Towards A Femme Pedagogy, or Making Space for Trauma in the Classroom

by: & Margeaux Feldman , January 27, 2020

© Photo by Tim Mossholder

In 2014, queer and feminist theorist Jack Halberstam published an essay on the provocatively titled Bully Bloggers site, ‘You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger, and Trauma.’ As essays published on such blogs are wont to do, it spread rapidly. Retweeted and reblogged into the collective academic consciousness, it contributed to a years-long debate on academic trigger warnings that rages still. Reading Halberstam’s 2014 essay was, well, quite triggering. While taking issue with the ways that ‘definitions of trauma have been over-simplified within these contexts,’ and stating that the work of trauma theorists has been ‘pushed aside in the recent wave of the politics of the aggrieved,’ Halberstam goes on to oversimplify:

Indeed, it is becoming difficult to speak, to perform, to offer up work nowadays without someone, somewhere claiming to feel hurt, or re-traumatized by a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on whether or not the ‘damaging’ speech/characterization occurs within a complex aesthetic work. (2014)

This is just one of many confusing moments in the essay. Halberstam’s attribution of trigger warnings to the neoliberal obsession with censorship seems disconnected from his claim that ‘saying you feel harmed by another queer person’s use of a reclaimed word like tranny and organizing against the use of that word is NOT social activism. It is censorship.’ What Halberstam fails to acknowledge is that one person’s reclamation is another person’s trigger—or, in the words of disability activists and scholars, one person’s access need is another person’s barrier. There appears to be little space for this ambivalence within Halberstam’s assessment.

Halberstam returns to this subject in his 2017 essay ‘Trigger Happy: From Content Warning to Censorship.’ Here, Halberstam makes the claim that trigger warnings are surveillance mechanisms that work within a ‘structure of paternalistic normativity’ as they position the student or viewer as ‘unstable and damaged and could at any moment collapse into crisis.’ Within the landscape of trigger warnings, students become ‘a fragile organism with no intellectual immune system and a minefield of a psyche that may explode into pieces at any moment.’ Halberstam’s concern, it seems, rests in the ways that trigger warnings turn students and educators into hysterics. Thus, as educators we must refuse trigger warnings, ‘not because we want the right to show any and all materials whenever we want but because it gives rise to an understanding of self that makes us vulnerable to paternalistic modes of protection.’ What is striking about Halberstam’s rejection is that it enacts the very paternalistic mode of protection and care that it seeks to challenge.

We are not the first to respond with confusion and frustration to Halberstam’s essay and its follow up. [1] Julia Serano, trans-activist and author of Whipping Girl, succinctly sums up one of the central issues with Halberstam’s claims:

When activists today ask people not to wear scented products to events, or when they provide trigger warnings before certain blog pieces or performances, it is not because they want to ‘police’ or censor people’s behaviors, but rather it’s usually because they have some familiarity with disability discourses and they are trying to make their spaces and work more accessible to others. (2014)

Serano’s understanding of trigger warnings signal the ways that, to borrow the words of Alexis Lothian: ‘trigger warnings become a utopian practice of care’ that can enable others to recognise how

as we seek to create spaces of productive discomfort for students who must learn to perceive familiar worlds without the comforting distortions of structural privilege, we cannot forget about the students—and the teachers—who are ‘uncomfortable already’. (2016: 751)

Lothian’s statement calls to mind the ways in which, as Jeewan Chanicka puts it, ‘choice is the hallmark of privilege’. (2016) Rejecting trigger warnings signals that you live with enough privilege not to need them.

The debate around academic trigger warnings illuminates the ways in which privilege operates within the university. In her essay ‘Choosing Not to Warn: Trigger Warnings and Content Notes from Fan Culture to Feminist Pedagogy’, Lothian pushes the reader to ask:

what might happen if we let go of the questions around the legitimacy of triggers and traumas and asked instead what it is that requests for warnings are asking for—not on the level of individual experience, but in terms of the physical and discursive spaces that such requests, and the answers to them, create. (2016: 744)

Lothian’s desire to reframe this discussion is shared by another feminist scholar, Sara Ahmed. In her essay ‘Against Students’ (2014), Ahmed astutely points out the ways that the moral panic around trigger warnings has become a pedagogical tool that enables educators to see how ‘trigger warnings [are] a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room.’ Pushing back against the claim that trigger warnings stop students from entering the classroom, Ahmed argues:

The real purpose of these mechanisms is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen. So often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within discussion spaces, which is how they are not talked about. For example, conversations about racism are very hard to have when white people become defensive about racism. Those conversations end up being about those defences rather than about racism. We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism, not so we can avoid talking about racism! (2014)

If it is the case that trigger warnings have made classrooms ‘too soft,’ Ahmed offers a different perspective: we need softer classrooms because the world we live in is much too harsh.

Rejecting the neoliberal valorisation of ‘grit’ as made famous by Angela Duckworth’s book of that title, Ahmed proposes that ‘our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students. Over-sensitive can be translated as: Sensitive to that which is not over’. (2014) While those of us in the West may want to believe that we’re living in a post-feminist, post-racial society, there are all too many reminders of how racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, and ableism are alive and well. We’d thus like to rewrite Janice Carello and Lisa Butler’s tentative argument that ‘trauma may be endemic to our present political, social, and private worlds’. (2014: 163) Trauma is endemic. We live in traumatising times. And those traumas don’t vanish when we enter the university—in fact, they may be exacerbated.

In their study of trauma-informed teaching practices within the university, Carello and Butler note that, ‘by the time youth reach college, 66% to 85% report lifetime traumatic event exposure and many report multiple exposures … Not only do most students arrive at college with trauma exposure history, but some also experience trauma while there’. (2014: 157) The trauma ‘while there’ is, as we are increasingly aware, very likely to be sexual violence. But there are other traumas that occur on campus, ones that are less readily named: the abuse of power by professors; the ableist policies that make it dangerous for students to name their mental health struggles for fear of being put on a mandatory leave of absence; and the survival of the fittest mentality that perpetuates a culture in which there is no space for failure. As we’ll discuss in the next section, the university can be a socially toxic environment that produces trauma through its policies. These realities make it all the more pressing that educators adopt trauma-informed practices; we simply can’t afford to reject trigger warnings. Rather, we need to acquire a better understanding of trauma and craft the kind of container necessary to support trigger warnings and other practices of caring for our students.

Trauma-Informed Practices

When we read the articles for and against trigger warnings we see two things happening: first, trauma is a spectre that floats behind the discussion of trigger warnings; second, there is a lack of understanding of trauma and triggers. We want to address this dissonance. Our hope is that we can establish how trigger warnings are one method of trauma-informed teaching, but certainly not the only tool that educators should be using. We want to argue that, in the case of those who’ve encountered nothing but frustration and failure when trying to integrate trigger warnings, something more needs to be done to make trigger warnings effective. The first step is learning more about the landscape of trauma, and how it is different from the discomfort that educators—ourselves included—argue is vital to learning.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as ‘an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea’. (2000) Thus, in Susan Brison’s words, ‘a traumatic event is one in which a person feels utterly helpless in the face of a force that is perceived to be life-threatening’. (2002: 39) In addition to the sources listed by the APA, trauma can come from events that are ongoing: living in poverty and chronically chaotic housing and financial resources; witnessing or experiencing community violence; having a family member incarcerated; or being subject to a life-threatening health situation.

For an event to be traumatic (rather than distressing or upsetting), there has to be a perceived threat to one’s bodily autonomy. As Peter Levine succinctly articulates it: ‘While it is true that all traumatic events are stressful, not all stressful events are traumatic’. (2008: 7) Along similar lines, Faith G. Harper explains: ‘Of course not every trauma we experience causes a trauma response. A trauma response happens when our traumatic experience goes unresolved’. (2019: 24) Here’s a concrete example to help flesh this out: when I [Margeaux] was eleven, my mother died from cervical cancer. Her death was traumatic, as it meant that I now had to depend on a single-parent to provide me with safety and security. Almost twenty years later, my father died after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or, more commonly, Lou Gehrig’s disease). As an adult, I had a community of loved ones to support me through the grieving process, plus I had all of the coping skills I’d gained through years of therapy. There was no threat to my livelihood, and thus his death wasn’t experienced as a trauma. My internal and external resources were adequate to cope with the threat and I was able to process his death through the communal support I received.

When building our understanding of trauma, it’s also important to note that not everyone who’s experienced a traumatic event will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). In using diagnostic language, it feels imperative to name my [Margeaux] own ambivalent relationship to the Western psychiatric model in which diagnosis is the only way to receive financial support from health insurance and government disability programs. Many choose to reject the labels of PTSD or C-PTSD (the latter has yet to be recognised by the DSM-V) due to the ways in which the biopsychiatric model has oppressed those living with mental health issues, reducing their experiences to brain chemistry, while failing to address the systemic issues that dramatically impact one’s mental health and cause trauma. (Bossewitch 2016; Green and Ubozoh 2019; Sharfstein 2005) Whether diagnostic language speaks to you or not, we’d like to follow Bonnie Burstow’s definition of trauma as ‘not a disorder but a reaction to a kind of wound’ (2003: 1302) and Renee Linklater’s definition in Decolonizing Trauma Work: ‘trauma is a person’s reaction or response to an injury’. (2014: 22) Alongside these thinkers, we take issue with the ways in which the diagnosis of PTSD fails to acknowledge the systemic issues that cause trauma in the first place, and places the onus of healing on the individual, thus ignoring the vital role that community plays in healing—a point that we’ll return to shortly.

What distinguishes those living with trauma (diagnosed or undiagnosed) from those who have experienced a traumatic event are the presence of three hallmark symptoms: hyperarousal (the persistent expectation of danger), intrusion (flashbacks), and constriction (numbing out). [2] These symptoms are the response of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PSNS)—what many know as the fight-or-flight response. When our adult brain (known as the frontal cortex) perceives danger, it sends a message to our SNS or PSNS, which chooses how to respond to the situation. You see a car speeding through a red light and you swerve: that’s your flight response. Someone starts yelling at you and you yell back: that’s your fight response. [3] Once the danger has ended, your frontal cortex is notified and your system begins to calm down, understanding that the danger is gone. If you are living with trauma, you don’t understand that the danger is over and you stay on high alert or you dissociate to keep yourself safe.

To be ‘triggered’ then, means that something—a sound, an image, a smell—has set off your SNS or PSNS and your brain is now doing the work of trying to protect you. Triggers, in other words, are ‘cues of danger’ that activate our brain’s survival mechanisms. (Dana 2018: 67) While we hesitate to use the word ‘irrational’ because of the ways it has been repeatedly used throughout history to gaslight women, there is something fundamentally irrational about our trauma responses. When we’re triggered, we’re taken out of the present and back into the past. What we’re seeing before us, say a scene of rape in a film, brings us back to the moment of being raped; it’s as though we are literally back there, fighting for our lives. Our brain is unable to recognise that, in the present moment, we’re actually safe.

With this understanding of trauma and triggers in mind, what then is a trauma-informed approach to teaching and how might we put it into practice in our classrooms? Just as there has been much discussion of trigger warnings in the last few years, so too has there been a growing discussion of trauma-informed approaches across a wide variety of disciplines, including sociology, psychology, and pedagogy. For Janice Carello and Lisa Butler, being trauma-informed ‘is to understand how violence, victimization, and other traumatic experiences may have figured in the lives of the individuals involved and to apply that understanding to the provision of services and the design of systems so that they accommodate the needs and vulnerabilities of trauma survivors’. (2014: 156) For Shawn Ginwright, ‘trauma informed care broadly refers to a set of principles that guide and direct how we view the impact of severe harm on young people’s mental, physical, and emotional health. Trauma-informed care encourages support and treatment to the whole person, rather than focusing on only treating individual symptoms or specific behaviors’. (2018) Ginwright’s emphasis on ‘the whole person’ is reflected in Shannon Davidson’s claim that ‘a trauma-informed educator never forgets that students bring their entire lives into the classroom every day, and that on some days, students will be actively responding to trauma’. (2016: 17)

Trauma-informed approaches shift the focus away from the individual and onto the collective, reflecting the ways that ‘traumatic events have primary effects not only on the psychological structures of the self but also on the systems of attachment and meaning that link individual and community’. (Herman 2015: 51) Thus it is not up to the individual alone to heal from their trauma. If it is the case that the ‘traumatic event thus destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others’ (Herman 2015: 53), healing requires the ability to rebuild a sense of safety and trust in our relationships with others—even if those others had nothing to do with the traumatic event itself—to know that we can show up as our full selves, with all of our trauma and messiness, and still be cared for.

To do so within the realm of the university presents a variety of challenges, almost always undergirded by the disavowal of emotions as a valid form of knowledge and the valorisation of the ‘rational’ individual. It’s okay to study affect theory; it’s another thing to live your affect in the classroom. The ways in which emotions are framed as a disruption to learning, rather than integral to learning, turns the university into a socially toxic environment. Drawing on the work of James Garbino (1998), Ginwright explains: ‘Socially toxic environments are environments like neighborhoods and schools where lack of opportunities, blocked access, constrained resources, unclear pathways to a better life can erode trusting relationships and severely constrain collective action and agency’. (2016: 3) In terms of the university, we can think of the ways that the university creates barriers to bringing one’s whole self to the classroom.

Trans-activist and writer Kai Cheng Thom offers another framework for thinking about the structure of the university. In her discussion of the queer community’s inability to address the sexual violence within it, Thom explains how queer people live in the ‘pathogenic environment’ of heteronormative society. Thom defines a ‘pathogenic environment’ as ‘one that promotes illness, and in the context of psychology, mental illness’. (2019: 79) We would argue that the university has become a socially toxic and pathogenic environment that demonstrates its ableism when it rejects trigger warnings, and perpetuates harm for those of marginalised identities—who, it goes without saying, experience trauma at disproportionally higher rates than those with more privilege.

It is thus imperative that trauma-informed approaches be integrated not just into the classroom, but into the university structure writ large. The seven professors that penned the open letter ‘Trigger Warnings Are Flawed’ advocated for just that. They argued that administrators must turn their attention to preventing further traumas from occurring on campus by enacting systemic changes regarding sexual assault, racially motivated attacks, harassment, and other practices of violence on campus. Moreover, the university needs to create professional development opportunities

that will enhance our ability to recognise and respond appropriately to students’ strong emotional reactions to materials that ask them to witness or analyze violence, question their own privilege, understand their own place in structures of injustice, and undertake other psychologically difficult tasks. (7 Humanities Professors 2014)

We agree that these larger systemic interventions are necessary, but also recognise that changes such as these take time.

It can be all too easy within social justice movements to valorise macro changes and diminish the micro changes. Following adrienne maree brown’s work in Emergent Strategy, we believe that ‘what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system’. (2017: 53) This too is the case when it comes to healing from trauma. So we want to ask: if one rejects trigger warnings and fails to discuss how teaching could be more trauma-informed, then what do you do as you wait for these larger changes to happen? In what follows, we’d like to propose what we’re calling a femme pedagogy that can enable us to move towards more trauma-informed classrooms.

What’s Femme Got To Do With It?

If this article’s vision is to craft a new container to support trigger warnings and other practices of caring for our students, then femme is the theory, the resilient and material stuff we envision this container being made of. In many ways, femme as a queer sensibility has been present in the Halberstam-driven debates around academic trigger warnings from the very start, so we need to first unpack this specific invocation of a femme-coded affect alongside a longer, distinctly queer history of femme. This section of the article also attends to our collective vision for a femme pedagogy; the ways in which we, as queer femmes ourselves, envision femme as a resistive practice and embodied theory. It is our hope that our explorations of femme pedagogy might offer new ways of understanding the work we do as educators, facilitators, and student liaisons as a kind of care work unto itself and, specifically, a mode of care that hopes to mitigate the harms of a system built to fail.

Femme as a term and queer identity emerged out of the working class lesbian bar culture of the 1940s and 50s. While much of the term’s legacy is rooted in essentialist gender constructs, today it is most often understood as a queer identification with and relationship to femininity, with looser ties to the butch/femme binary. Femme scholar Ashley Rhea Hoskin succinctly defines femme as ‘the failure or refusal to approximate the patriarchal norms of femininity’. (2017b: np) While many other kinds of queer identities enjoyed a kind of ‘critical renaissance’ (Schwartz 2018) during the 1990s—a decade that Lisa Duggan and Kathleen McHugh have called ‘the postmodern reign of the queer’ (1996: 155)—femme literature took longer to find a foothold. According to Andi Schwartz:

The intellectual interest in masculine, butch, androgynous, genderqueer, and transgender identities starting in the 1990s (see, for example, Butler, 1990; Wittig, 1993; R. W. Connell, 1995; Halberstam, 1998b; Noble, 2004) — and particularly the use of post-structuralist language that illustrated the subversive and radical potential of these gender identities — combined with cultural femmephobia seemed to privilege queer masculine identities over queer feminine ones, creating a hierarchy of queer identities [and literature] wherein femmes rank near the bottom. (2018) [4]

It is necessary to overcome this hesitation to write about femme, to use femme as an epistemological framework in its own right, if the existing canon of queer theory is to be challenged. Our proposal of the term ‘femme pedagogy’ locates itself in this impulse to resist the homogenisation of femme aesthetics, bodies, politics, and the spaces where theory ‘happens’. Femme is valuable as an epistemic tool, a way of framing our understanding/relationality that is just as productive as more androcentric modes of doing queer theory.

Halberstam is undoubtedly among those responsible for the legitimation of these mainstream modes of doing queer theory, and so let us return for a moment to his words. In 2014’s ‘You Are Triggering Me!,’ Halberstam is especially careful to delineate between the ‘good’ kind of queer theory and what he refers to as the ‘weepy white lady feminism’ of the 1970s and 80s, a time of oversensitive feminists and queers characterised by mess, ‘an unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergenic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.’ Beyond the obvious issues of historicising and siloing particular kinds of activism into distinct waves, allusions to the weepiness of the ‘wrong’ kind of feminist asks that we read those messy activists as overtly emotional femmes, and that we understand weeping as an outdated approach to experiencing one’s politics. This language also has a particular investment in whiteness (‘weepy white lady feminism’). The stakes of Halberstam’s claim about ‘weepy white lady feminism’ are heightened by this casual erasure of women of colour—who might also weep—and whose affect is already policed and pathologised to a much greater degree. [5]

This homogenous framing of a white, queer lineage is heavily grounded in what Boyd names in her 2014 response as ‘queer toughness’—the notion that younger generations of queers and feminists have been sheltered from real hardship by preceding decades of activism and are now, somehow, asking for too much. This notion of toughness, undoubtedly related to Duckworth’s articulations of ‘grit’ (2016), is one that has historically existed in tension with a femme narrative. How do we balance the vulnerability and self preservation required from a world that asks us simultaneously to be soft and to still survive? What types of resilience are useful for us to teach and embody, and which require us to ignore larger truths about ourselves and trauma in the name of fitting ever more conveniently into the neoliberal structures in which we reside?

The deep entrenchment of resilience as a function of the neoliberal institution becomes clear when one considers the language used in a 2009 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) article entitled ‘From Fragility to Resilience’. The document defines the latter, preferred state as ‘the ability to cope with changes in capacity, effectiveness, or legitimacy’. In other words, the term connotes the capacity of a system to ‘return to a previous state, to recover from a shock, or to bounce back after a crisis or a trauma’. (Neocleous 2013) The idea that one could return to a previous state after experiencing trauma is yet another reflection of the ways in which institutions and individuals alike fail to understand how trauma dramatically restructures who we are and how we navigate the world. To bounce back after crisis or trauma implies that one has gotten over it, has moved on, and is cured.

In her 2019 essay, ‘Not Over It, Not Fixed, and Living a Life Worth Living,’ Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha discusses the lure of resiliency and the cure. This logic produces a vision of the ‘good survivor’ who ‘got three months of therapy and is all better: the abuse is a vague memory, there are no visible scars—physical or emotional—and they don’t talk about the invisible ones. They have “moved on”’. (2019: 229) In contrast, the ‘bad survivor’ is the one who isn’t over it, ‘still freaking out, still triggered, still grieving’. (2019: 230) Amongst the list of ‘bad survivors,’ according to Piepzna-Samarasinha, are ‘the femme with “baggage” … the bitch, the hysteric, the dyke’. (2019: 230) We can’t help but recall the ‘weepy, hypo-allergenic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects’ that Halberstam distances himself from (2014); they too are ‘bad survivors.’

It’s not that the bad survivor is unable to be resilient; rather, it’s that the bad survivor rejects resiliency that is dependent on a cure. We thus want to reimagine resiliency as a state in which one is not over it, but is still capable of transformation, growth, and healing. Returning to the words of adrienne maree brown, ‘healing happens when a place of trauma or pain is given full attention, really listened to. Healing is the resilience instinct of our bodies’. (2017: 34) These models of resiliency move away from the individualist, neoliberal rhetoric of grit and toughness towards a model in which ‘our experiences of pain and trauma can completely transform when we have access to community, tools, support, and different stories’. (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2019: 233) Within these new stories and narratives, we can grapple with the questions Piepzna-Samarasinha poses: ‘What if some things aren’t fixable? What if some things really never will be the same—and that might not be great, but it might be okay?’ (2019: 235) Within this new temporality, we shift from resilience towards patience, which Samira Thomas (2016) describes as follows:

Unlike resilience, which implies returning to an original shape, patience suggests change and allows the possibility of transformation as a means of overcoming difficulties. It is a simultaneous act of defiance and tenderness, a complex existence that gently breaks barriers. In patience, a person exists at the edge of becoming. With an abundance of time, people are allowed space to be undefined, neither bending nor broken, but instead, transfigured.

Thomas’s call to tenderness as well as defiance resonates with our theorisation of femme pedagogy and asks us to question what types of resilience are useful for us to teach and embody, and which require us to ignore larger truths? Our answer: we should not aspire to ‘return to a previous state, to recover from a shock, or to bounce back after a crisis or a trauma’. (Neocleous 2013) Applied to institutions, this is an unsettling thought. [6] Shocks to the academic status quo were never meant to and indeed might have difficulty shaking the foundations of those systems and their structures of privilege. Trigger warnings never stood the chance of completely eliminating the power dynamics of classrooms—only mitigating the harms they have historically inflicted. The disproportionate defense of teaching based in ‘toughness’ or ‘grit’ over care is testament to the threat that such a shift holds for the neoliberal university; a crisis that might finally outstrip the capacity of the system to ever return fully to its previous state.

Feminist musicologist and philosopher Robin James understands resilience as a new, neoliberal feminist ideal. By overcoming personal damage (trauma), writes James, we both show that society is capable of overcoming patriarchy and weed out those individuals/groups who are not ‘flexible, adaptable, indeed, resilient enough to keep up with the post-feminist times’. (2014) Resilience, as James understands it, is not about personal healing; it’s just another, ‘upgraded,’ way of instrumentalising the same people and ensuring those same systems continue to thrive. (2014) The inverse of resilience is an affect she terms melancholy. Melancholy makes resilience unprofitable; it emulates resilience but feels different than overcoming because it doesn’t work to turn trauma into a problem to be solved, or indeed one that can be. Dealing with trauma can be a lifelong project. The real work of self care and self preservation is a long game, while resilience discourses treat overcoming or pushing through as something finally resolved. Rather, melancholy—like Piepzna-Samarasinha’s ‘not over it’—looks like surviving on one’s own terms.

Sometimes, surviving or ‘making do’ might appear as simply adapting to a system rather than attending to deeper structural inequalities. As Ahmed notes in her treatise ‘Selfcare as Warfare,’ such assumptions are dangerous. ‘Becoming resourceful is not system changing even if it can be life changing,’ Ahmed writes, ‘but to assume people’s ordinary ways of coping with injustices implies some sort of failure on their part—or even an identification with the system—is [yet] another injustice they have to cope with’. (2014) Like so much else, we ask the most of those who have survived the most. To once again quote James:

There’s a difference between surviving a system predicated on your death, and bending the circuits of systems designed to support (a very narrowly drawn model of) your life. In the former case, your survival disrupts systems predicated on your death; in the latter case, refusing to work/generate surplus value diminishes the vitality of the systems that profit from your work. (2014)

The work of a femme pedagogy resists the postfeminist/neoliberal equation of resilience with survival, understanding the latter as something necessarily bound up in uncomfortable affects like melancholy that inconvenience the institution and prevent it from bouncing back quite so readily. Unappealing, weepy feminists and those queers ‘not over it’ unite.

Femme Pedagogy and the Trauma-Informed Classroom

We propose ‘femme pedagogy’ as a mode of embodied theory, a pedagogical framework that reads across these complex discourses of resilience, trauma, feminism, care, and queerness and asks us to note the connections and possible ways forward. If contemporary understandings of femme mark a departure from essentialist binaries, it also still marks the strength and the value in vulnerability. Femme asks us to consider that softness and sadness exist in all of us, asks us to consider a world in which we name those hurts and use them in our journey forward, rather than resolve, repress, or leave them in the past entirely. ‘What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?’ asks queer and trans artist Alok Vaid-Menon in their self-published chapbook, Femme in Public (2017). If femme means resisting the destruction of the softest parts of ourselves in the name of survival, then surely a femme pedagogy works to incorporate those vulnerabilities and traumas into our teaching.

Femme pedagogy holds that resilience is an imperfect framework for understanding students’ survival in the academy. As teachers, as precarious faculty, as underfunded grad students, we have witnessed the kind of logics identified by Ahmed when she writes of the difference between system changing and life changing. Rather, much as femme as a queer sensibility operates within the confines of gender, pushing against expectations of femininity and engaging with those aesthetics in frequently playful or subversive ways, femme pedagogy as a framework locates itself within the bounds of the traditional classroom. It asks us to find the spaces where those norms, the usual way of designing classrooms or syllabi, traditional modes of imparting knowledge, might be overturned or challenged in ways that explode students’ expectations. By ‘bending the circuits of a system designed [in a very particular way]’ (James 2014), femme pedagogy exposes that system as an artifice, as something malleable and able to be changed, even if all we can do in the interim is identify the most obvious gaps.

Femme pedagogy recognises teaching as care work. In an academy that so often sees faculty members’ teaching roles as a means to an end, or a necessary tedium in addition to the ‘real’ academic work of research and publishing, femme pedagogy asks that the neoliberal university reprioritise. It asks for more compassion—for overworked faculty, for departmental staff, for the students themselves—with the awareness that we all carry potential traumas. Finally, femme pedagogy asks for hope, believes it is not incompatible with the melancholy necessary to shift the academy towards something better. Femme pedagogy asks: how do we teach survival without requiring people to undergo things that require surviving?

The first step, we believe, is to build trauma-informed community both inside and outside of the classroom. Many scholars and educators have discussed the importance of integrating a trauma-informed approach to post-secondary education. Jessica Cless and Brianna S. Nelson Goff (2017) provide a number of suggestions for creating a trauma-informed classroom, which include ‘providing education regarding traumatic stress’ (2017: 26) that helps educators ‘identify students at risk for mental health problems’ (2017: 33) and ‘educating students about and communicating the need for self-care in courses that incorporate trauma-related content’. (2017: 33) Daniel and Andrea Gutierrez argue that teachers must ‘pay closer attention to student reactions which may include body language, leaving class early during these types of discussions, and perhaps student attendance’. (2019: 15) What these suggestions highlight is the ways in which ‘a trauma-informed educator never forgets that students bring their entire lives into the classroom every day’. (Davidson 2016: 17)

In the long tradition of scholarship that has examined the forms knowledge takes beyond traditional academic writing, we turn now to providing anecdotal examples of the ways we have worked to integrate trauma-informed, femme pedagogy into our respective teaching practices. In the time that we have been collaborating together, from our early days in a pedagogy-centred reading group to planning and facilitating entire workshops and symposiums together, one thing that has struck us has been how much value the anecdote brings to discussions of pedagogy. The anecdote is a common thread throughout feminist and queer theory’s history; from Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory (2002) to Lauren Berlant’s writing on the case and the scene (2007) to Donna Haraway’s situated knowledges (1988) to Ahmed’s ongoing thinking on complaint (2018), the proven usefulness of anecdotes is everywhere. We hold that, in writing on pedagogy specifically, the anecdote offers a roadmap for transforming theory into practice. And in writing about our experience putting femme pedagogy into practice—our practice—we hope to inspire whatever form your teaching and/or trauma-informed world-making might take.

Unsettling the Status Quo From the Grad Lounge: Morgan

At this point in the paper, we have both spent a considerable amount of time explaining what we see as the gaps between an individualised and collective- or community-based understanding of self care, trauma, and resiliency. The university works, day in and day out, to reify the former while effectively discouraging the latter. Either by design or bureaucratic overload, faculty and students alike are left to pursue an understanding of trauma-informed approaches on their own time and find others to reassure them that they’re not the only one having doubts about the efficacy of a deeply broken system—one of the many reasons I credit Twitter with keeping me enrolled in my PhD.

The very first semester I was working as a TA, the more senior members of our small teaching team led and successfully won an appeal to have our course director replaced. The CD had an informal lecture style, and constantly slipped into transphobic, racist, and otherwise inexcusable generalisations. A new grad student, and the very first in my family to pursue a doctorate, I had no idea at the time of the politics and procedures in place to restructure a teaching team, but what has stuck with me in the years since (and resurfaced in conversations with members of that teaching cohort) has been the lack of trauma-informed support or care in the aftermath of our appeal. As fresh TAs, we had been given information on campus resources and a list of codes to log in to the infamously glitchy classroom tech. What was missing (and, as it turns out, was sorely needed) was support in how to construct tutorial classrooms as a safer space when the lectures fall short. Enrollment numbers for that course were deeply impacted by that first month, and I’m still haunted by the thought of a whole generation of now-graduated students who may have lost faith in the course, the field, or potentially even their whole degree because of it. I know that so many of those students were probably marginalised in some way, personally implicated by the CD’s triggering comments and material. And while I’ve made a conscious effort in the years since to be more explicit in unpacking the problematic nuances of certain material or generalisations in our class texts and lectures, the pervasive gaps in graduate student training when it comes to trauma-informed teaching and pedagogy remain staggering.

This past year, finally past course work and my comprehensive exams, I organised a reading group in my department on queer pedagogy. So many of our conversations in the group centred around negotiating our own commitment to trauma-informed pedagogy alongside departmental expectations and course director initiatives, as well as our frustration at this being the first space we had encountered in our training where these conversations were taking place. In the follow-up interviews I conducted with the participants of this group, gathered to help justify the small amount of funding I was able to procure for us, these themes resurfaced again and again. As one PhD candidate notes:

In the neoliberalised and corporatised university, a big part of queer pedagogies is learning to engage with our students and each other in a more human way. I know that’s starting to sound a bit pretentious, but just how much kindness is lost in the way we shuffle undergrads through, or we get shuffled through. [Sometimes] queer resistance is just being kind to your students in an email … it’s so small but it’s so rare, and that does have radical potential.

Redirecting our attention towards compassion and vulnerability in the midst of a university that would see us silo ourselves and interact with our students as one-dimensional grades rather than fleshed out lives is hard work, but rarely unfulfilling. Another participant explains, when asked about the impact of navigating potentially triggering discussions in her tutorials:

I think that I also learned a lot from my students this year. Because I was paying attention. You know? Because I was engaged. And I think that is a really queer way of thinking about teaching. Like queer in the queer theory way, like we’re going to make this strange and deconstruct it. Or a critical way of thinking about teaching, it’s a reciprocal kind of relationship and one that’s open to negotiation.

If we understand femme as ‘the refusal to approximate the patriarchal norms of femininity’ (Hoskin 2017b), it makes sense that a resistive, femme pedagogy refuses to approximate the unidirectional expectations for learning and teaching. This space I’ve been able to build with fellow graduate students is also, importantly, indicative of the power that even a single member of a teaching team can have in shifting students’ (non)experiences with trauma-informed approaches. Finding that solidarity, or building it where it doesn’t yet exist—on Twitter, in your department, at conferences—is labour that continues to fall disproportionately to those with less funding and more to lose. Naming that injustice, just as I continue to name the precarity and institutional oversight that continues to reproduce it, is part of my femme pedagogy too.

One Person’s Trigger is Another Person’s Healing: Margeaux

What happens when your attempts at care work fail? It was that time of year that every educator has come to dread. You open your email and there it is: your course evaluations. In past years, I experienced a mild amount of anxiety as I opened this document. But this past year, as I awaited my evaluations for my second-year Queer Literature course, that anxiety was overwhelming. The second half of the course had been particularly challenging, as the majority of texts we discussed dealt quite explicitly with trauma. The lectures were hard on the students and on me. The trauma in the room was palpable. Each class was more sparsely attended than the last. One could attribute this attrition to the overwhelming pressures that students experience at the end of term; and that was certainly a contributing factor. But I wondered if the course content was acting as a further deterrent. One student evaluation summed it all up for me, and so I’m quoting it at length:

I found that I was continually triggered by our class discussions and would often have to leave class in order to calm myself down. Eventually this led to me not showing up to very many classes because I was repeatedly being traumatised by our discussions … The fact that we discussed trauma so often near the second half of the course made it so that attending this course was no longer accessible to me. I also feel that a lot of the discussion that went on in this course was less academic and more personal … the classroom became a forum for sharing personal traumas. I did not pay money for group therapy, I paid money to learn about literature that was written by queer people.

My first thought upon reading this: I failed my students. I did a horrible thing by discussing trauma. I should never teach again.

Of course I thought these things even after reading the evaluations in which students told me that I created ‘an open environment and a safe space.’ I was well aware that my own trauma response was activated here and so I gave myself permission to feel all the feelings, and then I assessed this feedback. I always began each lecture with a content note when we discussed potentially triggering material; I’d asked students if they needed any content notes in my intake survey at the start of the course (and provided detailed notes on which pages discussed the triggering topics listed for the one student who’d made a request); I gave my students permission to not read anything on the syllabus that might be too triggering for them; when I received feedback from the midterm evaluations that asked for lecture slides with content notes to be uploaded before class so that students could decide whether or not to come that day, I did so; I’d even figured out how to explain trauma responses using characters from the Disney-Pixar film Inside Out so that there was a bit of lightness to this difficult material.

This is not to say that there isn’t room for further growth. And so I asked myself: what lessons did I want to take from this student’s evaluation? How could I hold space for the fact that this student and I clearly differed on: the purpose of personal experience in the learning process; the importance of not only naming the presence of trauma in the texts we read, but crafting a space to discuss how trauma is an all-too-common experience for queer and trans writers, especially those who are not white? What I had to grapple with was the fact that one person’s trigger is another person’s healing. For some students in the course, the ability to name their personal traumas and to have their subjective experiences count as an invaluable form of knowledge was deeply transformative. Those are the kinds of learning environments that I want to foster; those are the kinds of learning environments we need.

The most powerful example of this transformative potential came when the students presented their creative collaborative projects to the class. Along with their creative product, they’d have to submit a short write up explaining how they contributed to the project. There was one presentation in particular that will always stay with me. The students had decided to make a zine would be divided into two sections: past and future. One of my students, a young trans man, read a letter to his younger self right at the moment when acting like a boy was no longer socially acceptable. What I witnessed was a moment of communal care: as he read and got increasingly more emotional, his group members put their arms around him, cried with him; they created a container to hold his trauma.

I’m inspired by the work being done by those in the radical mental health movement, such as the Mindful Occupation Collective, which purposes a new model for addressing how we care for ourselves and each other. ‘Our psychic experiences,’ they write,

are seen as an important source of desire and possibility; a (sometimes distressing, sometimes delightful) place of learning and revolution … We need to love ourselves as we are—crooked and intense, powerful and frightening, unruly and prone to mess around in the dirt … We need to write new maps of the universes we share in common and find ways to heal together. (2019: 144)

For Morgan and me, femme pedagogy is one such map of desire and possibility. It’s not perfect; it can never be perfect. But it holds space for that which can be distressing and delightful, and I can think of no better way to embrace femme pedagogy.

Towards Institutional Healing

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at how educators can make changes within their classrooms to better support students living with trauma. But in order to enact more robust change in the lives of students, trauma-informed teaching must move beyond the classroom. For Maura McInerney and Amy McKlindon, trauma-informed approaches should shape ‘organizational culture, practices, and policies to be sensitive to the experiences and needs of traumatized individuals’. (2015: 6) Similarly, Shannon Davidson points out that trauma-informed approaches ‘require a paradigm shift at both the staff and organizational level because they reshape a college’s culture, practices, and policies … choosing a trauma-informed approach requires an entire campus community to shift its focus’. (2016: 16)

The most urgent form of institutional change needed is making education on trauma and trauma-informed approaches more readily available. Hoch et al. (2015) provide some suggestions for how to train faculty and staff in trauma-informed practices: make training a part of new employee and incoming student orientation; incorporate it into annual training requirements; and offer annual training to student leaders and groups. Having just trained hundreds of orientation volunteers for frosh week, I [Margeaux] was surprised that nowhere in the three sessions—one on consent culture, the second on equity, diversity, and inclusion, and the last on identifying, assisting, and referring those having mental health crises—was there any mention of trauma. Beyond this, we need to ensure that campus safety offices and all student health services personnel receive training. The reality is that many students end up more traumatised by their interactions with security, police, and counsellors—and this is especially true for the QTBIPOC community. [7] Thus, while we argue that training will certainly help, we also argue for alternate resources for students that don’t rely on authority figures or socially sanctioned experts.

There is a growing movement of community-centred peer support. Sascha Altman Dubrul explains: ‘Intentional Peer Support understands that trauma is central to the experience of emotional distress that often results in psychiatric labeling. It is an explicitly survivor-controlled, nonclinical intervention with primarily intrapersonal and social benefits’. (2019: 174) We agree with Dubrul’s claim that ‘the idea that someone who has been through their own mental health journey can help another person is potentially revolutionary in a system that has always relied on the authority of doctors and other clinical staff’. (2019: 179) With peer-to-peer relationships, it is possible to minimise the inherent power dynamic of the clinician/counsellor-patient relationship and—even more importantly—universities could provide students with an opportunity to feel seen and recognised by someone with a similar lived experience. Peer support services offers the peer supporter an opportunity to continue their own healing by transforming their lived experience with trauma into a superpower that can help others.

A third possible direction for institutional change is introducing support services that centre trauma-informed modalities and somatics. Kai Cheng Thom, in a recent Twitter thread troubling the colonial roots of so many therapeutic modalities, notes that ‘colonial psychology and psychiatry reveal their allegiance to the status quo in their approach to trauma: that resourcing must come from oneself rather than from the collective’. (2019b) To get beyond those structures that reify and reintroduce trauma in the university, it is first necessary to move beyond the narrative that one’s ultimate goal is to build resilience (i.e. conform, produce, participate as usual) as if the trauma in question never occurred.

The ultimate question of social justice somatics is not ‘how can we cure the traumatized body so that it can return to productive society?—the question of dominant psychology,’ writes Thom. ‘Our question is: ‘how can we heal our traumatized bodies so that we may love each other and fight together?’ (2019b)

One response to Thom’s question within an academic context, as we see it, is the turn towards what we’ve termed femme pedagogy. In letting go of individualising neoliberal models of resilience, the dominant mode of addressing mental health within the university, we open up the possibility for learning and healing. The world is harsh enough; the university doesn’t have to follow suit. It might just be that the time has come to turn towards softness.


[1] See Helen Boyd’s ‘The Ethic of Queer Toughness’ (2014); Katherine Cross’s ‘Jack Halberstam’s Flying Circus: On Postmodernism and the Scapegoating of Trans Women’ (2014); and Zaynab Shahar’s ‘Another Anti-Trigger Warning Article Has Come and I’m Not Here For It’ (2014).

[2] See pages 37-47 in Trauma and Recovery (Herman 2015) for detailed explanations of how each of these symptoms can manifest.

[3] Our SNS and PSNS are even more complex. As polyvagal theory outlines, in addition to fight and flight, we also have freeze, attach-cry, and submit. To learn more about polyvagal theory, see Dana (2018) and Porges & Dana (2018).

[4] The last two decades, however, have certainly seen waves of increased critical consideration of femme from both inside of the academy (Duggan & McHugh 1996; Hemmings 1999; Galewski 2005; Hoskin 2017a) and outside of it. (Rose & Camilleri 2002; Hollibaugh 2000; Coyote & Sharman 2011; Vaid-Menon 2017)

[5] For more information on the policing of BIPOC affect, see Ahmed (2010), Cheng (2000), Rankine (2014), and Sharpe (2016).

[6] Even more unsettling is the frequency with which this language of ‘resilience’ appears in university-mandated training, mental health policies, and student resources. The University of Toronto introduced their resilience initiative as part of its 2016 Mental Health Framework, and a number of other Canadian institutions—from Dalhousie to the University of Calgary to UBC—all include repeated references to ‘resilience’ in student programming, resource material, and/or mental health and wellness policies. For a more comprehensive survey of this language’s inclusion in university initiatives, see Aubrecht (2013).

[7] QTBIPOC is an acronym for queer, trans, black, indigenous, people of colour. See Chen et al. (2016); Ginwright (2016); Green & Ubozoh (2019).


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