The Responsible Teacher: thoughts on emotion, trauma, and safety in the anthropology classroom - by Susan Wardell

Welcome to our new series, Teaching Anthropologically. This is a series of slightly longer blog posts (up to 2,000 words) dedicated to reflecting on the relationship between learning, teaching, and anthropology. The series acknowledges that learning and teaching about anthropology takes place in a diverse range of settings, not just in a secondary or tertiary environment. We invite contributions that critically engage with the processes involved in learning and teaching anthropologically, no matter where we find ourselves.

We are delighted to launch the series with this timely piece by Dr Susan Wardell. If you are interested in contributing to the series, please contact Lorena Gibson.

The Responsible Teacher: thoughts on emotion, trauma, and safety in the anthropology classroom

Susan Wardell 

In August 2018, my university ran a Quality Forum on “Teaching Challenging Topics.” Around twenty-five staff gathered in the lounge of a nearby college late on a Tuesday afternoon, to listen to four panellists present their experiences. Each was from a different department, and each was involved with teaching troubling, confronting, or fraught course content: cadaveric dissection; child abuse; post-colonial land rights; sexual violence. A lively question time followed. 

I teach ‘challenging’ topics. I think as social and cultural anthropologists, we all do. We deal in both in intimate and raw aspects of the human experience, and in fraught fields of social knowledge. For my own part, I teach papers on ‘The Anthropology of Evil’, on ‘Death, Grief, and Ritual’, on ‘The Anthropology Religion’ and on ‘Cultural Politics.’ In these courses I draw on my own research on burnout and mental illness, disability, moral reasoning, and emotion. But I have increasingly become interested in swivelling the lens around – on examining emotion not just as a classroom topic, but as a part of the context and process of tertiary education that benefits close attention.

The role of emotion in the classroom was a prominent part of conversation during the Quality Forum. Indeed, one panellist asserted that “acknowledging emotions” was essential to our engagement with students. Furthermore a similar focus on pedagogies of care and on emotional reflexivity appeared when I attended a Teaching Symposium in November. Discussion in the workshop I ran on “emotion in the classroom,” as part of this Symposium, gave me a chance to unpack this directly with teaching colleagues. In this post I draw together some emergent thoughts, based on auto-ethnographic reflections and participant-observation at these events. 

Across all of the presentations and conversations it was clear that promoting student wellbeing – for its own sake, and as a necessary foundation for learning – is utmost to many teachers. But amidst this, or perhaps contributing to it, was a sense of risk inherent in the tertiary classroom. 

There is a benefit to understanding the unique tensions that teachers face in taking responsibility (or not) for student wellbeing. Some of these can be revealed by deconstructing the psychologised language – of ‘trauma’, ‘safety’, ‘triggers, ‘resilience’ – which dominates these conversations. Examining the institutional and socio-political contexts in which the teacher’s role in this is negotiated can further elucidate these tensions. 

[NB: The Christchurch terrorist attacks (which occurred after this research was completed and the article written), have deeply affected students wellbeing, emotions both in and outside of class, and (I would argue) the awareness among teachers of anthropology of both the power and ‘riskiness’ of the material they teach on culture, religion, race, and power]. 

Emotion and the teacher’s role: control, professionalism, care

 At the Quality Forum, the panellists encouraged a high level of emotional intelligence: read the room, always keep watching, check up on students, encourage as much feedback as possible. Emotional intelligence is commonly associated with managerialism – what Jason Hughes (2010) calls a “neologistic packaging” for emotional labour. Yet ideas around the exact nature of the teachers’ role in relation to student emotion remained varied and contested. For instance, one Forum attendee asserted it was their job to acknowledge emotion, but not to manage it (emphasis mine). Another discussed being a facilitator of the emotion. “Perhaps we have a duty to help our students deal with those emotions,” said a different presenter. “Emotional regulation is my students’ job,” insisted another. 

 These conversations must be understood in the context of academia’s traditionally Cartesian, “neck-up” (Lewica 2009) model of teaching and learning, in which emotion is framed as dangerous or threatening – separate and opposite to ‘intellect’. However, they can also be understood as part of the ongoing discursive negotiation of the institutional role of the teacher. As such, the teachers’ awareness and regulation of their own emotion/s was part of the same conversation. 

 The value of an ‘open heart’ was highlighted frequently at the Symposium, as were values of empathy, kindness, and compassion. Yet, at the same time, there were hints that hearts should not be left totally open – that such a thing would violate both professionalism and safety. There were abundant references to boundaries, limits, the need to ‘regulate’ or ‘balance’ or ‘contain’ feeling.

 There were striking similarities between these discussions at my own academic institution, and my study of emotional management among faith-based youth workers in Canterbury (Wardell 2018). There, the same root metaphors of boundaries and containers were mobilised to negotiate the competing discourses of professionalism (promoting a carefully managed self), and the Christian care ethic (of selfless, sacrificial giving). Are teachers facing a similar tension? 

 The term ‘resilience’ was also prominent. In the context of teaching, an emphasis on student resilience places responsibility for wellbeing with the students themselves (a point I return to shortly). But it is also linked to the recurring message that stress and pressure is not all bad, and that the job of lecturers “isn’t to coddle,” as one person put it. Herein lies the dilemma.

Pedagogies of discomfort and the pursuit of safety 

“How do you create a safe space in your classroom?” one audience member asked the Quality Forum panel. The answer was firm and a little unexpected: “You can’t,” one panellist responded quickly. “Or at least, you can’t guarantee it,” they amended. 

Not only is discomfort expected around fraught realms of social knowledge, but many authors suggest that pushing students beyond their ‘comfort zones’ is both valuable and necessary for critical education – in relation to teaching social justice, gender and sexual violence, citizenship, and race (Patience 2008; Thompson 2017; Zemblyas 2012), for example. Megan Boler (1999) formulated an entire “pedagogy of discomfort” around the need to “unsettle taken-for-granted views and emotions” in order to learn deeply. 

“[Being] emotionally confronted can be useful, because it is the start of a new perspective,” as one panellist shared at the Forum. Another invoked the Student Charter to encourage the audience to take it as the duty of all teachers to provide “learning experiences that are stimulating and challenging” (emphasis mine). As yet another staff member shared at my workshop, she tells her students, “If you are feeling bothered by this, that’s good.” However, further conversation among the attendees revealed a tricky distinction between being ‘bothered’ and being distressed to the point of becoming non-functional. 

Amanda Konradi (1993), a sociologist who teaches on sexual assault, shares her strategy of acknowledging discomfort up front, to allow students to spend less effort ‘managing’ their emotional responses. However she notes there are difficulties and risks to this, for students who might find comfort and safety in depersonalising certain topics. She also debates the merit or risk of self-disclosure for teachers, based on her own experiences. 

As anthropologists, questions both of safety and self-disclosure are something we frequently navigate with our research participants. I have experienced it as no less tricky to navigate in the classroom. Carlo Caduff (2011) has similarly drawn on Foucault to articulate the valuable role of an “ethics of discomfort” for anthropology - both an ethical practice linked to critical analysis, and a mode of existence. Inviting students into this space of discomfort, and allowing ourselves as ethnographers and teachers to rest in it, can serve a “valuable heuristic function”.

Though again a key distinction should be made between causing discomfort and makinga space for discomfort (Walker and Palacios 2016). Boler’s work does in fact advocate seeking a balance between discomfort and safety.  

Vulnerability and risk 

As somewhat of a buzzword, ‘safety’ (as a goal for teaching) undoubtedly reflects the broader oversight of ‘Health and Safety’ and risk society discourses. But it also further reinforces an image of students as vulnerable. 

As a teacher I live with a veritable flood of information highlighting the economic, physical, and psychological vulnerability of students. Poor housing, over-strained mental health services, difficulties with StudyLink, and high uptake of food bank services – not to mention the strain of competitive education – are all regularly reported by the media, and in internal institutional communications. This is, of course, additional to my individual interactions with students, inside and outside of the classroom. 

The context of New Zealand’s current mental health crisis puts extra onus on this conversation; with suicide rates reported in 2018 as the highest since records began, in particular with youth suicide the highest in the developed world (twice as high as the US and 5x higher than Britain; see Flahive 2018; UNICEF 2017).

A sense of the vulnerability of students becomes particularly pertinent when the perceived ‘riskiness’ of the material itself is great. Certainly, particular topics, or realms of knowledge, are themselves seen as more ‘troubled’ or ‘challenging’ than others. But where, then, does trauma lie; in the material, the students, or the topic? 

Trauma, triggers, and the good teacher

Much of the scholarship on teaching troubling topics is framed around the concept of ‘trauma.’ A debate about the role of trigger warnings in tertiary education has also blown up of late, closely entangled with this.  

After the 2016 US Presidential election, Beth Sondel and her colleagues (Sondell, Baggett and Dunn 2018) invoked a “pedagogy of political trauma” to frame the experiences of secondary-school educators and students. In leading theological discussions about sexual trauma, Stephanie Crumpton’s work has also formulated a “Trauma sensitive pedagogical strategy” (2017). Angela Carter (2015) advocates for seeing trauma as a substantial, and everyday pedagogical issue – given the embodied and affective shifts experienced by learners faced with triggering content. Clearly some notions of ‘trauma’ relate to the material, and to the individual learners, and still others to the context of teaching and learning. 

When the topic of Trigger Warnings was brought up In the Quality Forum, the debate about academic freedoms (as common elsewhere) was entirely absent. Rather their merit was discussed in relation to their effectiveness at “downregulating” student emotions – versus implying distress was ‘normative’. Two things I noted about this:

  1.  The implication that less emotion, or more regulated emotion, was inherently a good thing – speaking to post-Enlightenment, ‘western’, cultural models of emotion as wild, unpredictable, or threatening. 

  2. The presence of shifting ideas about the role and responsibility of the ‘good’ teacher, that highlight thepractical problems of holding space for growth and challenge while trying to avoid (re)traumatising some or all students.

Safety and the unseen

Since I began teaching four years ago, I have developed a deep interest in the affective and intersubjective qualities of my classroom. In line with the imperatives of the Forum panellists, I do considerable work to both notice and direct the emotional dynamics of the group. Safety, welcome, comfort, confidence, and trust, are all affective qualities I attempt to foster. However I am aware that these also constructed by historical power relations, and ultimately asymmetric realities of privilege and vulnerability (Zemblyas 2012; Carter 2015). Many aspects of positionality that may shape classroom encounters, and the relative safety/vulnerability of different people in them, are immutable. Many are also invisible. 

I have facilitated discussions around the Holocaust for months, in an intimate group, before finding out one student had Jewish heritage. I have taught in-depth case studies on the persecution of a religious minority, knowing one of the students was a practitioner of that faith, and watched them maintain an entirely neutral face throughout. 

We have only a few clues as to who might feel what, about what, or towards whom. The call for the good teacher to relentlessly ‘read’ the room, is not straightforward. The desire to keep students ‘safe’ as they approach difficult topics, does not preselect any method. That there are anxieties and tensions among teaching staff around how to do this, and what is possible, is unsurprising. 

However, if anything anthropology is positioned well to understand the wider social contexts in which the specific practices and relationships of the classroom are embedded – to consider, for example, just how ‘troubled’ the teaching of culture, of colonialism, and of racism is, in post-colonial New Zealand. To consider how the identities of both students and teachers shapes their affective engagements in these topics and with each other. 

The work of the Mahi Tahi collective is doing this in a powerful way. Reading the stories that a group of Māori and indigenous students collated as part of Mahi Tahi ki Pōneke about their experiences in tertiary classrooms, at the 2018 ASAANZ conference installation, was deeply impacting to me. 

It reminded me that if social anthropologists can rise to the task of trying to understand nuances, complexity, and power, in our research fields, there is no reason we shouldn’t apply the same skill and thoughtfulness to understanding the contexts of our teaching. 

Safety and self-care: a dialogical relationship, or competing forms of responsibility?

Teaching is a caring profession. This I believe. But staff are stretched thin in the academic precariat. Thus I witnessed a distinct undercurrent of resentment in some of discussions at the Quality Forum, regarding the measures suggested, or even requested (by students) towards the goal of emotional ‘safety,’ which seemed unreasonable and over-taxing in the reality of a teacher’s workload. "Self-care is your responsibility," one respondent declared emphatically (to an imagined classroom).  

Discourses of self-care often emerge in the context of the moral restructuring in neoliberal societies. However the ‘responsibilisation’ of the citizen does not always replace other forms of responsibility; as anthropologists Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle explain, care "cannot be reduced to a transaction, with clear beginning and end points of responsibility, but involve open-ended relationships in which power is negotiated between parties” (2014).

The events I attended offered a snapshot of this process of negotiation occurring backstage: between managerial and teaching staff, official university documents, senior and junior staff, and across disciplines.  The boundaries’ around different (pastoral) care and support roles, for academic staff, came up frequently at the Symposium and Forum – emphasising, for example the need for teaching staff to refer students on to other psychological services if ‘trauma’ did arise. 

Conversations I witnessed constructed students dually as vulnerable, and as (ideally) resilient self-managers. They construct teachers and their teaching as both a risk to students, and a vehicle for transformation and growth. There are complex webs of meaning being spun here, with the tension between these discourses wrestled with every day in the practical negotiation of responsibility and accountability for student wellbeing in the classroom.

 I am advocating an ongoing project of reflexive analysis around the way ‘safety’, ‘trauma’, and other related ideas are being constructed and performed in the discursive domains of higher education, in New Zealand and further afield. An ethnographically-situated and critically informed discussion are just some of what an anthropological perspective can offer to this conversation – a conversation we are not just witnessing, but living.


Boler, M. (1999). Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. Routledge. 

Caduff, C. (2011). ‘Anthropology’s ethics: moral positionalism, cultural relativism, and critical analysis’, Anthropological Theory, 11(4), 465-480. 

Carter, A. M. (2015). ‘Teaching with Trauma: Disability Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Trigger Warnings Debate’, Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2), 1-19.

Crumpton, S.M. (2017). ‘Trigger warnings, covenants of presence, and more: Cultivating safe space for theological discussions about sexual trauma’, Teaching Theology & Religion, 20(2), 137-147.

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Thompson, B. (2017). Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice. University of Illinois Press.

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Wardell, S. (2018). Living in the Tension; Care, Selfhood, and Wellbeing among Faith-based Youth Workers. Carolina Academic Press. 

Zemblyas, M. (2012). ‘Critical pedagogy and emotion: working through ‘troubled knowledge’ in posttraumatic contexts’, Critical Studies in Education, 54(2), 176-189