- Childhood Sexual Assault in an Institutional SettingTrauma-Informed Teaching and the Appropriate Use of “Self”
Survivor, advocate, researcher, policy advisor, student, teacher, criminologist, collaborator, research subject, resource, privileged white male. All are descriptors of me, and each relates to my experience of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse as a child in Catholic Church institutions in the Hunter region just north of Sydney, Australia.
I believe that the whole is greater than the sum of those parts—particularly in the education of criminology, psychology, social work, law, and humanities students in courses where violence, abuse, victimization, and criminality are the mainstay, and where University of Newcastle academics have sensitively introduced the topic of child sexual assault (CSA) in institutional settings into existing courses. My involvement in one such course is used in this Short Take as a case study for how to teach as a holistic “self.”
Accounts of my history of institutional CSA and associated advocacy and research work are publicly known and only a search-engine click away; I’ve always assumed that curious students could easily find out about my story before we reach the classroom. However, until I received a request from a colleague to give guest lectures to social science students at the University of Newcastle, I had never overtly used my CSA survivor status as a tool for tertiary student development. These lectures elicited little pause for thought so far as a wider use of “self” in teaching was concerned, but that changed when another conversation precipitated more guest lectures and then an ongoing role in the Violence, Trauma, and Abuse undergraduate social work course where my history and psychology have become a focus.
The transition from a casual to ongoing use of “self” led to reflection on what it means to teach in a way that facilitates learning in situations where synthesis of [End Page 137] experience and education would no longer be sufficient. Routine, sensitive, and ethical teaching about institutional CSA and including myself as a case study would require greater self-awareness and an awareness of my audience and their likely career paths. Recounting my own trauma would accrue expected (and accepted) personal implications for me, would change the nature of my relationship with my students, and could trigger trauma responses in students. An adaptation of the principle of trauma-informed practice and appropriate use of self would hold the key.
The social work profession has long recognized that practitioners are themselves the instrument of intervention.1 Through experience, knowledge, skill, and commitment to personal connection, others can learn, develop, and adapt. In 1974, James Shaw identified three conceptions of self: one capable of rational thinking and an ability to abstract itself from its context, one that puts rationality into action, and one that can follow moral imperative rather than personal desire.2 Consciousness of these selves and our surroundings, their interactions and tensions, allows us as teachers and students to define our existence. Through this kind of consciousness we can engage in a process of personal redefinition, break free of the constraints of current or past selves, seek career development, and empower (and accept responsibility for) our future. In collaboration with my students and colleagues, it is this exercise that I base my teaching on.
My evolving professional self inevitably led me to trauma-informed teaching, which is based collaboration between student and teacher, development of trust, and student empowerment.3 The way we want our graduates behaving in their professional lives is the way we should be treating and teaching them while they’re in college—particularly given our awareness of the vulnerability of some of those students and the possibility of vicarious traumatization arising from their future work.
Tertiary students and graduates with a history of CSA are over-represented in programs and careers such as social work, psychology, child protection, policing, and corrections.4 These are our students. For those who have not personally experienced CSA, it is inevitable that from early in their careers they will be engaging with people who have. Social work students, for example, exhibit a higher incidence of various forms of childhood trauma than students of other disciplines. [End...