails from – more on that below) are having a wholly different experience (an overview from the American Psychological Association can be found here). A more appropriate analogy would be what you would likely feel if you were hiding in a closet in your flat while an armed axe murderer wandered through each room looking for you, intent on killing you:

Your heart is in your throat – you can hear it pounding in your ears.

You’re barely breathing.

Your muscles are rigid with tension and panic.

Your bloodstream is coursing with adrenaline.

Your face is hot and bloodless.

Your hands are shaking wildly.

Every hair and nerve in your body is standing on end.

When someone experiences a traumatic life event, these are some of the kinds of things they feel at the time, and when they’re exposed to a trigger, they are jolted back to the embodied emotional experience of that moment, even though they know very well that they’re not in any danger. This is an entirely involuntary reflex1, and one which is ruefully unresponsive to reason and evidence. It doesn’t matter that they know they’re in a lecture hall2, and nothing would make them happier than the ability to switch this automated emotional response mechanism off.

Misconceptions about trauma affect everyone involved

Those of us who have dealt with student complaints of triggering in our teaching which seem to have actually been instances of non-traumatic distress are familiar with the misunderstanding from which those complaints proceed. Students, like many of us, often don’t know the difference between their own non-traumatic distress and trauma, believing that the intensity of their emotional response to something is tantamount to trauma. Many of us have ourselves had the experience of being taken aback by how emotionally impacted we were by academic material – it may have affected us deeply, altering our mood for hours or days at a time. These effects are not, however, the same thing as trauma.

What is important to note is that these misconceptions have real consequences for trauma survivors. They occupy the same educational spaces as the rest of us, hear the same discourses, and think many of the same thoughts. When students who are not informed about trauma characterise their non-traumatic distress as trauma, those who are actually traumatised are given the impression that their trauma is no more serious than another student’s being deeply offended. An even more urgent point, and one which cannot be overstated, is that students who have survived trauma are aware that academic staff are annoyed at them for needing accommodation. They hear the things we say about trauma survivors: that they’re histrionic and over-sensitive, that they shouldn’t be studying a social science if they can’t handle the brute realities of social life, that they’re spoiled and expect us to coddle them. These debates are not invisible or inaudible to our students, and we are doing real harm to trauma survivors by characterising their very legitimate needs in this way.

The end result is that the errant conflation of trauma with non-traumatic distress affects everyone: educators become dismissive and careless in our ways of speaking about trauma survivors, doing them real harm, non-traumatised students are led to make inaccurate claims of trauma sensitivity needs, minimising or invisibilising the needs of actual trauma survivors, and traumatised students are further stigmatised, isolated, and emotionally harmed. While it is tempting for us to be deterred from addressing the needs of traumatised students by the obvious inaccuracy of some claims of trauma-related needs, it is essential that we prioritise providing for the needs of trauma-surviving students. In much the same way that we institute policies for accommodating students with illnesses, personal emergencies, or bereavements, even though we know that some of these may be exaggerated or feigned, we must have policies of practice in place to protect student survivors of trauma even though some trauma claims may be exaggerated or inaccurate. It is ethically unjustifiable for us to neglect to meet students’ real needs on the spurious grounds that not all students genuinely share those needs.

Seeing trauma survivors is often impossible

There are trauma survivors in our classrooms. That is a matter of mathematical certainty. It’s very unlikely that any of us has ever given a lecture or tutorial to a group which did not include at least one, and if there are any such groups, they are in an extreme minority. We are very unlikely to have known who the trauma survivors were, though, and they will probably not have done anything to make themselves known to us. The angry student who emails you to tell you that they were offended by something in your lecture or profoundly emotionally affected by the reading assignment is probably not a trauma survivor (though they may be, so it’s important that we exert ourselves not to be too eager to dismiss these complaints). This might be surprising – after all, if trauma sensitivity is such an urgent need, why would the affected students not speak up?

The answer is that trauma trigger responses often induce intense feelings of shame and embarrassment. Revisit the paragraph above where I describe the sensations of trauma. Now imagine that you are instantaneously induced into that precise state by a word, a phrase, or a photograph in the safety of a lecture hall. It’s very unlikely that the first thing you would do is run to the lecturer and inform them that a phrase on the fourth lecture slide left you panicky, adrenaline-addled, shaky, breathless, and fraught. To have such an intense reaction to such a seemingly inconsequential provocation is embarrassing. Trauma survivors are well aware of how disproportionate their reactions to triggers appear to others, and again, they’ve heard the things we say about them and how unreasonably fragile some academic staff believe they are.

You are almost certain to have triggered someone at some point in your teaching career without being aware of it. While the other students carried on as usual, this student will have quietly taken deep breaths and hid their hands under their desk, hoping that no one would notice that they were shaking. The non-traumatically upset student sends you a strongly-worded email, but a triggered trauma survivor is more likely to have gone home, ashamed and shaken, and hidden themselves away for the day. Just because you haven’t received any complaints that your course material is triggering doesn’t mean that it isn’t – your trauma-surviving students will often be powerfully averse to disclosing their trauma-related needs to the university (or, in many cases, anyone else in their lives).

There is a still more impenetrable barrier to our detection of trauma-related needs amongst our students: many trauma survivors do not themselves identify as such, or recognise their experiences as traumas. The identifying mark of a trauma – its lasting effect on the survivor long after the experience has taken place – can be surprisingly easy to overlook if not examined. Many survivors may experience triggering effects for years before recognising that they bear the scars of trauma. Still others may never come to be aware of it. Nevertheless, trauma triggering is a profoundly emotionally violent experience.

This confluence of invisibilising factors – shame, stigma, and non-identification as trauma survivors – create conditions in which the needs of trauma survivors in the classroom cannot be adequately met through existing infrastructures for accessibility needs, such as university disability services. Some students with special accessibility needs will delay registering with these services, if they do so at all3 (and many of us can testify to this, having received emails from students requesting coursework deadline extensions due to illnesses or disabilities which, we are obliged to reply, were supposed to have been formally registered with the university in advance).

Others may have experienced the traumas for which they require trauma-sensitive teaching only recently, or worse, during the course of the ongoing teaching term – unfortunately, traumatic experiences continue to sometimes occur in students’ lives even as they attend university. Not only will those students require time to register their needs with the university formally, but it also may take them significant time to come to recognise the nature and magnitude of what they have experienced, and to seek out available forms of support. It is important that we treat our students with sensitivity in a more holistic way than by offering these formalised mechanisms of support. In addition to recognising the serious adverse effects of trauma, we must also recognise the extreme difficulty of seeking out and making use of support infrastructures. For a survivor of a trauma (especially a recent one), the prospect of sitting across a desk from an administrator equipped with a computer and a data entry system and facing the profound discomfort and emotional vulnerability of disclosing a trauma experience – even without elaboration of its details – can be paralysing and painful in itself. The responsibility for being conscious of these issues lies with ourselves as educators.

Trauma-sensitive teaching: How-to

While this may all sound like a lot of responsibility and, by extension, a lot of extra work, we can incorporate trauma sensitivity into our teaching with surprisingly little time and effort. We can also strategically design our trauma triggers to minimise the prevalence of non-traumatic distress being mistaken for trauma.

A central concern for the use of trigger warnings is that we cannot predict everything that will be triggering, and this leads some educators to feel that we might as well not bother trying to protect students from triggers. Just about anything may become associated with a traumatic experience in a trauma-survivor’s mind, so it’s impossible to avoid all triggers. However, there are some obvious likely triggers that can and should be avoided or, if they can’t be avoided, preceded by warnings. Contrary to the concerns of some academic staff that these adjustments undermine intellectual rigour, they can actually create opportunities for us to increase the empirical grounding or theoretical depth of our courses.

While it is never possible to evade triggers entirely – especially when dealing with particularly trauma-related topics – some triggering material can be avoided or minimised through creative framings of course material. Here are some examples I’ve encountered in my own teaching:

  • A debate about the reliability of assault claims from alleged victims (a discussion sure to be fraught with triggers) can be re-framed to focus on the structural and cultural sources of distrust of survivors’ accounts.

  • Debates about the extent to which racism has diminished (a conversation which can easily descend into the argument that it no longer exists, potentially triggering survivors of racist abuse) can instead be approached as a debate on the respective roles of culture and social structure in causing racism.

  • Discussion of the debate between radical feminism and transgender liberation (which is borne out in a literature rife with transphobic language) can be explored through a comparison of the assumptions about the relationship between structure and agency implicit in each side’s claims.

  • Teaching on male violence against women (often involving many triggering images) can focus on the relative efficacy of different protests and interventions aimed at decreasing it.

In these ways, a small adjustment to the framing of a lecture or discussion can serve the dual purposes of protecting trauma survivors in the classroom and making the course content more sociological and critically engaging.

In some cases, total avoidance of triggers is impossible, and trigger warnings must be used. In these cases, it can be helpful to phrase warnings in a way which both advises survivors of the trigger and reminds non-traumatised students of the difference between their own distress and trauma. A common way of phrasing trigger warnings is by stating that ‘this material may be upsetting’. While effective at warning students about the trigger, this can have the effect of conflating non-traumatic distress with trauma. Instead, warnings can be phrased in a way which highlights the trauma-specific reason for the warning: ‘This content contains graphic imagery/language relating to X. If you have personal experience of X type of abuse, this material may be triggering for you.’ This phrasing makes explicit for students that the warning is intended to protect survivors of traumatic experiences, rather than to shield students in general from being emotionally challenged by the course material.

Circulate trigger warnings to students before the class session. In cases where triggers cannot be eliminated from the lecture or tutorial, warning students of the trigger only just before it is presented is not sufficient. Recall that many trauma-surviving students will not want to identify themselves, and looking down at their desks or covering their ears during a triggering moment in a lecture may be a more self-identifying gesture than they are comfortable making. This is another reason why eliminating triggers from the lecture altogether is ideal. If you feel that the triggering material is of significant academic value, you may want to circulate two versions of lecture slides to students, one with triggers removed and one with them left in, so that students without trigger sensitivities can view the additional material outside of class. Remember to also mark likely triggering readings in the reading list, and to ensure that it is possible for students to participate fully in discussions and assessments without reading triggering material. Students with a particular interest in the topic of a specific lecture can explore the more triggering material on their own if they wish, or as part of an assessment. The common practice of providing a range of options for essay and exam questions enables students to select a question which will not compel them to read material that is likely to be triggering for them.

These fairly simple and straightforward adjustments to your teaching approach can be accomplished with as little as a few minutes of extra preparation time, and can make a tremendous difference toward protecting your trauma-surviving students. As you become accustomed to taking trauma issues into consideration in your coursework design, you’ll find that these things occur to you quickly and easily, and trauma sensitivity will become seamlessly integrated into your pedagogical thinking.

To summarise:

  1. Trauma is not the same thing as being upset, and it is our responsibility as educators to know the difference and protect student survivors of trauma.

  2. Students sometimes misunderstand the difference between trauma and being upset, but this does not excuse our conflating the two or neglecting to protect survivors.

  3. Virtually any word, phrase, idea, or image can be a trigger for someone, so it will never be possible to completely avoid triggering students. However, we need to make a good-faith effort to protect students from likely triggers.

  4. Trauma survivors are often ashamed of their powerful response to triggers, making them unlikely to come forward. Some who have trigger responses will themselves not recognise their experience as trauma or identify as trauma survivors. Trauma sensitivity policies need to reflect these realities.

  5. How we phrase trigger warnings can serve as a reminder of the difference between trauma and being upset.

  6. Our broader pedagogical decision-making should incorporate an awareness of the ubiquity of traumatic experience. As ethically-engaged educators, we can provide stimulating, intellectually challenging, and robust teaching to our students without compromising student safety, and this need not stop at trigger warnings.

The debates on trigger warnings draw a lot of ire from those who see academia as an intellectual endeavour which shouldn’t be sidelined by concerns about safety and well-being – especially emotional well-being. But we who are standing at the heads of classrooms in universities are very clever people. It’s well within our capabilities to construct ways of educating our students that are as intellectually challenging, rigorous, and enriching as they’ve ever been without compromising the well-being of our students. If we feel frustrated by the ever-growing demand for an academic space free of trauma triggers, then it may be beneficial for us to reflect on how frustrated trauma survivors are by the omnipresence of those triggers. Our trauma-surviving students do not want to make our lives more difficult. They just want to hear our lectures and read course material like everyone else – without the sensations of trauma.

  1. Ehlers, A., Hackman, A. and Michael, T. 2004. ‘Intrusive re-experiencing in post-traumatic stress disorder: phenomenology, theory, and therapy.’ Memory, 12(4): 403-415.
  2. Ehlers, A., Hackman, A., Steil, R., Clohessy, S., Wenninger, K. and Winter, H. 2002. ‘The nature of intrusive memories after trauma: the warning signal hypothesis.’ Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40(9): 995-1002.
  3. Laidlaw, A. McLellan, J. and Ozakinci, G. 2015. Understanding undergraduate student perceptions of mental health, mental well-being and help-seeking behaviour. Studies in Higher Education, 41(12): 2156-2168.

This article follows from a very fruitful and illuminating dialogue with Prof. Celia Kitzinger. Many thanks to Prof. Kitzinger for her thoughts and insights on this important topic.