We all sat in the classroom, stunned by the brutality and shock of last night’s reading. This is my Women’s United States History class, and we had just read “It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped” : Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle, a reading that detailed a gang rape and the experiences of black women with sexual violence throughout history. Our teacher told us to write down all of our feelings of shock and visceral horror, and then to put that aside for later. We would not be discussing those right now, instead we would discuss the author’s arguments and what she was trying to convey.
This moment stands out to me and remains in my memory a year later, but it is certainly not the only reading that I have reacted to with such emotion. The Urban School’s curriculum does not shy away from engaging in emotionally intense and potentially upsetting content. Beginning freshman year, violence–including sexual, racial and wartime violence–are embedded in the curriculum, especially in English and history classes.
I’ve always been confused and intrigued by the role of emotion in these academic spaces. Student’s emotional responses- and the way we view them- vary greatly based on myriad of factors, especially identity and personal experiences.
Sophia Robb (‘18), a student who identifies as black, explained, “Anytime the subject matter revolves around black people, it’s fact for a lot of people but for me it’s also a reality. There’s a personal connection that comes with it, in that these are my relatives, these are people I know.” Emotional responses can take on a variety of physical expressions; gender is another factor that plays a role in what emotional responses look like. Zachary Ngin (‘18) explained his perspective on masculinity and emotions: “I think men do display emotions, but not always in ways that are obvious to everyone or socially scripted. It’s not so much an issue of whether men have emotions, it’s the context in which they are expressed.” Being emotional is certainly attributed to femininity, and in my own experience, those who I have seen being most open about their emotional responses have been female students.
In addition to race and gender identity, students’ personal experience and backgrounds shape how they respond to violence and upsetting content. For example, many Urban students view history through a privileged lense, potentially making this material even more shocking. Charisse Wu, history teacher noted that, “I do find that students who don’t get too screwed over in life, they have a harder time dealing with the complexity of history…[Whereas], when I’ve worked with students who’ve come from backgrounds where their lives were tumultuous, they’ve experienced a lot more of the dark side of humanity…there’s not a cognitive barrier to accept that this is how people are and what they do to each other.”
Teachers try to be conscious of how different students’ identities and experiences can influence what material is triggering or traumatic for them, while remaining cognizant of the fact that they don’t always know what students are bringing into a class. Before her Modern American Literature class started reading “the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” English teacher Ratna Kamath conducted an anonymous survey of her students to gather information about where the class was in terms of experience with violence. She said, “It’s a balancing act of changing when needed, trying to anticipate needs, and teaching classes according to the students and their needs.” Other teachers will talk to particular students one-on-one if they think the material will be particularly difficult for them. However, because it is impossible for teachers to predict everything that could be traumatic to a student, it’s also important for students to be able to advocate for themselves. Courtney Rein, English Department Chair explained that instead of trying to figure out when to give trigger warnings, they instead give a general summary of the themes that a novel will address so that students can then be prepared for challenging topics and understand how best to move forward.
Rein also emphasized the value of maintaining the presence of emotion in English discussions. She said, “we want to be constantly reminding ourselves of what is our personal relationship to this stories and content. In doing that, it helps kids who aren’t having a powerful emotional reaction to look at that. Why do I get some insulation against this story that someone else in the classroom doesn’t?”
The role of emotional responses does vary based on department, however. Charisse Wu explained how students’ desire to connect to the material and view it through a modern lense can prevent them from understanding a time period as it was. She said, “As a history teacher, it’s important to me that students don’t personalize historical study and that they know that historical events have taken place without knowing any of us existed. Part of our responsibility is to learn about that time for what it was.”
Emotional responses may be difficult, but as all the teachers emphasized, they are not something to be afraid of. The role of emotion in analytic spaces is a complex issue, and varies based on class and department. However, our emotions are an integral part of the academic experience. As Kamath said, “I’d be devastated if people read books and didn’t feel things.”