April 18 2021

In Defense of the Simple Writing Assignment

Liora Gubkin, California State University, Bakersfield

illustration of a group of masked people

Practitioners of teaching in religious studies and theology are fortunate to have informal publications where we can look collectively and collaboratively at our pedagogical practices in close to real time. This seems especially pertinent now as many of us are teaching online, and many of our students are experiencing some form of trauma where our internal emotional and psychological resources are insufficient to respond to our external surroundings. But, as Crystal Silva-McCormick succinctly notes in her Wabash Center blog “Everything has Changed and Yet Nothing has Changed,” “Thanks to the pandemic, many in higher education are realizing what has always been true—that they must keep in mind the whole student while teaching.”1 A blog entry by Mindy McGarrah Sharp published two years earlier provides a pedagogical strategy for responding to trauma as it manifests in a seminary classroom.2 In what follows, I share a strategy I use in an undergraduate religious studies course on the Holocaust where traumatic subject matter and traumatized subjects collide. Three years ago, I developed an online version of “The Holocaust and Its Impact,” an upper-division general education course I had regularly taught face-to-face. I had the luxury of six months and a summer institute to reimagine the course, which had relied heavily on reading, reflection, and discussion for students to take on the subject position of engaged witnesses as they learned about this subject matter marked by trauma.

In my previous writing about the epistemological and ethical pedagogical challenges of traumatic knowledge, I concluded that “teaching for the engaged witness requires intentional focus on historical context, multiple subject positions, and issues of representation. The fourth essential component is space to express and analyze emotion as a source of knowledge.”3 The online course uses quizzes and primary text analyses as assignments to meet the first three elements, but many students experience strong emotional responses to the course material and struggle with how to situate themselves in relation to this traumatic subject matter. Students also bring their own histories and experiences of trauma, named and unnamed, individual and collective, to the online space we share. In what follows, I focus on how short writing assignments strategically placed throughout the course allow students to recognize, name, and leverage as a source of knowledge the strong emotions that sometimes surface during the course. The knowledge pertains both to their relationship to the past and its impact upon them as a source of empowerment for the future.

Writing for Discovery

While the online environment offers an enticing array of new tools and technologies for teaching, writing remains one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Writing allows students to demonstrate what they know and to discover what they know, including discovery of the emotional aspects of their knowing. Putting pen to paper, or keyboard to screen, allows students to discover what they think and can create a space for professors and classmates to validate what students feel. The short writing assignments throughout this course have empowered students to synthesize thought and feeling into action, to give them some agency for coping with their strong emotions. “The Holocaust and Its Impact” is divided into five content units preceded by a brief introduction and final exam. Strategically placed throughout the course are three different types of writing assignments—journal, discussion board, and essay—that can help students identify trauma and position themselves in relation to it.

The course begins with a journal assignment. Students are asked why they are taking this course, and approximately ninety percent of the answers begin with some form of “to fill a general education requirement.” Students are then asked to consider what they already know about the Holocaust, what images it brings to mind, and what they want to learn in the course. The concluding instructions for the journal ask students to “think about which groups you and members of your family or ethnic group sometimes joke about or consider inferior.” This assignment serves several purposes. It invites students to move from a passive space of taking the course to fill a requirement to articulating their own learning goals. The journal can also alert me to potential connections students might have to the course material. One student wrote that he had just recently learned that his great-grandfather was a pastor in Germany in the 1930s and had a Jewish ex-wife. Another wrote about how his name was both Mexican and German and that he did not know how or why his German grandfather migrated to Mexico after World War II. A few students have reported connections through their Jewish heritage or communal identification. More often, students report a wide range of prejudices they encounter in family life and describe painful experiences of attempting to distance themselves from prejudicial discourse they witnessed or engaged in themselves. Regardless of what content is shared in this journal, students are told that knowledge is comprised of both the history they are studying and how it impacts them, whether that is in their emotional response or through their relationship to the world around them. In addition, they are told that their personal stories are relevant. While there is space later in the course for public writing, this assignment is shared just with me. My response to all students is to welcome them to the course and affirm that they have something important to contribute to our collective learning based on their previous experience.

Students write their second journal near the midpoint of the course. The writing prompt includes a quote from Orly Lubin’s essay “Teaching Cinema, Teaching the Holocaust” where she notes that films about the Holocaust have potential to create “empathy, on the one hand, and the danger of creating numbness, disinterest, and loss of empathy on the other.”4 In the task of determining how films from the course have impacted them and how that compares to the impact of the reading, students have a space to reflect. Their responses can be deeply personal or more removed. I end the journal with the direct question: “How are you?” Many say “fine,” or “fine, thanks for asking.” Others will write about the difficulty of studying this material in relation to their lives, whether that is as a parent viewing the starvation of children, an immigrant learning how refugees were turned away, a DACA student anxious about their precarious status and fearful for their parents’ safety, or a gay student still closeted to his parents. The journal allows students, to the extent they choose, to reflect on the emotional impact of material. Again, I reply individually and affirmatively to each student. I may also share mental health, immigration, or other wellness resources available at the university. In addition to responding to each student individually, I provide a collective snapshot to the class of the kinds of responses they submitted. The summary, given without names attached, is important as it helps normalize what some of them experience as isolated, intense emotions.

In units without a journal assignment, students post to discussion boards. These prompts ask them to respond to what they are learning about the past and to consider possible connections to the present. For example, in their unit on creating the Nazi state, students read about the practices that solidified insider and outsider status. After identifying those practices from the 1930s, students answer the question, “What similarities and differences do you see with the ways that we view and treat groups that are considered ‘other’ in the United States today?” Again, some students will position themselves more directly in relation to the material than others. The ability to do so without it being required provides a structured space in the course for engaging with personally relevant, emotional connections. Whereas one student wrote directly about her experience as an immigrant describing how “in the United States we treat those who are different or foreign as if they are at some sort of disadvantage,” others are observers of discriminatory practices. Not surprisingly, current events that have sparked protest are often included in students’ reflections. In summer 2019, for example, approximately 50% of the students focused their writing on the incarceration of immigrant children at the US-Mexico border. In 2020, a similar percentage of students wrote about police violence against Black Americans. In both cases, students were amazingly respectful of each other in their writing. In addition to sharing their distress, they also asked for opportunities to learn more.

Writing for Empowerment

Other discussion board prompts are more open-ended. For example, in the unit on ghettos and resistance, students are asked to share “some of the most significant take-aways,” and instructions conclude, “As you think about your post consider what did you find surprising, challenging, or heart-breaking? As a witness to this history, what is important for you to share with others?” This discussion board assignment invites students to create a narrative about their own experience and attribute meaning to their emotions. Through the process of writing and responding to peers, students begin to establish their agency as engaged witnesses. A caveat is required here. Although I have presented these assignments chronologically and, perhaps, overenthusiastically suggested that students move from discovery to empowerment, we know that trauma erupts unexpectedly and not by the calendar of assignments in the syllabus. Yet, this is all the more reason to have intentional spaces throughout the syllabus to support students in their emotional processes. At the conclusion of the course, students are asked to reflect back on the material that was presented throughout the course. The writing prompt concludes, “Based on what you have learned, what are two things you can personally do to confront indifference and hatred.” Students who choose this final assignment (again, choice is important) often return to the material from the history they encountered that triggered a personal challenge for them. I have been inspired to witness how students are willing to be vulnerable and share their own histories and legacies of trauma, acknowledging both the differences from the history they are studying and their responsibility and willingness to teach about its relevance to the future. Some find power in committing to being kind; others in speaking out when a friend makes a racist joke; still others are ready to be change-makers and vision a new world into being.

 


Notes

1 Crystal Silva-McCormick, “Everything has Changed and Yet Nothing has Changed,” in Teaching and Learning During Crisis blog series, Wabash Center, May 4, 2020, https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2020/05/everything-has-changed-and-yet-nothing-has-changed/.

2 Mindy McGarrah Sharp, “One-Layer Removed: A Pedagogical Strategy when Trauma Interrupts,” in Teaching and Traumatic Events blog series , Wabash Center, May 22, 2018, https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2018/05/one-layer-removed-a-pedagogical-strategy-when-trauma-interrupts/.

3 Liora Gubkin, “From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom,” Teaching Theology & Religion 18, no. 2 (April 2015), 116, https://doi.org/10.1111/teth.12273.

4 Orly Lubin, “Teaching Cinema, Teaching the Holocaust,” in Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust, eds. Marianne Hirsch and Irene Kacandes (New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America), 2004.

Selected Recommended Resources

Gubkin, Liora. “From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom.” Teaching Theology & Religion 18, no. 2 (2015): 103–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/teth.12273

Imad, Mays. “Trauma Informed Teaching & Learning.” Webinar. March 26, 2020. https://youtu.be/XqcTbipuFDQ.

McGarrah Sharp, Mindy. “One-Layer Removed: A Pedagogical Strategy when Trauma Interrupts.” Teaching and Traumatic Events blog series, Wabash Center, May 22, 2018. https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2018/05/one-layer-removed-a-pedagogical-strategy-when-trauma-interrupts/.

Silva-McCormick, Crystal. “Everything has Changed and Yet Nothing has Changed.” Teaching and Learning During Crisis blog series, Wabash Center, May 4, 2020. https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/2020/05/everything-has-changed-and-yet-nothing-has-changed/.


Liora GubkinLiora Gubkin is professor of religious studies and associate dean of arts and humanities at California State University, Bakersfield where she directs the Institute for Religion, Education, and Public Policy. Prior to her positions in the dean’s office, Liora taught a wide-range of courses in religious studies. She has conducted research and published in the areas of Holocaust education, ritual, multi-religious belonging, and violence against women in world religions. Liora also co-chaired groups in the American Academy of Religion for the study of Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection and Religion, Holocaust, and Genocide.