A Trauma-Informed Writing Classroom and Teaching Manifesto

The pedagogical design of What Would Joan Do? operates under the assumption of three guiding principles. First, successful writing is informed by meaningful reading. Meaningful reading is defined by understanding a particular text’s purpose within a given classroom and how an instructor asks students to engage with these texts. Second, writing (and reading, for that matter) is inherently social and self-reflective. This notion goes hand-in-hand with the final guiding principle of this course: writing is a community-based and community-forming activity. Understanding how writing is a socially engaged act and can aid in forming a community is key to creating a classroom that analyzes writing styles and recognizes how students might employ rhetorical strategies to achieve a particular goal.

“Why do [students] read in composition classes?” (Morrow 453) Nancy Morrow proposes the shift to this line of questioning as opposed to explicitly asking, “what should [students] read in composition classes?” (453). When contemplating how reading should influence the writing classroom, it is important to consider why these two learning processes are interconnected. Morrow explains that the argument “‘good readers’ (whatever that might really mean) make ‘good writers’” (444-445) is used too often by composition instructors to justify why the two processes should be learned together. ‘Good readers make good writers’ is a statement of ambiguity. It assumes that reading is an experience that automatically results in a seemingly unrelated outcome. “The act of reading itself,” Morrow explains, “will not improve…student’s writing abilities unless the connections between reading and writing are made explicit” (455). Making a case for using reading in the composition classroom, Morrow cites David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky, who suggest reading is a transformative and constructive process. Bartholomae and Petrosky ask their students to “assign significance” to a “controlling idea” in a text: “When a student moves to account for the significance of what [they have] noticed [while reading], the competing demands of convention and idiosyncrasy are perhaps most dramatically and illustratively felt,” (Bartholome and Petrosky as quoted by Marrow 458). This theory positions reading as a means of responding to and constructing key ideas. To this end, Morrow suggests three considerations that guide how reading should be positioned in the composition classroom: “First,..students need to understand that as readers, they are always actively constituting meaning, not just receiving information…Second…students should recognize that their expectation of a text often shape[s] their responses to it…[And] Third…teachers…must decide why [they] want students to read a particular text and communicate that purpose explicitly” (465). By integrating Morrow’s suggestions in the course plan for What Would Joan Do?, reading is positioned as a meaningful tool for studying rhetorical strategies surrounding trauma. Through continued engagement and analysis of Didion’s prose, students are asked to consider how trauma narratives can inform our understanding of impactful composition and how successful communication can occur even when reading is not a joyful or comfortable experience. 

Understanding how meaning is constructed within a given text is of the utmost importance for What Would Joan Do?. Students are encouraged to consider how their interpretation of meaning might differ from Didion’s and why this difference emerges. Published lectures on the What Would Joan Do? site provide examples of this type of thinking and analysis. Moreover, students are asked to reckon with their expectations of Didion’s writing as well as their own through this construction of meaning on discussion boards. Students are also asked to explore how these expectations shape a reading and writing experience as they perform rhetorical analyses of Didion’s work and write in conversation with her. Through this process, reading and writing the trauma memoir becomes an avenue through which meaningful construction is examined, and the reader’s role in creating meaning is highlighted as equally crucial to the development of the narrative.

Recognizing that meaning can emerge from the relationship between writer and reader illuminates how writing is a concurrently social and self-reflective act. Lisa Ede explains that while early research in composition studies “emphasized the importance of the social and cultural contexts of teaching and learning, it still tended to view both writing and thinking – the creation of knowledge—as inherently individual activities” (6). Ede pushes back on this thinking, citing Marilyn Cooper, who writes: “language and texts are not simply how individuals discover and communicate information, but are essential activities, dependent on social structures and processes not only in their interpretive but also in their constructive phases” (Cooper as quotes by Ede 9-10). Didion’s prose within her trauma memoirs aligns heavily with writing being a social and self-reflective act. Her work illuminates how trauma is a topic that allows people to write to get something out of their system while also reaching out for connection with others. It is apparent within these narratives that Didion is writing both for herself and to connect with a larger audience, further aligning with Cooper’s claim that writing as an act can simultaneously be a means through which individuals discover – or let go of – information and engage in a meaningful social exchange with their readers.     

When the relationship between writing and social structures is acknowledged by readers and authors alike, the potential of language to produce collective understandings is highlighted. Patricia Webb Bodd explains that “when students realize their words matter and can have an impact on social action (and can even be social action), then they become more aware of how important it is to take responsibility for their words and the work those words do in their communities and the lives of people” (108). When examining critical expressivist writing found within the memoir genre, it is the “emphasis on individual experiences [that] illustrates the importance that [these] experiences play in one’s interactions in the world—including the political and social problems that face us domestically and globally” (Boyd 108). Composition based on personal experience is not written in a vacuum. Personal writing can not only illuminate an individual’s interpretation of an experience but also provide a space to frame a state of mind and how this conceptualization might be written in a way that encourages a connection with others. When teaching and writing the trauma memoir, recognizing how writing is both social and reflexive is essential to understanding language’s ability to be both personal and community-based. Participants in What Would Joan Do? are encouraged to share their work on the course webpage and submit to other larger publication opportunities listed on the website. The suggested assignments listed each week are deliberately constructed as short writing pieces to encourage students to write concisely, similar to Didion. These assignments are intended to be starting points for a potentially longer piece of public writing. Producing writing with the goal of larger submission asks students to reflect on how composition is both a reflective and social activity and how their work can meaningfully form communities.

The social nature of writing promotes an understanding of the practice as a community-based and forming act. Community as a term is both “seductive and [rhetorically] powerful, one that offers…a view of shared purpose and effort” (Harris 13). Joseph Harris cites David Bartholomae to explore community in composition studies. Bartholomae states, “student[s have] to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse community” (Bartholomae as cited by Harris 13). Harris examines this interpretation of community, ultimately concluding that this a “stabilizing term” for Bartholomae “to give a sense of shared purpose and effort to our dealings with…various discourses” (14). Strictly considering how one might write to fulfill the perceived needs of particular genre conventions or academic discourse neglects to include how community forms around written ideological understandings. In this way, Harris’ overarching claim that community in the writing classroom should be a space for both “consensus and conflict” – spaces where “discourses of communities…are more than communities of discourse alone” (20) – exemplifies the needs of writing classrooms focused on expressivist prose.

While it is true that expressivism and attention to community are often seen as disparate models, trauma narratives reveal the ways adhering to certain discourse expectations can increase reader engagement and comprehension. These narratives also illuminate, however, how creative agency over individualized prose can personalize a written experience, conveying an authenticity rarely found in work that strictly attempts to write for a specific audience. In this way, writing about trauma requires not only an appreciation of others’ successful prose on the topic but also an understanding that the success of this prose rests in its ability to be expanded and molded to suit an individual’s needs. To this end, the trauma narrative is born from engaging with others’ stories and interjecting your own without the limitations of strictly adhering to particular linguistic genre conventions. Writers should feel empowered by their ability to work with various narrative forms that create meaning and illuminate different nuances surrounding trauma. By working in conversation with Didion and her rhetorical strategy, the hope is that students of What Would Joan Do? will feel comfortable experimenting with their narratives in public spaces to find and form community.

With a specific focus on the trauma memoir, it is important that What Would Joan Do? considers avenues for trauma-informed instruction. Janice Carello and Lisa Bulter argue that a trauma-informed teaching approach is necessary for classrooms where trauma or traumatic experiences are discussed. Their argument begins by emphasizing the critical distinction between the field of trauma studies and the clinical study of trauma. Trauma studies “differs from the study of posttraumatic stress and dissociation in clinical fields such as psychology, psychiatry, neurology, social work, and counseling, most prominently in the way that it concerns itself more with the effects of trauma on society than on individuals” (Carello 155). In this way, trauma studies examine texts to diagnose a traumatized culture instead of traumatized individuals. When considering how community and social action intersect within the writing classroom, trauma studies prove helpful in examining how written works can reveal the topic’s collective nature.

Carello and Butler specifically highlight the creative writing classroom in their discussion of trauma studies, stating that the true impact of working with students on traumatic experiences within these creative spaces is still unknown. They note that “many teachers are understandably too nervous [to reveal] what their students are writing about” (155). There is a particular danger in not acknowledging traumatic events and their impact on students. Not acknowledging these experiences risks perpetuating negative stigmas and notions of shame surrounding trauma. Carello and Butler outline ways to balance discussing trauma and creating a safe community space, taking special care not to retraumatize students. Instructors often unconsciously support re-traumatization. As such, it is necessary to be conscious of how the material is presented and discussions occur surrounding potentially troubling concepts. This begins with not conflating your role as an instructor with the role of a counselor or therapist (Carello 161). The instructional focus of What Would Joan Do? rests on rhetorically exploring the successes of Didion’s trauma memoirs, asking students to engage with her texts through reading and writing. This course does not ask students to explore writing as a therapeutic tool, nor does it encourage examining Didion’s texts in this way. Instead, students are asked to work in conversation with her work, analyzing her rhetorical strategy and style to develop their storytelling abilities further.

Written emotional disclosure (WED) can benefit the writing instructor without being seen as conducting therapy. Creating a space that prioritizes informed instruction allows discussions focused on trauma to occur while minimizing the risk of retraumatization for students. In order to create such a space, this course takes into consideration some concerns and limitations outlined by Carello and Butler:

[1. Identify] learning as the primary goal and student emotional safety as a necessary condition for it;…[2. appreciate] how a trauma history may impact your students’ academic performance, even without trauma being a topic in the classroom; (e) [3. Be familiar] with the scientific research on trauma [and] retraumatization…(f) [4. Be familiar] with the clinical literature on traumatic transference and countertransference…to better understand your students’ and your own reactions to traumatic material;…and [5. check] any assumptions that trauma is good (or even romantic), even though some good may be found by those who successfully adapt to the fallout of such experiences (Carello 163-164)


While these outlined concerns and limitations inform the pedagogical creation of this course, the online structure of What Would Joan Do? is important to consider compared to trauma-informed in-person classrooms. This course invites participants of all backgrounds to participate voluntarily. The online format of this course affords a certain level of privacy to participants in deciding how they would like to participate that would otherwise not be available through in-person instruction. Using Didion – both as a public figure and a renowned author on trauma – as the primary means of connection between instructor and student allows participants to decide on their own whether they wish to write about their trauma or life. What Would Joan Do? seeks to meet all participants in a comfortable space that offers them valuable perspectives on the writing process and trauma narratives while also making available stress-free opportunities to share their work. Successful learning begins with informed classroom instruction. Taking measures to create a trauma-informed learning space increases the potential for successful community building around discussions of trauma based in academic discourse — without the glamorization of it.

       Moreover, What Would Joan Do? takes special care to establish an explicit stance on recovery as an additional way to ensure a trauma-informed learning space. This project moves away from cure-based terminology to describe the processes of addressing and confronting trauma through written disclosure. As noted by Pennebaker, far too many unknowns surround the relationship between trauma recovery and written disclosure to determine whether writing can ‘cure’ or ‘heal’ an individual from their trauma. Though studies have shown a correlation between writing and jumpstarting recovery, there is no clear-cut answer to the question ‘can written disclosure heal trauma?’ because there are inherent problems with the terminology of cure as it relates to trauma.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) includes PTSD among its listed disabilities. Considering trauma in relation to disability calls into question the nature and limitations of cure. In his memoir and critical analysis, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, Eli Clare writes about how a cure-based mentality towards disability is harmful. Clare focuses on the term “overcoming” to examine conventional attitudes toward cure: “Overcoming is a peculiar and puzzling concept. It means transcending, disavowing, rising above, conquering. Joy or grief overcomes us. An army overcomes its enemy.” He goes on to explain that, where disability is concerned, overcoming is not always the goal and is at times not achievable at all, stating: “I’m not sure that overcoming disability itself is an actual possibility for most of us. Yet in a world that places extraordinary value in cure, the belief that we can defeat or transcend body-mind conditions through individual hard work is convenient” (Clare, Overcoming Disability). Using phrases like ‘overcoming’ or ‘curing’ trauma results in damaging and ableist conceptions of the recovery process. Clare offers an alternative way to consider recovery and disability by referencing a conversation with his friend battling cancer. “I’m not at war with my body,” his friend explains, “But at the same time, I won’t passively let my cancerous cells have their way with me.” Clare highlights that at this moment, conversations revolve around “healing and recovery, surviving and dying. No one invoked hope or overcoming” (Clare, Rebelling Against Cure). Moving away from a cure-based mindset means focusing on learning to live with something instead of trying to fix it. Shifting to this way of thinking strips experiences of the dangerous binaries that exist between the able and disabled. Individuals with trauma do not seek to cure themselves of lived experience but to learn, survive, and grow from it. The acknowledgment of active and continued recovery guides What Would Joan Do?’s attitude toward trauma as a concept and experience.

Works Cited

Boyd, Patricia Webb. “Communication as Social Action: Critical Expressivist Pedagogies in the

Writing Classroom.” Critical Expressivism: Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom, 2014, pp. 107–121., https://doi.org/10.37514/per-b.2014.0575.2.07. 

Carello, Janice, and Lisa D. Butler. “Potentially Perilous Pedagogies: Teaching Trauma Is Not

the Same as Trauma-Informed Teaching.” Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 153–168., https://doi.org/10.1080/15299732.2014.867571. 

Clare, Eli. Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. Kindle. Duke University Press Books.


Ede, Lisa. “Writing as a Social Process: A Theoretical Foundation for Writing Centers?” The Writing

Center Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1989, pp. 3–13. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43444122.

Harris, Joseph. “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing.” College Composition and

Communication, vol. 40, no. 1, 1989, pp. 11–22. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/358177. 

Morrow, Nancy. “The Role of Reading in the Composition Classroom.” JAC, vol. 17, no. 3, 1997, pp.

453–72. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20866153.

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