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Transformative Teaching

Focus on Pedagogy 2022
Critical Reflection and Painful Pedagogy: Students’ Reflexive Engagement with Difficult Content
I. Bryce et al.


Recent international and cross-disciplinary studies have reported that 66-85% of undergraduate students have already experienced at least one traumatic event prior to entering university (Read et al., 2011; Bachrach & Read, 2012; Frazier et al., 2009). This finding suggests that any reasonably sized class of students today will likely contain individuals who have experienced personal trauma (Kennedy & Scriver, 2016). Stallman found – in a national survey of 6,500 university students – that 84% reported elevated levels of distress, which is significantly higher than that found in the general population (29%) (2010, p.254). Therefore, Stallman also concluded that ‘targeted interventions are needed to enable students to reach their academic potential and career aspirations’ (p.256). The COVID-19 Pandemic further compounded the complexity of the student experience and exposed the need for universities to develop trauma-informed approaches to support students’ well-being during times of crisis. Educators have a social responsibility to account for and actively address adversity and traumatisation within their learning environment. This paper analyses the role of critical reflection in developing emotional resilience and managing traumatisation in students engaging with challenging, sensitive or triggering content, with a particular focus on responding to trauma and the complex entanglements of language, identity, and power. It draws on considerations of ‘trigger warnings’ in the context of a first-year literary studies classroom, before applying that knowledge to the learning and teaching of helping professions. In doing so, this article aids in developing our understanding of how critical reflection can constitute a useful response to reading a wide range of ‘triggering’ texts, as well as navigating theory own adversities to promote academic success, retention and progression.


India Bryce is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland and a specialist consultant in the field of child maltreatment, specialising in cumulative harm. Her books include Child Abuse and Neglect: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Elsevier 2019) and Child Sexual Abuse: Forensic Issues in Evidence, Impact, and Management (Elsevier 2020).

Jessica Gildersleeve is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research considers the intersections of ethics, affect, narrative, and culture, and her recent books include Christos Tsiolkas: The Utopian Vision (Cambria 2017) and The Routledge Companion to Australian Literature (Routledge 2021);

Kate Cantrell is a Lecturer in Writing, Editing, and Publishing at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research interests include contemporary accounts of wandering and narrative representations of illness, immobility, and displacement. Her short stories, poems, and essays appear in several magazines and journals, including Overland, Meanjin, Westerly, Queensland Review, Hecate, and others.