Finding solace and closure -is academia prepared for student's uncomfortable development experiences?
I read a really interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today: In Why I Can No Longer Teach U.S. Military History a history professor explains the new challenges she encountered in class:
[T]he discomfort I endured last semester was something new. From the start, I realized that many students in the class were not as interested in exploring the seminal issues of U.S. military history as they were in finding solace, seeking closure, or securing an understanding of their own—or, in many cases, their loved ones'—recent military experiences.Even if we take into consideration that there is a geographical element to it - the university is in Texas which has large bases of the US Department of Defense - her article raises important questions for other areas of scholarship, teaching and academic debates.
While the focus in universities is often on 'employability' and equipping students with skills prior to their departure, the question for a field like development studies is what skills and services are or will be necessary if students with experiences in development work join MA or PhD programmes. Right now, most development studies programmes follow a traditional academic model where students meet in class for discussions and write papers on certain topics. This can be an entry point for reflective writing, engaging with stimulating literature and understanding some theoretical aspects of development better, but it leaves out the personal component.
What these students needed was personal catharsis, but I am not a trained psychologist. What these students craved was the opportunity to express their anger or pain, but my class was not the place to do it.I'm not suggesting that students returning from their first professional encounters with aid work suffer from the same sympthoms as soldiers do. But when it comes to working in humanitarian aid, conflict zones or encountering unprofessional, dangerous, harmful behaviour by organisations and individuals, the aid industry has many ways of messing up sane hearts and minds. I guess my question is what to do with those students who may not be traumatized enough to seek professional counselling on campus, but who are depressed, frustrated and angry about 'development'.
As many universities are interested in 'overseas' students there is an additional task of accomodating not only 'Western' students and their experiences, but also those from developing countries. I remember a class on conflict analysis where one student shared her family's experiences in a war in Africa and where everybody felt ill-equipped to deal with these insights as they fell out of the framework of what is possible to deal with in a university class although her stories were relevant, important and very meaningful in the academic context.
Professor Goldberg's conclusion may be workable for her particular situation and course, but the questions remain what to do when it affects a whole discipline:
I feel for these young people and what they have endured. Many shared photos and stories with me, and some showed me their physical scars. My heart goes out to them, but a course in military history is not an appropriate place for a therapy session. Since I foresee no diminution of this problem, and indeed believe it will intensify significantly over the next decade, I have decided that I can no longer teach the course.The number of students and professionals who will join development studies courses to seek some form of reflection and closure other than/in addition to reading about import-substitution strategies in Latin America in the 1970s will increase in the next years; as development studies teachers and researchers we need to think about ways how we can facilitate student's frustrations about development, personal traumas and space for reflection and stories in and outside traditional classroom situations.
P.S.: IDS offers an interesting action-research based programme on Participation, Power and Social Change that is an important attempt to take reflective practice and learning of development professionals into account in combining classroom- and field-based learning experiences.