The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

Resisting Crisis: Trauma, Pedagogy and Survival
by Alyssa Harad

Crisis and Community

In the wake of the complex event now known simply as "9/11," I was reminded that to be compelled to become a witness to trauma - to be sure one is in trauma's field without being clinically traumatized oneself - can be a heretical relief. Sometimes we flock to the site of an emergency hoping, not for a vulgar thrill, but for the kind of relief from fragmentation, irresolution and passivity that only a sense of immediate contact with the undeniably important can give us. It's a pleasure many professional trauma workers who travel from frontline to frontline have commented upon. It's not a pure or purely moral pleasure: it depends upon the muffled daily safety of what we like to think are ordinary lives. It is a pleasure linked as much to war as it is to the fireman's wild ride to the burning building. It is one of the secrets of heroism, and it is the solace of faith.

Almost by definition, crisis - for that is another name for this kind of interruption - both lies outside the pale of everyday life, and makes our everyday lives pale by comparison. The everyday rhythms of the literature classroom are no exception. On September 11th, 2001, many of my fellow teachers of literature simply cancelled their classes, or gave them over wholly to the discussion of the day's events. They were caught up, not only by a sense of inadequacy ("What I do has no meaning in this context"), but by a fear of being out of step, isolated from the instant community of urgency that had sprung up in the wake of the attacks ("How can I ask my students/myself/the nation to think of anything else?"). Their everyday pedagogy, they felt, failed to bear adequate witness to the crisis of the day.

Survival and Literary Witness

Of course, for many teachers and students, the apposition of urgency and literature is a familiar one, and doesn't require a terrorist attack to make itself felt. This can be true even for courses in which literature explicitly bears witness to legacies of trauma and oppression; to the lives of those for whom living in crisis is all too familiar. In her 1993 essay, "Queer and Now," Eve Sedgwick reports she has come to expect "plenty of sleepless nights" when she teaches her gay/lesbian courses. She describes the "jolting" "level of accumulated urgency" students bring to a course that finally "addresses them where they live." But though she grows accustomed to this urgency, Sedgwick remains surprised that the most controversial thing about the courses "has been that they were literature courses, that the path to every issue we discussed simply had to take the arduous defile through textual interpretation" (Sedgwick 5; italics in the original).

What I offer here are reasons to ground a pedagogy of witness in precisely this kind of arduous defile, one that turns away from crisis and toward a rhythm of reading and re-reading that takes into account the human rhythms of forgetting and remembering, and gives the ordinary repetitions of learning a chance to help us resist, or replace, trauma's far more dangerous and compulsive repetitions. My thoughts are drawn in part from a larger project in which I examine how literature makes visible the long-term effects of historical traumas such as multi-generational working-class poverty, genocide and slavery, and in turn reveals trauma's quotidian aspect. For that project, I turned to the rich implicit testimony and work on trauma in the work of Dorothy Allison, Sherman Alexie, and Patricia Williams, authors working in seemingly disparate canons that, like gay and lesbian literature, bear witness as much to survival as to crisis. [1]

Indeed Sedgwick opens "Queer and Now" by framing queer studies as, in and of itself, a practice of bearing witness. Its practitioners, she tells us, are haunted and compelled by the suicides of queer adolescents. Queer women and men who survive adolescence, she notes, "survive into risk," their work and lives a testament to both survival and ongoing threat. It is this kind of survival, a long-term way to live with and learn from trauma's effects, that concerns me here.

It is in the afterwards and the echoes that the difficulty of trauma lies, for both its survivors and its bystanders. For survivors, this effect is made explicit by the clinical diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The longstanding effects of trauma on bystanders are not as well quantified, but the literatures of oppression and resistance have long invited their readers to see the ways in which trauma structures the lives and laws of those who consider themselves mere bystanders. When we teach in order to (or how to) bear witness to trauma, we must teach for the long term. To do so we must sometimes work against our fascination with crisis - the shock or wound that penetrates a witness' apathy or false reality to compel their attention - and work toward the more subtle work of articulating the haunting presence of trauma in everyday life.

Felman's Call to Crisis

Disarticulating crisis from trauma in the literature classroom is not an easy thing. It may seem counterintuitive, even unethical, within a framework where trauma, crisis, truth, and action are irrevocably linked. In her oft-cited essay "Education and Crisis" for example, Shoshana Felman issues a call to teach through crisis. Indeed, she posits that without crisis, learning cannot take place:

I would venture to propose, today, that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience - the recipients - can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust precisely did with information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use. (Felman and Laub, 53)

Felman's proposal is drawn from her own classroom experience teaching literary, historical, clinical testimony about World War II and the Holocaust, and experience perhaps too specific to apply more generally to a pedagogy of witness. Certainly there are serious differences between, for example, the historical importance attached to the Holocaust and its literatures, and the much murkier and more marginal status of the queer lives and literatures I have made my own example. Too, Felman's call to teach through crisis runs counter to the methodology she models in the rest of her essay - a slow, careful textual and historical analysis that works through accretion and repetition.

But Felman's call is worth addressing, in part because one source of its authority is its common sense - the degree to which the call to teach through crisis is nothing new. Critics within and without trauma studies, for example, have consistently framed literary trauma narratives as the precursor to a call for action, or as the call for action itself. When this reading is not explicit, it is implicit in the rhetoric of "finding a voice/breaking a silence/speaking for those who cannot speak," a rhetoric in which giving testimony is itself a political act of representation (of both events and people), with the pedagogical intent to teach disbelieving others, enemies, and neutral bystanders the truth. Taken to the extreme, under this rubric literature is merely another form of testimony (though suspect for its commitment to the fictive), one whose purpose is to provide the shock necessary to penetrate apathy and bring to crisis feelings of outrage, guilt, and so on, and send the reader seeking relief into a/the "real world" - the world of social and political action outside the book, the classroom. Critiques of passive, apathetic readers/bystanders who are reluctant to engage with narratives of oppression and trauma abound, as do critiques of texts that are too "easy," that somehow pander to their readers, or "let them off the hook" of this kind of crisis-driven encounter.

In the field of education (a large and complex field which I can only gloss here) scholars often structure their studies of how to "teach race" or other "controversial" subjects and "ideologies" around the appearance and management of moments of crisis. Many of these studies have their roots in cognitive dissonance theory, a schema for predicting how people behave when presented with the shock of new information that fundamentally contradicts their world view, or in the normative clinical scale measuring steps toward successful integration. (See, for example the work of Elizabeth McFalls and Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, as well as that of Beverly Tatum.) The result - though cause and effect are difficult to untangle here - is a bias toward the management of white, heterosexual, middle class guilt, outrage, and resistance to learning about "others." This kind of management ultimately, if unintentionally, repeats the familiar stratagem of using the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups for the self-enrichment of the oppressor. Additionally, it positions students as part of mainstream discourse rather than helping them to see the way it can never fully describe them. Finally, the emphasis on crisis management, especially when paired with normative integration, makes it difficult to recognize the degree to which the effects of trauma have been present all along, even when they are not, as Helen Brown puts it, "breaking out."

For the "shock" that students experience when they encounter stories of trauma arises as much from the ways these stories ask students to confront what they have always known and depended upon as it does from a confrontation with the new. Even the information students perceive as new is usually very old information that they, and the daily world they live in, work hard to forget. Learning to see and respond to this information, they are like patients in psychotherapy seeing for the first time what has been there all along or like - well, like students who discover their most recent epiphany was some fragment of a thought they wrote down in a notebook years ago and forgot about, until they learned enough to remember it. To take trauma's quotidian aspect seriously in the classroom, is to realize that no single crisis will ever be enough. Sometimes, it may be merely a distraction from what we knew all along.

Witness and the Call to Action

Personal reflection and action are vital and necessary components of the social work for change that must take place - and be maintained - to answer social injustice. But just as personal reflection does not necessarily result in more ethical action, crisis alone does not insure, or even necessarily call for, action. In fact, the deliberate provocation of crisis to overcome student apathy may simply foreclose the trauma narrative's complexity as students ever more urgently seek "the truth about what happened." Bringing students through such a crisis is as likely to give students a facile, self-congratulatory certainty that they "know all about" whatever trauma is addressed as it is to spur the students to action.

And action is not, of course, in and of itself a good. In the wake of September 11th, the clearest call to action was the call to make war: the more complex call for peace, a call to resist both action and repetition, to wait, reflect, mourn - in short, to bear witness to the event - was easily vilified as passivity. (This was, as always, a highly gendered critique. Indeed, outside of any specific example, we might be wary of the opposition between good action and bad passivity itself, given the consistent alignment and valorization of masculinity and strength with activity versus the excoriation/enforcement of weak, feminine passivity.) The Bush Administration's generalized "war against terrorism" has worked to keep the initial crisis - and the mandate to rule with a free hand - fresh with a series of "alerts" and warnings that allow the populace to feel poised for action at the shortest notice even as they are paralyzed by exactly that position of crisis.

Clinicians have long noted that trauma seems "infectious," that it has an uncanny virus-like ability replicate itself. Those caught up in its field often find themselves acting out variations on the roles of perpetrator or victim. Bystanders who find the "passivity" of witnessing unbearable, who wish to leap into action, too often leap into repetition instead. When we disarticulate trauma from crisis in the literature classroom, we open up the possibility for seeing the potentially endless processes of reading and reflection, the repetitive forgetting and relearning, the writing and re-writing, the slow acceptance of ambiguity, ambivalence and relativity, and the rejection of simple truths and transparency, as one way to practice performing this unbearable task. Without denying the great need for social action, we can make explicit the valuable ways in which learning and teaching can help us to resist action, the ways in which they invite us to trade that need to act for a kind of reading and reflection that increases the possibility of bearing witness when we do act.

Most teachers are familiar with a kind of faith that is fundamental to taking up the burden of witness: the faith that teaching has an effect, and that learning works, subtly, deeply, over the long term. We are rarely able to track out students for any great length of time, and even when we can, the "results" of any change in political philosophy or actions taken can hardly be attributed directly to any one class or person given the complexity of such thinking processes, even when the students themselves make the attribution. In fact, the insistent rhetoric that links social action to crisis may point less to the necessity for such a method in the classroom than it does to a crisis of faith: a desire for visible proof within the brief time span of a semester that something has happened - some kind of action/activism has taken place, the teacher has achieved her or his aim of transformation through learning.

Perhaps most importantly, such "proof" salves the double bind teachers of literary testimony and other social justice driven courses find ourselves in when we try to serve the twin imperatives that govern our work: to bear witness to truths that are actively repressed by mainstream discourse; and to honor both the complexity of the texts we teach, and of our students, who are often deeply allied with mainstream discourse. When we teach through crisis we throw our weight to the side of heroic simplicity. Students reeling from shock don't look to their subject as much as they do up at the teacher, waiting for direction, an answer. (That is, when they don't personalize the debate and make that teacher the target of their anger.) In addition to limiting students' freedom and their power to think for themselves, such a strategy depends almost wholly on an individual teacher's time and energy, valuable resources only occasionally equal to the task of single-handedly raising the consciousness of an entire class.

The Everyday vs. "The Normal"

Though I have argued against collapsing trauma and crisis, I do not mean to say that my colleagues were wrong to want to change their routines on 9/11, or that crisis doesn't exist. Rather, I am calling for attention to the presence of trauma in everyday life as well as and after crisis. To abolish crisis wholly would mean repressing trauma and its stories, and insisting on a version of normality that has no room for trauma.

At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, where I spent 9/11, President Laurence Faulkner issued an e-mail stating it was "better for the health of our community to continue as well as we can with the normal business of the campus, including holding classes" and that it was "important for us all to help our nation to remain functional and stable in this stressful time" (my emphasis). The statement offered no official plans to acknowledge the events of the day.

In an open reply to the president, also circulated by e-mail, Dr. Mary Kearney, a professor in the Radio, Television and Film Department, testified to the result of this tone-setting announcement: Graduate students who felt unable to discuss the catastrophe as students or teachers and undergraduates who, denied a chance to discuss the overwhelming events of the day, felt that their teachers "seemed callous about yesterday's events and unconcerned about any difficulties students were facing attempting to cope with their anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger." Kearney urged the president to "encourage the faculty to take the time that is necessary from our normal academic routines to talk with students about yesterday's horrible events" (my emphasis). Kearney received no reply, not even acknowledgment, from Faulkner or his office. She did receive letters from her fellow faculty, among whom her letter was controversial.

One common negative response to the call to account for student emotion in the classroom is that we are teachers, not therapists. It's a critique familiar to proponents of feminist pedagogy, which rejects false universalisms and divisions between emotion and "rational discourse," which constitute "the normal," and calling instead upon the everyday rhythms of the classroom to address the urgency Sedgwick recalls when she speaks of students encountering material that "addresses them where they live." I read Kearney's response to Faulkner as a similar call to adapt the tools of the classroom to a historical event that was, whether we wished it to be or not, the lesson of the day. The resulting classroom discussion is not therapy (the idea that only therapists may engage with, or are responsible for trauma stories or people's emotions about them is yet another attempt to cordon off trauma from everyday life) but a far more public discourse we might call education, or simply learning.

Speed, Action and Democracy

As we move farther away from September 11th, 2001, we remain in the thick of crisis, while the stories of post-traumatic everyday existence grow ever more muted, harder to hear. I made the initial revisions to this article more than a year after 9/11, as the second Bush Administration was again issuing call after impatient call to act without delay, this time in a war against Iraq/Saddam Hussein and its/his "weapons of mass destruction," its rhetoric echoing its calls for the bombing of Afghanistan, and explicitly (if vaguely) linking Hussein to "the war on terror." Now, as I make my final revisions, the Iraqi war has been declared over and successful by the same regime, but the crisis - including multi-colored "state of alert," and multiple calls to action for the "war on terrorism" - continues.

The October/November 2002 issue of The Boston Review tackles the explicit ramifications of issue the call to action for U.S. military policy and provides several interesting variations on the argument against crisis as part of "New Democracy Forum: What's Wrong with Our National Defense" in which writers as diverse as Catherine Lutz and Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll respond to Elaine Scarry's "Citizenship in Emergency." Scarry, a critic deeply familiar with the structures of trauma, cites the administration's emphasis on crisis as proceeding from an all-too-familiar "argument from speed." Reading the symptoms of this argument in both the names of weapons ("Minuteman missiles") and descriptions of military strategy and defense policy, Scarry demonstrates that the argument from speed currently being employed to side-step the democratic process and centralize authority has been a normative defense policy for at least fifty years. Then, comparing the timelines of events on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, and the hijacked plane that hit the Pentagon, Scarry exposes the fallacy of the argument from speed for centralized authority, pointing to both the failure of the Pentagon to defend itself, and the successful democratic processes of the heroic Pennsylvania passengers, who held a debate amongst themselves and friends and family on the ground by cell phone, before acting.

Traditionally, feminist pedagogy has emphasized exactly such messy town-meeting style deliberations over the authoritarian deliverance of information from on high. Indeed, as much as the passing on of any particular body of information, or even the shaping of a feminist lens on the world, the claim of feminist teachers has been that we are teaching students to see, to read, to think and to act for themselves. In the midst of our urgent need to bear witness to the ongoing events of the day, it is good to remember that the commitment to mediating hierarchy, which so often feels like a loss of control, may in the end be the most efficient methodology.

Pedagogy, Survival and the Permanent Emergency

It is equally important to keep these lessons in mind as we tell the story of 9/11 itself. For one of the most obvious pedagogical ramifications of 9/11 has been the mobilization of a discourse of pedagogy to justify political action: What are the lessons of 9/11? What has the terrorist attack taught America? Even a cursory glance at national struggles over other trauma stories show us that to fully control the interpretation of this "lesson" is impossible, whether those seeking that control are survivors, hawkish governmental authorities, peace activists, or teachers. I do not mean to underestimate the state's power to shape discourses of trauma and to act upon the stories they have produced - it is very great indeed. But we need not issue forth a unified counter-narrative in order to speak truth to this power - even if it were possible to do so.

Trauma stories banished from the mainstream have often found a home in literature and other spaces where we look for evidence of the spectral, the unquantifiable. But it is the habit of looking for this evidence, the arduous defile of literary interpretation, as much as the possession of the evidence itself that allows us to resist calls to crisis and unity. Writing against another call to crisis, on the eve of another war, Walter Benjamin reminded us of the tradition of the oppressed, and what it teaches us of history's permanent emergency.[2] One way to take this emergency seriously in the classroom, is to let the literary do its slow, circuitous work in the face of a crisis that has gone on, and will continue to go on.


1. Some of the crises I investigate include a multiply declared national crisis of violence against children (which gives rise to the professionalization of social work and the political codification and usurpation of grassroots survivor testimony), the implicit crisis of the disappearing Indian (which fuels the motivations and rationalizations of salvage anthropology), and a perceived crisis in the body of American law (which produces the American Law Association's efforts to control for the traumatic effects of the real world's incursion on the effectiveness of the law's praxis). My final chapter, from which this article is, in part, drawn, brings the methodology I develop to bear on the American literature classroom. [Return to text]

2. "The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to brink about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as the historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge - unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable." (Benjamin 1969, 257). [Return to text]

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt. Trans. by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Brown, Helen. When Race Breaks Out: Conversations About Race and Racism in College Classrooms. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Carroll, Jr., U.S. Navy (Ret.), Rear Admiral Eugene J. "Saddam and Democracy," Boston Review, Oct./ Nov. 2002, available at (accessed June 19, 2003).

Felman, Shoshana and Laub, Dori. Testimony. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kearney, Mary. Personal interview by e-mail. May 2003.

Lutz, Catherine. "The Slide Into Passivity," Boston Review, Oct./Nov. 2002, available at (accessed June 19, 2003).

McFalls, Elisabeth and Deirdre Cobb-Roberts. "Reducing Resistance to Diversity Through Cognitive Dissonance Instruction." Journal of Teacher Education 52.2 (March/April 2001): 164-172.

Scarry, Elaine. "Citizenship in Emergency," Boston Review, Oct./Nov. 2002, available at (accessed June 19, 2003).

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1993.

Tatum, Beverly. "Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: the Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom." Harvard Educational Review 62.1 (Spring 1992): 1-24.


Message from President Faulkner

September 11, 2001
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Office of Public Affairs
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Austin, Texas
(512) 471-3151
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To the University of Texas at Austin community,

This morning, I convened a group to discuss our situation at UT for the remainder of the day in the wake of the horrific events in New York, Washington, and elsewhere. Our conclusion is that it is better for the health of our community to continue as well as we can with the normal business of the campus, including holding classes.

This decision is consistent with the Governor's decision with respect to the Capitol, and the UT System's decision with respect to its operations. By 9:30 this morning, we had heightened security on the campus, It will remain in a heightened state indefinitely beyond today.

By email to faculty and staff, we are taking steps to provide long distance telephone access from campus phones for employees who have concerns about family members in affected cities.

It is important for us all to help our nation to remain functional and stable in this stressful time.

Larry R. Faulkner, President
University of Texas at Austin

Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2001 23:48:51 -0500
From: Mary Celeste Kearney
Subject: Processing the NYC/DC events

Dear President Faulkner -

I would like to tell you how disheartened I am by the UT faculty's apparent lack of encouragement for students to discuss in class the tragic events of yesterday.

I spent 3 hours without a break this morning talking over yesterday's events with my graduate students. (We would have stayed longer, had the room not been needed for another class.) *None* of these students were given this opportunity by professors in any of their other classes. Moreover, many of them are AIs and TAs, and told me resentfully and often tearfully how they were expected to teach their classes yesterday and today as usual. Most of them had extreme difficulty concentrating on their lectures, and feel that their class sessions were a waste of time, as both they and their students were clearly upset and unable to focus on course material.

Given the positive outcome of my session with graduate students, I decided to conduct my undergraduate class also as a forum for discussing yesterday's issues. Again, the majority of students told me that they had not been given this opportunity in any other class and that, because of that, professors and TAs seemed callous about yesterday's events and unconcerned about any difficulties students were facing attempting to cope with their anxiety, fear, sadness, and anger.

I truly believe that we, as members of an educational institution, have a responsibility to turn horrific, traumatic events such as those that occurred yesterday into learning experiences for our students and ourselves, as well as to help students through the process of grieving and sense-making in the absence of their families. Unfortunately, this does not seem to have been the response of most of us with the power to create forums on campus for this type of communication.

It is my hope that you, as our University President, will encourage the faculty to take the time that is necessary from our normal academic routines to talk with students about yesterday's horrible events.


Mary Celeste Kearney
Assistant Professor
Department of Radio-Television-Film
The University of Texas at Austin
Office: 512-475-8648
Fax: 512-471-4077

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