June 13 2024

Trauma-Informed Pedagogies in the Religious Studies Classroom: Editor's Introduction

Jessica L. Tinklenberg, Claremont Colleges

illustration of a group of masked people

In a timely piece for Inside Higher Ed in June, 2020, Dr. Mays Imad speaks to the unbelievable reality of our times: in this COVID-19 academic year, we are all traumatized, anxious, and scared.1 Our trauma may come from feelings of isolation, constant ambiguity, a vague awareness of unseen danger, food or housing insecurity, unrelenting racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic violence, or from any intersection of these and more. Wherever our trauma originates, Imad ensures us that it is real, pressing, and impacting our ability to teach, learn, and survive right now.

In this issue of Spotlight on Teaching, eleven scholar-teachers from the Academy discuss the ways they understand trauma in the religious studies classroom. Each offers a unique insight into how we might recognize, honor, and respond to the needs this time presents to our students, our institutions, and ourselves. The anchor for this issue is provided by Dr. Darryl W. Stephens (Lancaster Theological Seminary), who offers readers the definitional and theoretical foundations for understanding trauma-informed pedagogy. (Note: aspects of this piece previously appeared in Religions, an open access journal.2) Then follows a series of shorter, practical pieces that rely on the pedagogical underpinnings provided by Stephens.

Dr. Juliane Hammer (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) offers a discussion of processing the traumas of gender violence in “Gender-Based Violence and Muslim Communities: Trauma Processing through Art.” She argues that student-created visual art, poetry, and creative writing can help students understand and work through the emotions that might impede learning in an Islamic studies course; this process might also mitigate sentiments of Orientalism and Islamophobia among students.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that our work in the classroom ignores the embodied aspects of trauma and its impact on learning. Instead, we tend to see our students as disembodied brains to fill with knowledge, to our students’ detriment. In “Addressing Race in the Classroom: A Trauma-informed Communal Embodied Practice,” Dr. Leah Thomas (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) invites the reader to incorporate aspects of contemplative pedagogy and somatic psychology into their classroom practices around race. I am particularly appreciative of the ways she emphasizes consent, choice, and safety in these exercises.

Dr. Oluwatomisin Oredein (Brite Divinity School) also invites instructors to engage in deep reflection on racialized trauma in the classroom in her piece, “We Have to Tell the Truth: A Liberative Approach to Trauma-Informed Pedagogy.” From her own reflective practice, Oredein came to recognize the ways many of her assignments and expectations devalued the language, abilities, and contexts of her Black students; she offers to the reader several changes that she made in the fall of 2020 to decrease stereotype threat and other sites of racist trauma. She also implores us all to see the classroom as a liberative space for both our students and ourselves, approaching each teaching and learning interaction with honesty and humanity.

Doctoral candidate Alexiana Fry (Old Testament, Stellenbosch University) discusses the ways biblical narratives are often trauma narratives in her insightful piece “Processing By/Through/In Written Word.” Fry describes the process of inviting students in her biblical hermeneutics course to develop and share their own trauma narratives in ways which support student safety and well-being, and then connect that process to the larger task of understanding biblical interpretation.

As a (very bad) runner myself, one of the articles I most appreciated was authored by Dr. Elisabeth T. Vasko (Duquesne University). In “Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: Reflections on Running and Teaching,” Vasko imagines faculty self-care in traumatic times as akin to learning to run: setting realistic and authentic goals, practicing mindfulness and bodily awareness, redefining success, and being present throughout. Her reflections on the ways these practices can support us in a pandemic end with a challenge to “lace up our shoes and run.”

Those who are teaching in pastoral care or counseling face very specific hurdles in the trauma-informed classroom, among them: helping students understand their own context and trauma, building intercultural awareness, and developing skills that will assist students in providing future care. To assist with all three of these needs, Dr. AHyun Lee (Indiana Wesley University) foregrounds compassion, connection, and celebration through a “tree of life” activity that will be equally applicable in all classrooms where faculty wish to allow students to explore their own trauma and their connections to others.

Dr. Ryan Rideau (Tufts University) utilizes his experience as both a professor and an associate director of teaching and learning to share promising practices for trauma-informed antiracist teaching. His piece “Fostering Collaboration and Agency in an Antiracist, Trauma-Informed Classroom: Creating Community-Learning Agreements through Reflective Practice” invites readers to consider the importance of learning agreements (sometimes also known as community norms) for all classrooms. I particularly appreciated the way his suggestions are designed to better ensure the success and well-being of minoritized students, and to center their voices, whether race is explicitly discussed as a part of the class content or not.

As is the case with many other authors in this collection, Dr. Yohana Agra Junker (Claremont School of Theology) asks us to attend to the relationship between the affective and cognitive dimensions of learning in her essay “Breathing | Being | Praying Meditations: The Generative Possibilities of the Arts.” Junker invites us to consider a guided practice, doodle therapy, which helps students (and community partners she has worked with) connect with untapped feelings around the pandemic, racialized trauma, and even capitalist and white supremacist hegemony. This piece provides step-by-step directions to enact this practice in our classrooms as we all seek to help students become more reflective and aware of their own experience.

Dr. Ella Johnson (St. Ambrose University) offers readers a way to invite classroom colleagues into reflective and ideologically aware critique as a means for understanding the traumatic events in this past year. In “Critical Reflection Ensuing from Traumatic Events and Ideology Critique,” Johnson suggests that “disorienting events” must be discussed in the trauma-informed classroom—even if we don’t feel that it is our academic purview—and should never be left to asides or one-off discussions. Instead, we should ensure that critical, ideological reflection on trauma is embedded throughout our curriculum, including as we read religious texts and historical documents.

Finally, Dr. Liora Gubkin (California State University, Bakersfield) reminds us that sometimes, the simplest approach to addressing student trauma is by far the best—especially when we are teaching online. In her piece “In Defense of the Simple Writing Assignment,” Gubkin discusses the process of moving her brick-and-mortar, face-to-face Holocaust class to a fully online format. In that transition, she thought deeply about the ways students could still connect to the material and apply their learning to current traumatic circumstances. Through a series of short, reflective writing assignments, Gubkin was able to provide an outlet that allowed students to see themselves (and their concerns) as deeply related to the course.

The reader may notice that several of the submissions here were offered by theological educators, and that they certainly represent more of the authorship than in previous issues of Spotlight on Teaching. I have wondered over the months of work on this issue if that is because those teaching inside religious traditions are more likely to address the affective dimensions of education head-on in their work or if nonreligious institutions (rightly) worry about the scholarly implications of impinging on the noncognitive aspects of students’ lives and work. Whatever the reason, I am convinced that the writing in this volume is worthwhile to every educator. It has been an honor to edit this volume for many reasons, but above all because I believe that the advice and guidance offered here can truly help ourselves and our students survive and even thrive in this year and beyond.

Be well and stay safe,
Jessica L. Tinklenberg, PhD
Editor, Spotlight on Teaching

1 Mays Imad, “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now,” Inside Higher Ed, June 30, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/03/seven-recommendations-helping-students-thrive-times-trauma.

2 Darryl W. Stephens, “Trauma-Informed Pedagogy for the Religious and Theological Higher Education Classroom,” Religions 11, no. 9 (2020): 449. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11090449.

Jessica Tinklenberg is the program director for the Center for Teaching and Learning. Since 1998, Jessica has been an award-winning teacher for students in K-12 through graduate studies and is passionate about the potential of students to change the world for good. Throughout her career, Tinklenberg has published and presented nationally and internationally on active learning, student-centered course design, reflection, first-year writing, and assessment.