WMST-L logo

Dealing with Sensitive Subjects in Class

The following discussion of how to deal in class with sensitive subjects 
took place on WMST-L in February 1993.  Later that year, a somewhat related
discussion took place: Teaching about Pornography.  For additional WMST-L 
files now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File List.
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 10:42:13 EST
Subject: when class material hits home
I have an issue I'd like to raise that I've been struggling with and would
appreciate any insights you might offer--
I teach a course on the family (called "Marriage Family Interactions") in
which I cover topics like family systems, family ideology/beliefs, rules,
rituals, and traditions, family communication, generational processes, etc.
I also have a project (a genogram) that requires that students explore
their own experience of "family" and assess the impact that it has/will
have on their present and future relationships, whether they define them as
familial or not.
This course is taught from the perspective that we don't have to "sleep
walk" through our experience of family, that we make choices and, if
there are aspects of our family of origin that are problematic, we can
identify them and make changes.
Now, after that somewhat long-winded description, here's the issue I've
been struggling with--by teaching family process and asking students to
fit it to their own lives, I trigger a lot of "unfinished business" for
my students.  I have discussed this with colleagues and will be happy
to post the results of our conversations, if list members are interested.
But first, I want to get _your_ thoughts.  How would you deal with a
student who comes to you after you have hit one of their "hot buttons."
(For example, the topic was the family realm and I asked the class 4
questions: What is a mother? How do you know? How do you _do_ mother?
How do you know you've done it right?  Class discussion was amazing.
Flowed like silk.  Then, after class, a student came and told me she
loved the class but didn't know if she could stay with it because of
her relationship with her mother.  How would you react in such a
situation?  What was my responsibility to her? )
I look forward to hearing from you either here or privately.
Kathy Gilbert
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 11:42:03 -0500
From: "Kimberly J. Cook" <K_COOK @ UNHH.UNH.EDU>
Subject: when class material hits home
>But first, I want to get _your_ thoughts.  How would you deal with a
>student who comes to you after you have hit one of their "hot buttons."
Kathy raises a very good question.  One which I face every time I teach
Family, or social problems.  Once during a social problems course I had
the students read and write book reviews of Angela Browne's book: When
Battered Women Kill.   One student grew up in an abusive family and had
a difficult time reading and writing a review of this book.  She came to
me, told me of her dilemma, crying her eyes out because she wanted to do
well in the class, but this particular assignment was causing so much pain.
I believe that when some event in my classes triggers such baggage for
my students I am responsible to help them through it to the best of my
ability.  I suggested to this young woman that it might be more beneficial
for her to write a journal-type paper of her experiences, as a catharsis,
rather than the review.  I assured her that whatever she disclosed would be
held in the strictest of confidence, and she could write as much as she wanted.
A few days later, I got a 17 page paper from her, purging everything.  It was
very powerful for her, in that it was the first time she had ever told any-
one about the abuse (emotional and physical), was affirmed by me, and
At other times, I have allowed students to talk about this with me during
office hours, recognizing that I am not a therapist and can't do the work
of therapy with them.  I have referred students to therapists who can help
them.  But, I do not leave the students stuck with their baggage which my
course material evoked.  This semester I am requiring my students to write
a personally introspective paper on their families, using the concepts and
intellectual tools offered in the class.  I suspect there might be a similar
result for a few of the students, and if that is the case, I will again be
there to help to whatever extent I can.
I hope this helps... I would like to know what other people do with respect
to this issue.
Kimberly J. Cook, K_Cook  @  unhh.unh.edu
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 12:23:21 -0600
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
I have a similar problem with students in my family and gender courses.
One of my concerns is that I'm emphatically not a therapist, and I don't
have the skills (or inclination) to do the kind of counseling that
students might need.  I've seen several teachers urge students to
disclose personal, sometimes painful information and then not follow
through.  One of my solutions is to let students focus on other
people's families.  For example, in my family class I usually ask
students to make a family tree and then relate their family to the
larger historical and demographic trends.  If they don't want to
get information about their family, they have the option of interviewing
someone else.  In general, I try to make sure that students have the
option of not disclosing personal information in any work that they do
for the class.  It seems to me that unless faculty are prepared and
qualified to deal with the kinds of issues that can arise, they need
to think twice about how much "digging around" they can expect students
to do.  I'd love to hear how others handle this.
        Kristin Esterberg (kesterberg  @  vax1.umkc.edu)
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 12:41:51 MST
From: tania @ TRITON.UNM.EDU
Subject: RE:class material hits home
I make a point in the beginning of the semester to tell the students
that the material in the class often evokes painful memories and/or
triggers unsettling changes;  that they can talk to me about it during
my office hours, but I am not trained or authorized to give
professional help.  Most importantly, I find out what therapy
resources are available for free  (counseling center, women's center)
or at low cost in the community.  The women's center usually has a
referral list.
Once--only once--an intern of the counseling center, supervised by a
counselor, of course, ran a support group concomitantly with my class.
It worked really well.  Only students who felt that they needed
a safe environment to discuss personal issues attended
the meetings of the support group.
Rape/incest were the most common issues which came up for my
students.  The help of local rape crisis counselors has always been
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 14:08:16 -0600
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
I would like to add my voice to those who are disinclined to urge students
to disclose personal material in class..
Even if the teacher *is* trained to handle strong emotions and traumatic
memories, the classroom is not, in my opinion, the proper place to
elicit such material, because there is no way for even the most sensitive
and caring teacher to give a student the proper attention should the
need arise.  In fact, urging people to discuss personally traumatic
(or otherwise upsetting or intimate experiences) in the classroom
could in fact re-traumatize that person because the setting does not
allow for the proper "working through" of the material.
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 15:17:13 EST
From: "Diane M. Samdahl" <DSAMDAHL @ UGA.BITNET>
Subject: when class gets personal
A few weeks ago this list shared a discussion on a First Day
questionnaire in which students privately answered 3 questions then
picked one to share with the class. The safety valve in that strategy
was allowing alternatives from which the students could choose, so that
what they shared could be as revealing as they felt comfortable with.
Perhaps offering options is always important in classes that
address/raise potentially traumatic topics.  A choice between analyzing
your own family or another family; a selection between books about
different topics; an option between a diary or a formal essay question;
etc. While some students are just waiting to unload, others process
information more privately.  In any event, regardless of the topic I
teach, I always share information about counselling and other campus
services.  Trauma doesn't hit only when enrolled in relevent classes!
DIANE M. SAMDAHL                       BITNET: DSAMDAHL  @  UGA
Recreation & Leisure Studies         INTERNET: DSAMDAHL  @  UGA.CC.UGA.EDU
228 Hardman Hall                       OFFICE: 706-542-5064
University of Georgia                     FAX: 706-542-7917
Athens, GA  30602-2302                   HOME: 706-613-2406
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 14:58:02 EST
From: Joya Misra <SOCAK663 @ EMUVM1.BITNET>
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
I feel like I have a lot to say about the subject of bringing up
painful topics in class, but I want to make this short. My students
have often brought their personal experiences to class with them,
and I think of this as a good thing. As a teacher, I am trying to
give them the tools with which to interpret the world in which they
live, and their experiences in that world. By addressing real-
issues in class, I hope to help them to that ends.  Even when I
have students who come to me in tears, I usually feel like it's OK
because I can usually tell when they just need to tell me how they
feel (as the teacher of the class), and when I need to refer them
to the Counseling Center because the issues are much bigger than
the class. (At least I hope I can)
Today, I  read an article in _Teaching Sociology_ which has really
opened my eyes, because it draws my attention not only to the students
who talk in class about emotional subjects, or come and talk to me
in my office later, but to the students who remain silent (but may
have been hurt). It's entitled "Teaching About Sexual Assault:
Problemtic Silences and Solutions."
It's a relatively long article with many points, but I'd be happy
to summarize it for anyone interested.
What do other's feel about this? It seems like an immportant topic.
Joya Misra
SOCAK663  @  EMUVM1, Sociology, Emory Univ
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 12:53:14 -0800
From: hcbolak @ CATS.UCSC.EDU
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
on talking about emotionally difficult topics in class:
I used pauline bart's questionnaire about sexual assault
to try to assess the scope of the problem in my psych of women
class. I have about 150 people and today I am showing a film
called "To a safer place" about healing from incest. A therapist
friend of mine was going to come to class, but has had an emergency
come p at the last minute. So I will try to address whatever comes up
on my own. I will probably try to bring the issue home by talking
about the experiences of class members (ananoymously) of course.
i will also refer them to useful books on the topic by Laura Davis
and Ellen Bass among others and also give phone numbers of counselling
services, etc.
to joya misra: I would be grateful if you would be willing to
summarize soem of the points from the article you mentioned
in your message!
by the way, the film "To a safer place" is one of the best I have
seen on the subject!It is by the Film Board of Canada I believe.
hale bolak
hcbolak  @  cats.binet
hcbolak  @  cats.ucsc.edu
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 16:06:39 U
From: Harrison-Pepper Sally <harrison-pepper_sally @ MSMAIL.MUOHIO.EDU>
Subject: Class material hitting home
I agree with and also teach as Kristin Esterberg suggests, advising students
that I am not a trained therapist and trying to find ways for students to go
only as deeply as they wish or are able to handle.  Some students can go very
far, while others need to hold material off at quite a distance.  I work hard
not to evaluate one as "better" than the other.
I'm not comfortable inviting or encouraging a student to disclose their story
to me, and don't find a lengthy and personal journal-type response to an
assignment to be very useful or appropriate to my kind of coursework or my
personal style.  However, I very much like "Tania  @  Triton.unm.edu"'s suggestion
that a course with the potential to be particularly provocative be connected to
a counseling or support group.  I want to explore this the next time I get a
chance to teach my "personally difficult" (but potentially transformative)
Sally Harrison-Pepper
Harrison-Pepper_Sally  @  MSMAIL.MUOHIO.EDU
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 18:29:01 PST
From: Bonnie McElhinny <mcelhinn @ CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
Subject: students and unsettling material
One of the regular components of the Introduction to Feminist Studies
at Stanford is student small groups.  At the beginning of the quarter,
students are placed in groups of 4 or 5.  Requests to be in a group
with an individual who is like them (lesbian, male, African-American,
etc.) are honored as much as possible.  Students meet at their own
initiative about 5 times during the quarter.  They're given a list
of topics to discuss, in case they can't generate their own, but
most end up not needing it.  At the end of the quarter they're
asked to write an evaluation of how the small groups worked (ungraded,
but required).  Many students used these as a sort of consciousness-
raising component of the course--shared difficult experiences w.
one another, or talked about difficult emotions as the course material
evoked it.  Most students evaluated the small groups positively,
though inevitably a few didn't work out.  Some of the students
in these small groups have been known to continue to meet beyond
the end of the quarter.
Bonnie McElhinny
mcelhinn  @  csli.stanford.edu
Date: Wed, 3 Feb 1993 18:35:23 PST
From: Bonnie McElhinny <mcelhinn @ CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
Subject: counselling
More on dealing with emotional matters in class:
In our unit on anorexia/bulimia, at least one-quarter of the
students in Intro. to Feminist Studies at Stanford described
their own current/past eating disorders, or those of friends.
We did check into counselling resources on campus, and
there were plenty--structured group therapy, peer therapy,
info. sessions.  What we couldn't ascertain is how feminist
those counselling programs were.  Some students talked about
painful experiences with past counsellors who treated eating
disorders as individual pathology, rather than a symptom of
larger sociocultural disorders.  It may be impossible
to check on the therapeutic philosophy of the services
available to students, but it's important to be aware that
a simple referral to counselling may not address their
concerns--and can aggravate them.
Bonnie McElhinny
mcelhinn  @  csli.stanford.edu
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 06:45:11 EST
From: Joya Misra <SOCAK663 @ EMUVM1.BITNET>
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
RE: Amanda Konradi. 1993. "Teaching About Sexual Assault:Problematic
Silences and Solutions." _Teaching Sociology._ 21 (Jan): 13-25.
Since several people have expressed interest in the article I mentioned,
I'll summarize it briefly here.
Konradi (the author) noticed that everytime she taught a class dealing
with sexual assault, students came to her upset and frustrated. First
she attributed it to their not "working through" their experiences yet,
but later she came to realize she needed to focus not on the individuals
but the classroom dynamics which were contributing to their feelings.
In terms of sexual assault, she realized that students were especially
hard hit if they (1) did not expect the subject to come up, like in
an example in an otherwise off-topic discussion, or was not listed
explicitly in the syllabus (2) if the lectures/discussions were
strictly abstract, with  no reference to the viewpoint of the person
attacked, or limited to "what ifs." She said that students would also
be silent if they felt uncomfortable with terminology ("victim" vs.
SHe also realized that within the classroom dynamic, there are power
relations, and some students would not wish to speak up for fear
of being identified. She says "We need an approach to teaching about
sexual assault that respects the emotional nature of the topic and
increases survivors' feelings of trust and safety inthe classroom."
She then discusses the ways in which silence is an important indicator -
due to a perceived lack of power, an unwillingness to contribute to one's
own oppression, etc. She argues that when we leave student's silence
unaddressed, we help perpetuate their oppression. She suggests:
(1) Laying groundwork for safe classroom with syllabus and explicit
discussions about her approach to education with the students
(2) Developing a set of ground rules about respecting each other, and
giving each other space
(3) Learning names of students, and helping them learn eachothers' names
(4) Spend time addressing emotional aspect of course content (while also
stating that classroom can't be forum to solve individual emotional
trauma and putting availble campus and community resources on board
everyday), discussing that learning new things is often accompanied by
discomfort, and discussing silence and what it means (maybe giving
lecture on internalizing oppression and domination).
She then describes seven activities she uses.
If anyone is interested in the article, and cannot get a
copy through their library, you can mail me your address, and I'll
send you a copy.
Joya Misra (SOCAK663  @  EMUVM1)
Sociology, Emory University
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 10:20:17 EST
Subject: re: my post on when class material hits home
Thanks to everyone who's responded so far on my question about class
material hitting home with students.  As I indicated in my first post,
I plan to let you know how I handle situations like the one I described.
I also plan to summarize discussion (both public and private) when it
looks like discussion has petered out.
Thought I'd throw in a twist on my original information (or maybe just
clarification).  The class I get most of my students with personal
issues is a _large_ survey class (ranging in enrollment from 185 this
semester to a max of 250).  I have only had one situation in which I
felt I needed to discourage a student from self-revelation in class
(The way I did that was I gently stopped her and said her question was
more focused than I'd planned for and I needed some time to think it
through and could we meet after class to discuss it?  We did.  She
talked.  I referred.).
The situation I face is one where students stay to chat after class, stop
by my office, phone (I've never been phoned at home), or email me with
questions.  Given that, what I'd like to know about from you is how far
would _you_ take that situation?  Would you talk with them?  Would you
simply refer and discourage any information?  If you would talk, how far
would you let them go with it? Would you actually counsel?  (For that
matter, what does it mean to counsel--I've looked at some Academic
Handbooks and they actually say that faculty will counsel students,
but leave what that means up to the individual faculty and/or academic
units to decide!)
Any thoughts on this?
Kathy Gilbert
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 11:20:57 EST
From: Michelle van Ryn <MV479 @ ALBNYVM1.BITNET>
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
I am teaching a course on Women and Violence, and am also struggling
with what to do and what my responsibility is to the many students who
have unfinished business related to experiencing a variety of forms of
violence.  I have students write reaction papers, suggest they keep
diaries, and respond to their reactions (integrating their own
experiences with the class material/ exploring their feelings) in
as supportive a way as possible (written).  I have the names of two
well-regarded feminist therapists to refer students to.  This is as
much as I feel able/qualified to do, but I am concerned about this
issue and would appreciate hearing from other people.
Michelle van Ryn
mv479  @  albnyvm1.bitnet
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 10:44:26 CST
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
I've found this discussion of the counseling of students who bring
unfinished business to class or who react personally to lecture or
discussion topics interesting.  The courses I teach aren't generally
of a nature that causes personal reactions or generates feelins about
unfinished personal experiences.  But, students frequently bring up
personal topics outside of class.  I've had them talk about the
death or divorce of parents, a sibling who died of AIDS, an uncle on death
row, a girlfriend who is HIV positive, a husband who's got a girlfriend,
a boyfriend who was a victim in the mass murder in the cafeteria shooting
in Killeen Texas, and a host of other topics.  These conversations are
usually related to not attending class, missing exams, doing poorly on
exams, or similar items.  I am not competant to counsel these students.
I doubt that many teachers are.  I'm not sure I'm even competent at being
supportive.  All I know to do is to do the best I can at being supportive
and, at the least, don't add to their pressure.  Suggestions to seek
the mental health counseling services on campus are, of course, also given.
        I can't imagine a situation where I would give a class assignment
which would require a student to publicly address any of these issues, or
other issues which have been mentioned on this net such as rape or sexual
abuse.  I just don't think the classroom is the place for that and I don't
think that a typical teacher is prepared to deal with the potential
distress this might cause individual students.
---- gary carson
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 12:52:00 EST
From: Joya Misra <SOCAK663 @ EMUVM1.BITNET>
I'm not really sure how far we should or can go in helping students
with problems that are brought into focus due to a classroom discussion.
As I've said before, in the types of classes that I teach and am likely
to teach (Racism & Sexism, Class,Status,and Power, Sociology of Sex &
Gender), many things that really _must_ be covered have the potential
of bringing up painful memories or realizations for students. But I
think this can happen in almost any class.
For example, last term I taught a class on "developing countries" called
"World Inequality and Underdevelopment." In the class was a very
bright young man who is planning to go into his father's textile
business when he graduates. His father buys all his cloth and much
of his clothes from "3rd world" countries, and this young man had actually
spent some time in Costa Rica with his father. This class was in many
ways painful for him, because it brought into focus how little the
workers in these countries get, and how much the capitalists profit.
I saw him go through many stages - justifications, anger, frustration.
He spoke to me about it throughout the term, spoke to his dad, spoke
to his family, and just _thought._ I didn't think of this as inappro-
priate - isn't this what I'm trying to do? get students to THINK.
However, I also have to wonder why this came up in MY class, with me.
The same student had taken another development class from the chair
of my department, who is an excellent teacher, and the student had
certainly never approached him with these types of problems/questions.
Other students in the same class came to me with other issues.
Could this, in some way, refer back to the discussion we had recently
on "male" and "female" styles of teaching? I have had many colleagues
observe my teaching, and they often remark that I have developed a
"safe place" for students to talk and discuss. What does that mean?
How are we perceived as people that students can talk to?
I haven't answered any questions, but I have tried to note that it
doesn't take teaching about rape to elicit emotional responses
from students,and it may be more than just "subject matter" which
determines whether youfind yourself in the role of confessor or
Joya Misra
SOCAK663   @   EMUVM1
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 12:57:42 LCL
Subject: Counseling students
I worry a LOT about the phenomena of (1)personal disclosure in the classroom,
and (2) students (especially women students) approaching faculty (especially
women faculty) for help in dealing with traumatic personal issues.
I could write a BOOK about this (probably), but briefly:
1) I am not trained to deal with emotional, spiritual, sexual,
identity, relationship, surfacing-memory, incest, domestic violence,
legal, or health crises. I fear that I (or other well-meaning
amateurs) could do great harm, or at least fail to prevent great harm,
completely unintentionally, because of our lack of experience with
such matters.  I grew up with a clinical psychologist (my mother) and
I saw what could happen in serious crises -- e.g., even with her
experience & judgement she sometimes misjudged the depth or
seriousness of her clients' emergencies. I was aware that some of her
clients suicided, or injured themselves or others in the throes of
emotional crises sometimes -- and I developed a HUGE amount of healthy
respect for how difficult it is to be a counselor & confidante to
emotionally vulnerable people in the midst of life crises.  I am VERY
wary of falling into this role of "amateur" shrink as a
philosophy/women's studies professor, because I think it is not
uncommon for students with very real & very difficult life
histories/circumstances to see us as wise, trustworthy, caring and
educated folks (all of which may be true!) to whom they hope they can
turn in crisis (here is where I start to worry).
2) I do *NOT* think that a classroom is a "safe space" in which to
explore one's own history of abuse, exploitation, assault, rape, or
other trauma which makes a person vulnerable. Unlike therapy groups,
in which group members do *NOT* have social contact with one another
outside of the therapeutic situation, students *DO* have ongoing
more-or-less casual, more-or-less serious social relationships for a
long time before the class starts and a long time after it ends.
Years after the WmSt course ends, student A will still be encountering
student B in classes, labs, sometimes even dorms, employment
situations, etc., and may well remember her as "the lesbian who came
out as an incest victim in WmSt 101" -- LONG after the students have
easy access to you (the faculty member) to mediate or advise re. any
difficulties or tensions that might occur outside of class between
them (as a result of such disclosures).
3) I want to discourage the "re-privatization" of these issues by
turning exploration of serious class-based concerns (those of
women-as-a-class, lesbians-and-gay-men-as-a-class,
victims-of-sexual-exploitation-as-a-class, etc) into personal searches
for inner peace (the "can I talk to you for a minute?  The stuff we've
been talking about in class is really bothering me a lot and I don't
really know who else to talk to about this, ..." response).  I think that
by individually counselling the individual student about her or his feelings
about this, one (I) is/am inadvertently reverting to making the political
back into the personal (the very problem that we hoped to address when trying
to argue that the personal is political).  This is not to trivialize the
need for individual healing;  it is just to say that individual healing is
really *NOT* among the vast variety of problems/issues that I am trying and/or
hoping to accomplish in the wmst classroom (or even in my office hours).
I think there are FAR better resources for individual healing than me, &
if there AREN'T -- then that, itself, is a social/political problem which
needs feminist/community/women's attention.
4) I *DO* often have my students keep intellectual journals in my WmSt classes,
and I *DO* read & comment in them.  I also do try not to discourage the
exploration of their own experiences as a source of information, knowledge
and authority (AND scholarship!).  But using their personal experiences in
this way *IS* different from just needing emotional support or counseling
from the teacher in order to get their lives together.
5) Women faculty (and male WmSt faculty, or other male faculty who make an
effort to educate themselves re. women's issues) are *REGULARLY* called upon
to "nurture" & "counsel" students in ways that our culture has labeled or
stereotyped as "feminine" or "women's social roles".  Just ASK your male
colleagues who don't Have a Clue about gender/race/class/multicultural issues
about their experiences with being approached by students asking for guidance
w.r.t. (ex.: unplanned pregnancy, racist roommates, family incest, battering
spouses, debilitating depression, coming-out dilemmas, etc.) -- the so-called
"personal" issues in students's lives.  They'll look at you as if you're
nuts.  THEY *NEVER* have students come to them with this kind of problem.
(Guess why?)  But we *DO*.  This amounts to additional job responsibilities
with no additional compensation or recognition of work performed.  In fact,
it may even be held AGAINST us in some circumstances ("she's always so involved
with students' personal problems that she doesn't leave herself enough time
for her own research.  She'll never get tenure/promoted/an administrative
job/etc. that way...").  But women faculty who DON'T make themselves available
to students in this way are judged to be "cold" or "unconcerned about students"
in ways that male colleagues would NEVER be criticized for the same behavior.
Ugh! I am sorry this got so Long.  As I said, I have thought about this a LOT
and probably have way too much to say about it...  Maybe I'll quit here &
see what others may have to say about the topic.
Ruth Ginzberg <rginzberg  @  eagle.wesleyan.edu>
Philosophy Department;Wesleyan University;USA
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 21:58:01 -0400
From: Hai Pham <pham @ PX2.STFX.CA>
Subject: classroom disclosure
I found the recent discussion of classroom disclosure to be one of the
 most interesting that I have ever seen on this list.  It is also a bit
of a coincidence that such a topic should come up now.  I say this because
just yesterday, I told my Sociology of Gender class about my experience of
sexual abuse by a stranger.  We were discussing Alice Miller's work
(Banished Knowledge:  Theories as a Protective Shield") and were talking
about how we distance ourselves from child abuse and try to pretend that
it doesn't happen, or happens very rarely.  Let me specify that I am a
student in the class, not a prof, and that I did not talk about the abuse
as a form of therapy, but instead to tie my personal experience into what
we were discussing, to show that Alice Miller was right about our hiding
behind theories, and always trying to intellectualize everything.
The class was very supportive, as was my prof.  As for material covered
in your classes that may bring a student's trauma to the surface:  I
relive the trauma everytime I read in the papers or hear on the news about
women being raped or battered, or children being abused.  My trauma stems
from the fact that THINGS HAVEN'T CHANGED!  Women are STILL being raped,
children are STILL being abused, and the world doesn't seem to care much.
I would bet that other students who have been abused feel the same way.
Please!  Do not be afraid to broach subjects that may cause a student to
remember his/her trauma.  And if they feel comfortable talking about their
abuse in class, as long as there is some sort of support system outside
the classroom (i.e. counselling, peer therapy, and others mentioned), I do
not see too much of a problem.  Of course, I'm not a prof either, so I may
be totally unrealistic about all of this.  I just thought you might like
to see a student's perspective on this issue.
By the way, I have a reference for the people wanting info on books about
feminist pedagogy:
"Feminist Pedagogy:  An Autobiographical Approach"
Anne-Louise Brookes, Fernwood, Halifax, 1992.
Thanks for your eyes!
Ellen Comeau
pham  @  px2.stfx.ca
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 18:06:00 PST
Subject: Counselling, teaching and CR
Back in the days when we used to do feminist consciousness raising, I alwayys
felt that we were skidding on thin ice because no one was trained to deal
with the effects of having an old trauma revisited.  When these topics  hit
home in a women's studies, I think the best thing is to listen
sympathetically and urge the students to seek counselling. Sometime that
option hasn't occurred to them; sometimes they come from cultures who do not
value professional psych counselling, but if they trust you enough to tell
you about a problem with rape or incest, they will often go the extra step of
trusting you when you send them to student psychological services.  Make sure
you have thephone numbers and campus locations on hand.
One other thing, I don't stand up and tell my students that I was abused as a
child or that I was raped when I was 17, but if they confide a serious problem
to me, I do not hesitate to couch my recommendtion that they seek counselling
in terms of "This happened to me and counselling changed my life," terms.
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 21:17:41 -0500
Subject: Re: classroom disclosure
    I agree with all the opinions on this topic, even when they
    conflict.  I found myself agreeing with Ruth and Ellen.  I think
    if we get across the message that "the personal is political,"
    then students are going to "connect" with the course content in a
    way that they just don't when I teach Psychological Statistics.
    My feeling is that we should never *force* a student to disclose
    past experiences in front of the class.  Perhaps we shouldn't
    *encourage* students to do so either (although I'm not sure).  But
    in Women's Studies classes where often the meaning of past and
    current experiences are redefined, I think many students are going
    to share their experiences either with the class or the instructor
    in private.
    My thoughts tonight.
Arnie Kahn, Psychology, JMU, Harrisonburg, VA 22807     (703) 568-3963 - day
fac_askahn  @  vax1.acs.jmu.edu (preferred)                 (703) 434-0225 - night
fac_askahn  @  jmuvax                                       (703) 568-3322 - fax
Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1993 21:25:59 EST
Subject: When class hits too close
I just started my first time teaching a course on battered women that I had
TA'd with someone who was just terrific.  I told the class what the course
matter was and what they could and could not expect from the class.  Under
could not, I told them that the class was not designed to help someone who was
currently in an abusive relationship to get out, but if they were in such a
situation they could come to me and I would get them in touch with people who
could help them.  Today one of the women came to me before class and said she
was in hiding from her husband, would graduate at the end of the semester, but
might have to leave suddenly, etc.  The way I handled this was to tell her that
we would work something out, readings, a paper, whatever she needed if it
should come to that.  After our conversation, however, I am afraid that the
class will be painful for her, especially in light of the fact that there have
been (and still are) a number of vicious murders of women by their partners
here.                     Libbie Chute  LIBBIECH  @  ccvm.sunysb.edu
Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1993 09:20:38 EST
Subject: Re: classroom disclosure
I have been following the very exciting exchange about disclosure in the class
room and our responsibilities as teachers.  There is much more on this but i'd
like to share a few thoughts.  First, in re "safety:" some of the discussion
limits itself to the relationship between the professor and the student. Yes,
many of us are "safe," and we play a role in the pressure-cooker of education a
nd maturation (an odd mix) that undergrads are living.  Yes, referral to the
on-campus professionals whom we have vetted is essential.  My point here is tha
even if we as individuals are safe, the classroom may not be. I've seen it go
both ways. I certainly wouldn't encourage undergrads to 'come out' with a group
of strangers, and with large numbers of persons whose reactions we have no way
of guaging or controlling.
My second thought is that I often have students think about or write their
thinking about what we talk about in class (thinking includes personal experien
ce) then decide whether to share it with me or the group. I ask them to keep th
e record of their thinking and look it over again later in the semester. (Refle
xivity is involved with the movement from personal to political and back and fo
rth). Another technique I use is to have students take turns in timed speaking/
listening with another student about personal reactions, with the understanding
that this communication is confidential --forever, and is based on a privileged
relationship specific to this classroom. Again, they can decide what to share a
nd at whazt moment (e.g, in the following class discussion). It seems that gett
ing attention focussed on their experience is a benefit that applies to many
specific issues, and helps them think about what we collectively are trying to
Thanks to the list for this valuable discussion.
 --103 SIMS IV, SYRACUSE, NY 13244-1230, USA     (315)443-4580          --
 --Bitnet: JLONG  @  SUVM        Internet: JLONG  @  SUVM.ACS.SYR.EDU           --
Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1993 09:58:03 -0500
From: Kali Tal <kali @ ACCESS.DIGEX.COM>
Subject: classroom disclosure
I am teaching a course on "Race and Incest Imagery in U.S. Popular
Culture" (cross listed American Studies/Women's Studies) at George
Mason University.  About 20 percent of the class members are survivors
of sexual abuse or assault and almost everyone in the class knows a
survivor of either sexual assault or battery.  Though I have never
taught this particular course before, I have taught courses on
emotional/touchy subjects (primarily in African American Studies) and
worked extensively with groups of Viet Nam veterans (where emotions
also run high).  I also have worked with Holocaust survivors and
rape/incest survivors. Over the years I have developed the following
set of ground rules, which have served me very well:
Rules of Conduct
Rape and incest are touchy subjects.  Some class participants will be
survivors of sexual abuse.  Everyone will likely have moments in this
class when they are angry or sad or perhaps even frightened.  It is
important to all of us for us to work to make this classroom a safe
place for students to share experiences, feelings, and intellectual
ideas.  I have therefore composed the following list of ground rules.
Students may propose new rules or amendments to these rules if they
1.  There will be no interruption of any speaker.  I will moderate all
discussion and invite the next comment when the current speaker is
2.  There will be no personal criticism of any kind directed by any
member of the class to any other member of the class.  This means that
you are entitled to comment upon the intellectual content of another
student's words, to contribute your own feelings and thoughts to the
discussion, and to pose questions to other students, but you are not
entitled to tell your peers that they are "crazy," "stupid," "sexist,"
or anything else of this nature.
3.  Some students will tell stories of their personal experiences with
rape, incest, or sexual abuse.  These stories are welcome in this
class if they relate to the discussion.  Since they are true stories,
I ask the students in this class to please observe the rules of
confidentiality--if you tell someone else's stories outside of class,
please omit the name of the student who told the story in the first
place unless you have their permission to repeat their name.
4.  Some of the material we will read and view in this class contains
explicit and/or graphic depictions of sex, violence against women,
rape, incest and other forms of abuse.  Some of the material falls
into the realm of what is commonly known as pornography.  If you do
not wish to be exposed to such material, you should not take this
5.  Because some of the material discussed and viewed in this course
contains extremely graphic and violent material , some students may
find it necessary to take an occasional "breather."  Students should
feel free to stand up and walk out of class if they find themselves in
need of a short break.  It is permissible (and even encouraged) to ask
a classmate to accompany you during such a break.
6.  This class is not a therapy session.  Feelings and personal
experience may appropriately be introduced into discussions if they
contribute to our understanding of the topic at hand.  Students who
wish to explore the options of therapy (either group or individual)
can speak with me privately for a list of on and off-campus resources.
Kali Tal
kali  @  access.digex.com
Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1993 13:28:38 EST
Subject: Re: classroom disclosure
one issue i have not seen in this discussion concerns the next generation
of feminist scholars and mentoring.  as an undergraduate, i had the good
fortune to be "nurtured" (academically and personally) by my women's
studies profs.  One of the reasons i got turned on to ws was because i felt
and still feel that it is a wonderful academic spece that intersects my
academic, personal and political interests.  it was those ws profs, who
did deal with many self-disclosure issues constantly in many forms, who
helped me realize the intersections of the personal and the political and
in this case, the academic.  Last semester, i taught my first psycholgy
of women class and, recreating what i had learned from my mentors, i
established an academically open area for the students to begin to
understand how their experiences are peronal and political and academic.
their responses were at once horrific and terrific - we delt with incest,
rape, battering, eating disorders etc as well as all the goodies of
cr and a feminist classroom.  I say horrific becuase as a first time
teacher, i was unprepared for the AMOUNT of stories i heard, and it
was a terrific experience becuase a new group of women and men got
nurtured by me and got turned on to feminist psychology and women's
studies.  When we ended the class, several students were planning to
form a feminist students group on campus and enroll in ws 101.  I
believe that we as a class would not have had the success we did
if had not been for self-diclosure - whether in the form of class
discussion, personal journals, or papers (i used all 3).  I walked
into every class with a list of phone numbers of rape crisis centers,
student counseling services, hotlines etc, and was always available
during office hours for students to come and talk about issues,
personal, academic or both, that we had raised in class.  to my
knowledge, only good came from this experience for both the students and
myself.  many of them were able to begin to deal with these difficult
issues for the first time in a supportive feminist framework, and i feel
that i was able to continue to pass along the wonderful support and
guidence that i had had from my ws profs.
the end goal being the education of the next generation of feminist
judi addelston
jea  @  cunyvms1.gc.cuny.edu
Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1993 14:53:55 -0600
Subject: When topics hit home
This is my first posting to the list, though I have enjoyed reading it
for awhile.  I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the
fascinating discussion on sensitive topics that bring up "baggage" for
students.  Most of the discussion seems to assume that one has various
counseling and therapy alternatives readily available to students.
Therefore, the fact that instructors are not fully trained to deal
with the emotional problems of our students is not an overwhelming
problem because one can refer students elsewhere.  I teach at a small
liberal arts college in a rural setting.  We have only one full-time
counselor, who is not particularly trained in areas that WS students
tend to have trouble with.  By default, therefore, those of us
teaching Women's Studies courses end up dealing with all kinds of
emotional issues with students.  In addition, as an "out" lesbian, I
am sought out by students I don't even know who are dealing with
sexuality issues.
        My approach to these situations is two-fold.  First, like Ruth
Ginzberg indicated in her posting, I try to get the student to see
her/his personal situation in a political light.  Since I don't have
the expertise to do personal "therapy," I deal as best I can with the
immediate crisis, but suggest readings, etc. which help the students
put their experience into a larger social context.  This has proven
very helpful in many varied situations.  Second, I try to suggest
concrete actions students might take to help them cope.  These might
vary from the banal (join an existing campus group such as a lesbigay
or women's groups or organizing their own group) to the more complex,
such as organizing a study of the problem.  For instance, a few years
ago some students who were sexually harassed/assaulted and who felt
stymied by the formal judicial procedure came to me and I suggested
they do a study of the incidence of such attacks on campus.  One
result was an improved awareness of the problem, and, eventually, the
formation of a student led program (which has now won awards) called
Students for an Assault-Free Environment, which trains student
advocates.  I hasten to add that I had nothing to do with the
formation of SAFE, but students taking their own pain and anger and
organizing at my suggestion did eventually come up with an innovative
program that, over a number of years now, has significantly altered
the mores of my campus.
        These are the two ideas I have on the subject.  I would like
to see this discussion continue, since those of us deprived of the
resources of large/urban campuses need all the help we can get!
Thanks to all.
Diane G. Crowder
Cornell College
600 1st St. W.
Mt. Vernon, IA 52314
Crowder  @  Cornell-iowa.edu (internet)
Date: Tue, 9 Feb 1993 11:18:30 -0600
Subject: Re: when class material hits home
I'd like to once again add my 2 cents to the discussion on students'
personal issues and how faculty should respond.  Even though I am a
licensed psychologist and have the SKILLS to help people with their
personal problems, I do not counsel students in my classes who do
not have a THERAPEUTIC CONTRACT with me.  The therapeutic contract
is the explicit agreement between client and therapist/helper that
the purpose of their getting together is to help the client with personal
material that the client is having difficulty with.  That therapeutic
contract is protected via ethical standards of confidentiality and
the limitations of the therapist-client relationship.  Students and their
professors have no such agreements or protections, even if the teacher is
a very skilled helper.  So I will listen supportively and sympathetically
if a student tells me about a personal problem, and will make referrals,
or even offer my services once class is over..
One more point:  emotions from traumatic experiences such as rape or
incest don't get resolved in a few conversations with a teacher anyway,
so why do students the disservice of implying that what we offer as teachers
is sufficient?
Date: Sat, 27 Feb 1993 15:45:45 EST
Subject: Understanding where the limits are
I've been reading with a great deal of interest the various threads of
electronic conversation on this list regarding the business of setting
limits on our relationship with students.  I am, by the way, the person who
posted the original question to the list regarding how people go about deciding
how to deal with student who bring their personal problems/issues to us as
(in their eyes) trusted experts.
My original post came actually more out of curiosity than anything else.
One feeling that I registered as I read the messages that were posted to me
was one of support and encouragement.  This was especially true of those
posted to me privately.  That is a wonderful psychic environment to be in
and I want to thank everyone for that.  Now, the underlying theme of the
postings was that we should be cautious--and, especially aware not to
confuse our role of informational resource with that of therapist, lawyer
and/or physician (the last two I took from the discussion related to Jackie
Wilkie's post).  At the same time, it is difficult for us all to determine
where the boundaries exist.  I've had students drop in to get suggestions
about things they might read to understand how to deal with their problem.
I don't think of this as counseling, even if I ask about their situation in
order that I might target their reading or refer them to a support group or
a therapist.  It's rare that a student will come through the door and say,
"My boyfriend threw me into a wall last week, what should I do?"  On
relationships and have a student or two come and ask if there's anything
else they might read about the topic.  By saying, "Tell me a little bit
more and I'll see if there's a better resource that I can hood you up
with," I have learned enough to connect students up with a short,
non-credit, "communication skills for couples" class, or a therapist, or the
domestic violence support group run by the local women's shelter.
I have developed a standardized format in dealing with the situation.  At
the beginning of the semester, I let the class know that I am not a
therapist, I am a teacher--an information conduit.  I also let them know
that, given the way the class is taught, it may trigger an emotional
reaction on their part.  I _do_ encourage them to come and talk to me if
they have a problem with the course content, but I let them know that I
will do this in the role of "information resource person" -- NEVER as a
therpist.  Even if I was trained in those skills, the dual role of
therapist (which encourages sharing) and teacher (which is based on
evaluation) would be too much for me to keep straight.  So I don't
I do, however, chat with my students.  But I do it with clear, public limits
placed on myself and the student.  I _never_ start talking to a student who
says she or he has a personal problem (or a question about "how this stuff
works") without reminding that student that I am not a counselor and, should
I become concerned, I tell her/him that I reserve the right to refer her/him to
someone.  I will stop a conversation in midstream if I feel that the
student is has this as her/his hidden agenda.  The student also has to
acknowledge that this is a part of our agreement, or I stop.  This may seem
heartless, and I may be bluffing somewhat, but I think their best interest
is served by talking to someone who is trained and has the ability to
establish a therapeutic contract and work through a developmental process
of respoving whatever they have to cope with.
I keep a list of referral resources in the community (the local students'
psych. services are abysmal, unfortunately, and most students who've gone
there before they talk to me absolutely, adamently refuse to go back.)
I'm sure that this is several screens long, and I apologize for that.  I
hope what I've posted will be useful to some of you.  If not, I hope I
haven't given you an eyestrain headache!
I'd appreciate more input from others.
Kathy Gilbert
Date: Sat, 27 Feb 1993 17:43:23 EST
Subject: Understanding where the limits are
          I think your response is not only reasonable, but also quite
          responsible.  I applaud your sensitivity and commitment to
          your students.  Two colleagues and I recently published an
          opinion piece in the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER ED. about this
          issue as it applies to required self-revelation in writing,
          especially in required courses.  Our title, "Enforced
          Intimacy and Transgressed Boundaries" (changed by the
          CHRONICLE) says it all.  I'm an English prof. who had been
          feeling uneasy about what I was seeing and hearing from
          students in the last 10 years at 3 different universities.
          My worst fears were confirmed by my two colleagues,
          counselors in our campus counseling center.  They recounted
          stories of students revealing too much to professors and
          then just dropping the course when embarrassment set in, or,
          worse yet, someone attempting to conduct after class
          "counseling sessions" on incest because the instructor had
          been a victim.  The students felt coerced to talk, and the
          instructor, who thought she was helping, soon got in over
          her head.
          You're absolutely right about the difficulty of defining the
          boundaries.  But at least we're beginning to say there are
          boundaries.  Not everyone understands the damage we can do
          without ever knowing it!  My colleagues and I have taken
          quite a barrage of criticism for our CHRONICLE piece (and it
          has only been out two weeks!), but we've also received some
          incredibly poignant thank you letters from across the
          If others would be interested in continuing to discuss the
          issue, I would love to hear your opinions about it.
                                        (AKA SWARTZLS  @  GVSU.EDU)

For information about WMST-L

WMST-L File Collection

Top Of Page