Describing the Problem


I used to teach a class for welfare women, 98% of whom had either been in abusive relationships and gotten out, or were still in them. The figures for the women in my class that had come from a background of childhood violence or abuse were horrifying - 100% (there were 20 women in my class).
Beth Crowther, Coordinator, ESOL project, Texas
(Quoted in Horsman, 1999/2000:1)

In literacy, the dominant discourses limit recognition of the extent of violence and the effects of violence on learning. The impact of violence is traditionally seen as separate from education, and viewed as a matter for therapeutic interventions. As a result, though many literacy workers hear repeated accounts from students of current or past violence, there are few venues to talk about these issues and how best to respond. Although little is written or spoken about the links between violence and literacy, anecdotal accounts of literacy workers suggest that frequently all, or most, students in a class have experienced sexual or physical abuse as children and many have continued to experience violence as adults.

It is particularly important to look at the impact of violence on learning in the area of literacy. This is not simply because there may be extremely large numbers of adult literacy learners who have experienced trauma, but also because literacy learning is likely to work as a strong trigger for memories of violence. Literacy learners who have experienced violence in childhood, in the home or at school, can find that the horrors of their childhood are brought back to the present when they return to the classroom and try to improve their reading - something they first learnt in childhood. Literacy learning may be the first return to a school-like situation for many learners, and that, in itself, may be terrifying and lead to panic. As well as the direct impact on attempts to learn, literacy workers and counsellors talked about the importance of recognizing self-inflicted violence, threats of suicide, and suicide attempts as legacies of childhood violence which may be firmly intertwined with the terror of attempting to learn and change as an adult.

Literacy, But Not Only Literacy...

Although literacy learning is an acute example of problems that occur whenever people try to learn and teach, it is not the only learning where the experience of violence creates an impact. During an online seminar, Mary J. Breen described the demands:

...all teachers deal with violence in their work because violence is an issue for everyone in this culture. For many people, a teacher is the only outside person they can talk with. I think of a good friend of mine who teaches in a community college. In any typical week, he hears stories... My reason for stressing [this] is that I often hear people speak of the poor in terms of the violent, disruptive lives they lead - as if domestic assault and sexual abuse were issues only pertinent to “them” not “us”...
(Alphaplus Literacy & Violence Online Seminar, February-April, 1998)

Unless the everyday presence of violence is acknowledged, teachers can only question how to teach and respond adequately, as a university professor explained:

What happens usually is that students will come and talk to me, so there's usually an increase in disclosures after a classroom discussion or lecture dealing with a topic such as colonization, structural violence, patriarchy etc. I'm not a counsellor. I can listen and I can suggest where people can go for help, but beyond that I can't counsel. I often end up wondering how I can best deal with this.
(Personal correspondence, July 1999)

Not all instructors will experience disclosures in this way. Many may not be perceived as trustworthy or approachable and may never know why students do poorly in their course, leave a class with no explanation, miss classes frequently, or drop out entirely. One college librarian spoke of numerous students who tell her their stories when they retreat to the library fleeing a class that disturbs them and leaves them unable to stay. Another online participant, Kathryn Alexander, a university tutor, explained:

I feel that the trajectory of violence and literacy has been a theme in many students’ lives - even if they are able to succeed and go on to university - it still affects them - mainly I have heard and experienced stories from women who are searching for means to make sense of their experience of abuse and survival in their own education - choosing certain areas for study - and then struggling with the institutional structures that may in fact mirror back the violence/disrespect/control/ or discrimination they have survived.
(Alphaplus Literacy & Violence Online Seminar, February-April, 1998)

Unless education at all levels acknowledges the violence in the lives of women and children and its impact on learning, many students will not only fail to learn, but may also experience the educational setting as a silencing place, or another site of violence, where they are controlled, diminished and shamed by institutional structures or classroom interactions.

Adapted from: Horsman, J. (2004). “But Is It Education?” The Challenge of Creating Effective Learning for Survivors of Trauma. Women's Studies Quarterly, Special Issue on Women and Literacy, Spring

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