Theses Doctoral

Literature at the Dawn of Trauma Consciousness

Wolfsdorf, Adam

We are living are living in the age of the trigger warning— educational cultures that threaten English teachers’ ability to present psychologically upsetting literature to students who may lack the necessary resilience to tolerate highly charged literary encounters with complex issues, such as rape, violence, racism, or political strife. And yet literature is filled with conflict— artistic representations of the precise traumas that certain members of our student populations may not be able to tolerate. In order to safeguard trauma survivors from potential reactivation of traumatic stress, a handful of educational institutions promote the use of trigger warnings. But are trigger warnings effective, and, if they are, what do they teach English teachers about what happens to individuals who have endured trauma and are therefore susceptible to being triggered? The purpose of this research, which consisted of interviews and an intensive focus group with seven veteran English teachers teaching at seven distinct schools throughout the world, was to offer insights and pedagogical awareness to English teachers, so that they can better anticipate, conceptualize, and decided for themselves how to respond to students who get triggered by emotionally complex literature. In addition to the qualitative research methods used with the seven English teacher participants, this study utilizes the work and thinking of trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk in an attempt to illustrate the neurological impacts of trauma through a comprehensive overview of PET scans of trauma survivors studied in van der Kolk’s lab in Brookline, Massachusetts. Each PET scan presents key features of what can happen to the brains of survivors, and may provide significant clues into what happens among our students when they get psychologically triggered in the classroom. The dissertation concludes with a one-on-one interview with Harvard psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, and offers his insights, wisdom, and conceptualizations for this highly complex and nuanced problem.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Vinz, Ruth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2018