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How Many Profs Does It Take to Teach Trauma?

CGS class led by three scholars from diverse fields

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Ellen DeVoe has some surprising news for her class on trauma: early studies of post-traumatic stress suggest that members of the National Guard and Reserves were at higher risk of the disorder than active-duty soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sitting with a ring of students, Shelly Rambo asks, “Why is it National Guard and reservists?” Partly, says DeVoe, a School of Social Work associate professor of clinical practice, it’s because they receive less training than active-duty soldiers. She goes on to describe how trauma treaters should be aware of their “civilian privilege”—the freedoms we enjoy, not appreciating how soldiers secure those freedoms—prompting a question from Joshua Pederson: “Am I wrong to be hearing the Jack Nicholson speech from A Few Good Men?”

This typical classroom discussion has an atypical cast: Rambo and Pederson (GRS’08) are not undergraduates like the dozen others seated with them. She is a School of Theology associate professor of theology, he, a College of General Studies assistant professor of humanities.

A theologian, a social worker, and a literature prof walk into a class: it’s not the setup to a joke, but a weekly lesson in Trauma in History, Art and Religion, taught by all three. Rambo and Pederson also take turns lecturing on this day’s topic of trauma and war, bringing distinctive takes from their own specialties. Pederson reviews a book the class has read on burgeoning mental health problems in the military, posing a question you’d expect from a literature specialist: “Is his thesis persuasive?”

Rambo discusses how media coverage conditions us to grieve some war casualties and not others, and she wonders about the ethics of making such distinctions. She screens a TV news photograph of soldiers in Iraq, noting the absence of Iraqis in the shot. “Who’s in the frame?” she asks rhetorically. “That’s chosen for me, to see certain things and not to see other things.” While newscasters don’t explicitly say they’re unconcerned with Iraqi lives, decisions about what to photograph craft viewers responses, she posits: “We’re trained to view certain lives as grievable and certain lives that are not worth grieving.”

Covering the science, moral implications, and different triggers of trauma, and open to all undergraduates, the course was conceived by Pederson and designed with a grant from the Provost’s Office. “Though courses team-taught by faculty from different schools or colleges are currently rare, such courses do exist and speak to the faculty’s desire to collaborate across disciplines,” says Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs.

Joshua Pederson designed a multi-disciplinary school on trauma after watching several academic fields take up the topic for study.

Joshua Pederson designed a multi-disciplinary course on trauma after watching several academic fields take up the topic for study.

Loizeaux says the BU Hub, the University-wide general education program that will launch with the incoming 2018 freshman class, encourages such courses. Carrie Preston, Kilachand Honors College director, says Kilachand sophomores take interdisciplinary courses, with this spring semester’s offering on Global Health being taught by faculty from the College of Engineering, the School of Public Health, and the College of Arts & Sciences.

Pederson says he hatched the idea for a three-pronged pedagogical probe of trauma because academic study of the topic has expanded beyond psychology in recent years.

“You can talk about sociological trauma or historical trauma or psychological trauma,” he says. “That’s the idea of the course, to bring together people in different fields who were working with trauma as a category, to get us all in the same room and in some ways just learn from each other.” Pederson notes that Yale sociologist Kai Erikson studied communal trauma, those disasters that shatter a sense of community.

Erikson distinguishes between the psychological trauma individuals suffer from the actual disaster and “the way in which the community itself is somehow traumatized,” says Pederson. “It’s a breakdown of trust, it’s increasing isolation, it’s decreased trust in institutions. An individually, psychologically traumatized person may or may not lose faith in institutions.”

Many taking the class, like Sara Noorouzi (Sargent’20), a premed student interested in public health, are from Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences. “We talk a lot about natural disasters,” says Noorouzi, “about soldiers coming back from the wars, and those sorts of traumas. At Sargent, we learn a lot about physiology and what happens to the body, but not much about the mental part of it.”

She says having three teachers, is “super-interesting. You get viewpoints from every single perspective. It’s not something that I would normally think about from my major.”

In casting his net for co-teachers, Pederson says, he had Rambo in mind from the beginning because of her research into, and reinterpretation of, traditional Christian theology in light of modern trauma studies.

Pederson also wanted a psychologist or a social worker who practiced with traumatized patients as a clinician. He was excited about snaring DeVoe, who created SSW’s trauma certificate program.

“She’s on the ground. She works with traumatized people,” he says. “Professor Rambo and I will have debates about these types of theoretical questions, and then Professor DeVoe will always very kindly come back and say, ‘You know, I just approach this from a really different perspective…’ I think she probably cares less about the definition of trauma than she cares about helping people who are hurt.”

Rambo’s only previous experience team teaching was with an STH colleague, never across schools. She and DeVoe teach graduate students in professional schools, and they both find that teaching undergrads is a new challenge.

“I think students get a sense of how invested scholars are in the topic, and yet how differently we approach it,” Rambo says. “My hope is that students coming out of the course will be more attuned to human vulnerability and will be better able to interpret their experiences and advocate for those affected by trauma.”

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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