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.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I work (and studied) in the human rights field, specifically in conflict/post-conflict areas. Gathering evidence and testifying in trials produces a similar kind of weight and difficulties. Hearing from survivors of genocide and state repression, disappearances, etc. requires a certain kind of mind set to continue work and studies.

    I also have a friend in public health, where in one of her graduate classes, the topic of sexual assault came up and professor felt very ill equipped to guide the class when personal stories (very relevant academically) were shared, and students became upset, and many even left the room.

    It seems that considering this is across disciplines, it would be helpful for professors to have a resource for students who are deeply affected by course content.

    I also think that in many cases, it is not necessarily unhealty at all. When students study conflict and violence, in whichever discipline, it is normal, I think, to be uncomforatble and react emotionally.

    I know this comment is not entirely thought out clearly, but I really thought this post raises such a fascinating issue. Thank you

  2. Great post. It's something I'm wrestling with now in my intro polisci classes. One of my goals is to encourage students to see a person's argument, evaluate the evidence provided, and empathize with the experiences which may have formed that person's world view. Part of humanizing our classroom experiences is demonstrating the inherent value of the knowledges we collectively bring together.

    Today, for example, we began a section on causes of conflict and barriers to peace. In small groups students discussed what "violence" means and then constructed mind maps linking various sources and expressions of "violence". Students toured all the various conceptualizations before engaging in a group discussion on trends, categories, and anomalies people noticed.

    Research questions and hypotheses emerged mirroring many of the current debates in the discipline before students read any literature on political conflict. AND, folks seem excited to come back together next week to talk about how to further explore these questions.

    "Violence" is a deeply personal, experientially-understood idea though. It pushed people to reveal a bit about their own pasts in the absence of dictionaries or textbook examples.

    I'm curious to see if my other class goes as deep with the concept of "development" next week.

    What strategies have you tried out?

  3. Hugely interesting topic! This touches many different types of problems of academic ¨teaching¨. And I share Lazri di Salvos experiences, often it is precisely the personal experiences that make meaningful learning process possible and Lazri gave good examples how that can be intergrated into the course plan.

    But the problem is, most people who teach in the universities do not know a first thing about teaching, learning processes, their understanding of knowledge and what their personal take is on that depending on a discipline they are in might be pretty superficial. And many academics are not really interested in learning process either, they are interested in being a specialist in military history or some other topic.

    Most people do a PhD on something, read and write and publish and then this somehow qualifies them to carry out learning processes in a group setting. Without any proper pedagogical training. And in some cases without any serious interest in educating themselves about what learning means, could mean, what tools are available for teaching depending on your view of what learning is.

    People teaching in the kindergartens are better equipped in creating meaningful learning processes than most professors. Which is weird, if you really think about it, no?

    So this whole notion that if people bring painful personal experiences into a learning situation somehow means automatically that we have entered the realm of "therapy", is alien to me.

    I have given lot of equal opportunities training for example, for different kinds of groups, and it is part of the learning process that people explore their own and others every day experiences. It is not therapy and the ¨teacher¨, trainer, tutor has to be adequately prepared to steer and support the process towards constructive learning for each participant.

    When it comes to humanities and social sciences, there are many topics which I can think of, where it is rather useless to give a course, if you have not already at the planning stage thought out how to integrate people's own experiences into the learning in a structured and constructive manner. Which brings us to another question - what content should be included in master programmes...

    Katja Vuori


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