by Aisling Walsh
For the Spanish language version of this text, please go to page 2 (navigation below “Related” articles)
Late one afternoon in the final semester of my undergraduate degree in Sociology & Politics, I was sitting in an almost full lecture hall, transfixed by lecturer’s explanation of Susan Moller Okin’s thesis from ‘Justice, Gender and the Family’. Instead of my head bobbing with late afternoon, late semester malaise, I was scribbling each point on how heterosexual marriage disadvantages women into my notes. I became increasingly agitated as the lecturer explained how marriage break down puts mothers and children in a position of tremendous social and economic precarity. I left the class with a headache, tossed and turned in bed all night and then exploded at my college counsellor the following day during our weekly session. Though I did not have the words to explain, or perhaps even understand, what had happened, I had been triggered by the topic of the class.
This was the first, but certainly not the last, time when studying gender and feminist theory touched the nerve endings of personal trauma. It was not until I had experienced an alternative learning space, at the Centre for Training, Healing and Transpersonal Research – Q’anil, in Guatemala, that I could reframe my meltdown as an understandable reaction to a political subject that was charged with deeply personal experiences. At Q’anil personal experience is considered as equally important as theory, informing our approach to the political and visa-vera. Inspired by this vision, I proposed a research collaboration with Q’anil to explore the possibilities offered by their methodology for healing and social transformation in conflict affected contexts. The PhD began in 2019 and I have since observed two diplomas between 2020 and 2021, Racialised and Sexualised Bodies (participant observation) and Bodies, Eroticisms and Sexuality (observation only). I have also interviewed 25 people involved with the organisation including participants from the diplomas, staff, facilitators and volunteers during which we conversed about our evolving relationships with the organisation and the impact Q’anil’s learning and healing processes have had on us.
My research has helped me reframe those early academic experiences and reflect on how I approach sensitive and potentially triggering topics in my own undergraduate and masters’ classes on gender, feminism and reproductive rights. In learning that anger and retraumatisation do not have to be our only responses to classroom triggers, I have begun to question what we can do to support our students in processing the personal experiences that ground so much of gender and feminist theory even in the traditional university classroom. This article1, which is also available in Spanish, is both an exercise in autoethnography, reflecting on how my own educational experiences have influenced the trajectory of my research interests, and draws on some of the reflections from participants interviewed as part of my PhD who have consented to sharing their thoughts and feelings on their experience with Q’anil. These interviews have been anonymised.
Histories that leave us fragile
According to Sara Ahmed ‘the histories which bring us to feminism are the histories which leave us fragile.’ And in becoming feminists, ‘we begin to identify what happens to me, happens to others. (…) we have to attend to the feelings that we might wish would go away.’ In a research project which explores the colonial continuum of racial and sexual violence in Guatemala, my parents’ separation and eventual divorce feels trivial in comparison. Yet, I mention it here because it is the most concrete incident I can recall where my personal trauma was triggered in a traditional classroom setting. I had never analysed my family dynamics through a feminist lens and it was shocking to see the trajectory of my parents’ separation outlined step by step in class as the rule, rather than the exception.
Fast forward to 2016 when I signed up to Q’anil’s diploma in ‘Bodies, Eroticism and Sexuality.’ I had been working in Guatemala with a human rights NGO for two years. Of the eight students who enrolled that year half of us were foreign NGO staffers and the other half were Guatemalan Ladina or mestiza2 women, both cis and trans, across a spectrum of social and feminist activists. While Q’anil keeps its doors open to all curious minds, the subject matter seems to draw overwhelming participation from cis and trans women and non-binary folks most of whom share a Ladinx/mestizx identity or are from outside Guatemala (Latin America and Europe). The vast majority of participants are involved in some kind of social justice, human rights, feminist movements, academia or accompanying survivors of sexual violence. Since the pivot to online delivery as a result of the pandemic, their training and therapeutic processes attract participants from across Latin America and Europe usually from people with some connection to Guatemala or who have heard of Q’anil through feminist networks.
As we made our way through diverse and decolonial feminist histories, our group shared many more darse cuenta (realisation) moments forging close friendships, many of which have lasted to the present. The theory threw our personal experiences into sharp relief, helping us understand the structural factors influencing our gendered experience of the world. In this space, darse cuenta felt more like lightbulbs than triggers because they happened within an environment where discussion of personal histories and an embrace of vulnerability was encouraged and supported as part of the methodology. Hardly a class went by where one of us was not moved to tears but we had the time, space and accompaniment in which to process the rage, sadness, despair or hope and joy which often bubbled to the surface. Learning collectively and the opportunity to see yourself reflected in other peoples’ stories bridged many of seemingly abyssal gaps in gendered, racialised or class experience. There was a validation in this approach but also a depth of engagement with the theory I had never experienced before.
Fragile histories as a catalyst for change
In Q’anil’s vision, ‘fragile histories’ do not have to keep us bound to our trauma, they can be a catalyst towards action and positive social change. Finding new meaning from these experiences and contributing to ‘personal, relational and social change from an awareness [darse cuenta] of the cultural patterns which have harmed us, yet which we continue to reproduce, deconstructing internalised oppressions and privileges’ is at the heart of Q’anil’s mission (Interview Yolanda Aguilar, December 2021). Aguilar, Q’anil’s founder and director, has said to me many times that the organisation arose from the urgency of the Guatemalan context and the need to heal wounds left by decades of an internal armed conflict (1960-1996) and centuries of gendered and racialised colonial violence. Q’anil offers one possible approach to healing in a context where state-centred solutions to justice and reparations have rarely met the expectations of survivors or have failed in the face of an intractable justice system and the politics of denial.
The transitional justice process which promised so much to survivors and victims of the war, and in some cases did indeed deliver, has faced increasing political and judicial interference and roadblocks in the pursuit of high-level prosecutions for acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. The peace institutions were closed in 2020 and there have been repeated attempts to pass an amnesty law which would effectively nullify existing rulings and prevent further prosecutions. Many officers, prosecutors, and even judges have been forced into exile due to threats against their life and liberty. In such a climate, healing has become an act of resistance against violence and against forgetting led principally by feminist and community organisations.
Q’anil’s curricula focus on feminist and decolonial theory, particularly from Latinx scholars and activities, blended with sessions focused on experiential learning, principally somatic practice and group therapy sessions. Classes often begin and end with a short meditation inviting the students to connect with their bodies, their sensations and emotions. Each facilitator is invited to begin from their own embodied experience and positionality, to which the theory often plays a secondary or a supportive role. Participants are repeatedly invited to check in with themselves and share how they are feeling and are given spaces to discuss among themselves what issues have arisen from the theory, privileging their emotional response rather than abstract theoretical debates. At the end of each diploma, participants write an autoethnography, reflecting on how the theory covered throughout the course has impacted their personal lives and political action.
In our conversations about the impact of these processes one interview participant remarked on the personal impact of the theory when reading Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: “I couldn’t read more than three pages of that book without closing it and taking a breath (…) This is part of my history as a woman, all that happened. I think it’s great to realise you are part of history but there is also a huge emotional baggage that comes with that.’ (Participant interview, October 2021). Another participant mentioned how Q’anil creates ‘a safe space, because the content is also really impactful, no? (…) And the exercises that connect you not just with your consciousness but your body as well.’ (Participant interview, September 2021).
Photo credit: Centro de Formación-Sanación e Investigación Transpersonal – Q’anil
Q’anil has the luxury of offering courses to small groups of between 10 and 20 students which last anywhere between seven to 16 months. In such conditions, trust can be built over time and students are accompanied by the facilitators and peers. As an organisation which specialises in the accompaniment of survivors of sexual violence, they have the experience and capacity to accompany participants through potentially upsetting or triggering topics or conversations. Despite the specificities of Q’anil’s mission and the cultural and historical context of Guatemala, there are lessons to be learned from their pedagogical approach in other educational contexts.
Towards an embodied pedagogy: Testing the limits of the Neoliberal Classroom
Academia has traditionally taught and theorised about the body and the violence enacted upon it, but rarely thought from the body. Academia encourages us to teach, speak and theorise about ‘others’ or ‘they’ and not ‘we’, ‘us’ or ‘I’. We are told that distance between ourselves and our theories or ethnographies is correct, and we must teach our students to do the same in the name of ‘good’ science. We are instructed to mask our own vulnerabilities and expect them to do the same.
Feminist and decolonial scholars have, however, been increasingly challenging erroneous assumptions of neutrality and objectivity across the sciences.3 Reflexivity – deep and ongoing reflection on our evolving relationship to our world and our research – and positionality – recognition of the identities, experience and prejudices which shape and inform our interpretation of the world and our research – are now integral aspects of feminist and decolonial research ethics and praxis. Yet it can be difficult to see how we can bring our reflexive selves into the classroom or whether we can or should be open about our positionalities with our students, particularly if we inhabit marginal identities.
Moreover, it is clear that trauma will be present in our classroom whether we acknowledge it or not. We know at least one in three women will experience intimate partner violence over the course of their lifetime. At least a third of women and non-binary students on Irish campuses have experienced sexual assault. While in the UK the National Union of Students claims two thirds of students have experienced sexual violence or harassment. Similarly, we know that the greater the diversity among students, the more likely they are to have experienced multidimensional forms of violence which cut across race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, class and ability.
bell hooks argues for an engaged pedagogy which makes space for lived experience and focuses on teacher and student wellbeing where vulnerability is mutual and students only share as much as their teacher is willing in any class. This model of teaching, according to hooks, allows for self-actualisation of teachers as well as students, where teaching is both a site of resistance and a form of healing. Engaged pedagogy invites the teacher to bring their whole self – body, mind and spirit – as well as their passion – eros – into the learning experience, a vision which thoroughly disrupts the cartesian logic of the intellects’ superiority over the body. One of hooks’ strategies for practicing engaged pedagogy was facilitating informal spaces for exchange with and between students outside the classroom. She cautions however, that engaged pedagogy does not mean the class becomes a therapy session. And, unlike many of the staff and facilitators at Q’anil, few of us are therapists and likely do not have the capacity to address individual experiences of violence or trauma. Nevertheless, students’ lives and learning can still be enriched and enhanced by the knowledge shared.
Following hooks, Bimm and Feldman advocate for a trauma informed approach to teaching sensitive issues as an act of care towards students and ourselves, including but not limited to trigger warnings. Morris proposes we treat our students as active participants in their education, rather than passive learners. We could begin by recognising the legitimacy of our student’s feelings and emotions as a valid form of knowledge. Positionality, reflexivity and autoethnographic writing are skills which could be introduced from the very beginning of our university careers and not just as we are maturing into early career research, unlearning all the taken-for-granted assumptions about neutrality and objectivity and finding our own voices within our research.
At the centre of Q’anil’s approach to an embodied feminist pedagogy is the importance of ‘darse cuenta’ where participants are encouraged to recognise what is happening in our bodies, the emotions and sensations including tensions and blockages. For Aguilar this is essential to our ability to move beyond intellectual understanding towards an appropriation of our own experiences and transformative personal and collective change. This involves confronting pain and processing the grief that can come from experiences of gendered or racial oppression, but also making space for pleasure and recovering our eros.
hooks was writing about teaching for transformation almost thirty years ago and yet it feels as if the work of embodied and feminist pedagogies remains largely within the realm of experimentation by committed staff such as Morris, Bimm and Feldman or alternative learning spaces such as Q’anil. In fact, the neoliberal classroom, where courses are limited to a 12 week semester or in lectures delivered to 300+ plus students, makes this kind of transformational teaching even harder but, perhaps all the more necessary.
Is transformative teaching, however, too much to ask of university lecturers already overwhelmed by teaching, correcting, researching, funding and admin demands in increasingly precarious, underpaid and sometimes hostile working environment? In universities which are increasingly governed by the logic of metrics and marketing, the kind of pedagogy that places embodiment and emotions at the certain is likely to be seen as useless or perhaps even threatening to the established order. Perhaps it comes back to the fundamental question of what we are aspiring to in education? Has feminism simply become another field of theory from which to bank information and extract appropriate citations, from appropriate theorists in an end of semester essay or exam? Or can we return to the radical roots of feminist education as the practice of freedom something with the potential to transform ours and our students lives?
Aisling Walsh (She/Her) is currently working towards a PhD in sociology at the National University of Ireland Galway, where she is researching decolonial and feminist practices of healing justice in Guatemala, supported by the Andrew Grene Postgraduate Scholarship in Conflict Resolution, Irish Research Council. She is also a freelance writer and translator with stories, essays and features reports published in Electric Lit, Catapult, LitHub, Litro, Barren, Rejection Letters, Pank, Entropy Mag and Refinery29, among others. Her essay ‘The Center of the Universe’ was selected as runner up in the So To Speak CNF Prize for 2021, and her essay ‘Misplaced Loyalties’ was a finalist in the Phoebe Spring 2022 CNF Contest. She can be found tweeting about writing, PhD life and her cat Kiki at @AxliWrites
- Funding declaration: This work was supported by the Irish Research Council under the Andrew Grene Postgraduate Scholarship in Conflict Resolution [GOIPG/2019/4454].
- Unlike mestizo, used in many other Latin American contexts, and which implies the recognition of the mixing of multiple ethnic identities, Ladino is understood as a non-identity, based on the negation of any relationship to the indigenous other. Aguilar, Y. 2019. Femestizajes. Cuerpos y Sexualidades Racializados de Ladinas-mestizas. Guatemala: F&G Editores.
- See for example: Anzaldúa, G. (1999) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.; Harding, S. (2012). Feminist Standpoints; Smith, L.T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples.
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