Despite being called “coddled” by many baby-boomers and even some in our own generation, millennials do in fact confront trauma on campus, sometimes in droves. From experiencing the rigidity of reporting traumatic events to the administration to witnessing the visible vulnerability of delivering a slam poem, University students interact with trauma almost constantly.
At the level of the institution, the University has a Freudian intellectual historian as its president. University President Michael Roth believes that academia provides space for dealing with trauma for both students and professors.
“I think that some of the most important occasions for learning occur when students and teachers work through events that have been traumatic either for others or for themselves, and having a visceral sense as well as cognitive or intellectual sense of the horrors of certain kinds of experiences, I think, is a really important part of learning,” President Roth said.
In a new era of trigger warnings, Roth also addressed the pain that comes with confronting trauma in the academic arena.
“It also can be a painful part of learning,” Roth said. “But if one avoids [confronting trauma], you avoid the some of the essential aspects of history and also of contemporary experience.”
One of the most difficult aspects of trauma that Roth presents in his book “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living with the Past” is the fact that trauma can make such a mark in someone’s life that after it happens, it can be incredibly difficult to learn from because of the pain it caused at the time and continues to cause in the present.
“On the other hand, you can’t really learn from something when it’s so painful that it’s overwhelming,” Roth said. “So I think it’s the responsibility of an institution to help students put extreme negative events into a context where they can be learned from, not just suffered from.… I think avoiding traumatic occurrences would be to avoid some of the core elements of education.”
Institutionally, trauma appears in the Title IX Office, headed by Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Antonio Farias. Although Title IX is most widely known as a federal mandate for gender equity on college campuses, such as an equal number of men’s and women’s varsity athletics teams, the legal doctrines behind Title IX have been used more recently to combat sexual assault on college campuses. Therefore, it is crucial that staff members of the University’s Title IX Office have an ability to deal with the trauma that students may face. For Farias, a major part of this is the trauma training that he and his staff undergo.
“Everyone who works with the portion of Title IX related to harassment and sexual assault—investigators, hearing panelists, counselors, and administrators—receives in-depth and on-going training in trauma response,” Farias wrote in an email to The Argus. “We purposefully partner with survivor support community agencies for elements of our training in order to make sure we are doing more than just saying we’re trauma-informed in our engagement with survivors. We have enough redundancy in the system that reporting parties have multiple options as to investigators, counselors and administrators helping them through what is at best a difficult process.”
One important aspect of trauma training for Farias is that, although they are employed at a university, members of his team effectively serve as service providers to students. Another important aspect of trauma training is that it allows University administrators to constantly improve upon how they help survivors, especially when films like “The Hunting Ground” reveal that the language used by administrators during the reporting of sexual assault is often insensitive and far from empathetic to the trauma survivors experience.
“This training translates into a number of practical applications, including policy, procedure, practice, and even individual language,” Farias wrote. “How we as individuals show up varies as much as our personalities and backgrounds. So the on-going training is important as it allows us, as service providers, to continuously learn what we’re doing right and more importantly, what’s not working—from policy to individual interactions. There is, however, no one-size-fits-all response; it is important to understand that trauma is individual and we make decisions in the best interest of the person with whom we are working.”
Farias also said that his most vocal critics express how important it is that Farias learns and continues doing his job.
“As the Title IX Officer, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve learned a great deal through my interactions with student activists and it pains me to think I may not have done enough, not listened with an empathic enough ear, which is why I’m grateful to the tireless staff, faculty, students working on the Title IX committees, because we are collectively learning through dialogue and deep listening, both of which require continual tuning and special attention to our staunchest critics, who have the most to teach us,” Farias wrote.
Dealing with trauma is often a very private affair for students, which is necessary in the stressful life of students in college and especially those at an elite school. One of the most visible places where students confront trauma, however, is through the spoken word medium of slam poetry.
“I generally think that spoken word is the most vulnerable medium of writing, because you’re not hiding behind a character, or fiction, or even the page,” said Hazem Fahmy ’17, a poet for WeSlam, the University’s slam poetry team. “You are there, and [the audience members] are seeing you do your thing, and unleash all of your emotions.”
Giorgia Peckman, who currently serves as Chair of WeSLAM but underscored that she does not speak for WeSLAM nor the poetry and writing community of the University in general, believes that poetry can be a powerful way for anyone to deal with trauma.
“I think that in not just WeSLAM, but poetry in general, gives a way to interact with [trauma] very intimately but also a way to distance yourself from it in some ways,” Peckman said. “Poetry often creates a safe space in which to interact with your trauma and deal with it, and then once the poem’s over you can re-compartmentalize and do the rest of your life.”
The space in which slam poetry occurs is important for both Fahmy and Peckman because it creates an environment in which trauma can be confronted by both the speaker and the audience. Snapping fingers are the most obvious sign of the solidarity that people feel during poetry slams. In talking about the safe space that poetry slams provide, Peckman noted that the world outside of poetry slams is not safe, which is why it can be so cathartic to deliver a traumatic experience through spoken word and then hear snaps from the audience members who can relate to that experience. Fahmy elaborated on what makes slam poetry a great arena for confronting trauma.
“There are two main things I would be thinking about when I think of a good slam space,” Fahmy said. “First of all, that level of respect that [Peckman] was just talking about, where, as an audience member, you’re not going to come out of [a poetry slam] and be like, ‘Oh, well Jake just talked about this really difficult thing,’ and you understand that even though the poet is sort of laying all of this down for you, it’s not for you, it’s for them. It’s not for you to do with it as you please. It’s a space that’s aware of that and it’s there for people to empathize and grow and make connections with other people.”