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Decolonising the curriculum, News

Trauma-informed supervision

When it comes to supervision, there is acknowledgement of inclusive practice but this doesn’t extend to reflect the lived experiences of students who have endured trauma. A recent paper by Katrina McChesney seeks to redress this issue, presenting principles that can be used in a variety of contexts.

In a rationale for trauma-informed postgraduate supervision, McChesney explicitly states that this is not about staff adding another role to their job as counsellor or psychologist. Instead, it is about care and social justice in action. She clarifies an inclusive definition of trauma that is a “real, complex, and widespread phenomenon” and “recognis[es] that either traumatic experiences and/or trauma responses may shape how a doctoral student experiences their institution, supervision, and research journey”. To aid identification of trauma, she includes a table of common trauma responses that include emotional (e.g. anger, fear, mood swings), physical (e.g. tension, elevated cortisol levels), cognitive (e.g. unfounded guilt, disassociation), behavioural (e.g. learned helplessness, compulsiveness) and existential (e.g. despair, intensified spirituality). A rigorous discussion of various views and definitions of trauma are provided at depth.

The paper reflects on norms and expectations in higher education. Traditional doctoral candidates are presumed, for example, to study full-time without duties of care elsewhere. Modern conceptions of doctoral experiences understand these researchers as complex individuals with unique experiences and (intersectional) identities, and with wellbeing rights and needs. For many doctoral candidates, the very process of and progress through their studies is traumatic – “a violent rite de passage”, “forged in fire”. This is an uncomfortable truth in higher education, reinforced by local cultural norms or individual personalities. Many supervisors, as McChesney notes, push back against such toxic norms to create an emotionally positive space for their doctoral candidates.

Importantly too, McChesney highlights that some topics being studies may lead to traumatic encounters. Difficult subjects or research areas that affect the researcher because of their personal experience can cause or exacerbate trauma. In such circumstances, the trauma-mitigating role of the supervisor becomes more obvious. Common examples include trauma through living through war, experiencing discrimination, any type of violence, and being a refugee.

With reference to guidance from the USA (SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach), McChesney, proposes a series of “conceptual” moves that can be adopted by supervisors and institutions alike:

  1. First, understanding the nature and impacts of trauma on those who experience it.
  2. Second, recognising that since trauma is a natural and widespread experience, it is likely to have affected (or affect during their candidature) a proportion of doctoral students.
  3. Third, acknowledging that the systems, practices, and ways of relating found at higher education institutions (and among staff at such institutions) can have differential effects on students who have experienced trauma.
  4. Finally, recognising that in order to be inclusive and non-discriminatory of trauma as a natural part of the diversity within our doctoral cohorts, it is necessary to review and, where necessary, adapt our systems, practices, and ways of relating to minimise harm and promote equitable opportunities for all students to flourish and to complete high quality research.

These function as a mindset to help embrace trauma-informed practice. It is also easy to see how this would translate into how we think about any level of study, including undergraduates.

At Bristol, there is growing awareness of social justice issues and the legacy of historic trauma affecting minority communities. We are also a global institution with staff and students from across the world and across social demographics. As McChesney highlights, it is important to consider culturally responsive supervision that can be very similar to trauma-informed supervision. It is all about considering the perspective of the individual, their lived experience and their response to their experiences. It is also a useful situation to consider decolonising our pedagogic practice and how we can refrain from othering doctoral candidates whose perspectives may enrich research rather than conform to traditional norms.

McChesney makes clear that people should not be defined by their trauma, but at the same time that trauma cannot be ignored. Likewise, it is not the place of supervisors to determine the reality or impact of anyone’s trauma. There is scope here to innovate our practice in respect to these potential pitfalls, as well as challenge any remaining toxic norms in our disciplines that create trauma through the doctoral process.

The provocations in the paper match the ambitions and ethos of our shared Education Strategy and our Curriculum Framework, and offer new ideas on how to better understand our students, ourselves and our roles as supervisors for the next generation of researchers.  

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