Toward a Reparative Pedagogy: Art as Trigger, Art as Repair

Editors’ Note 

This conversation continues the series titled “Hard Lessons: Trauma, Teaching, Art History.” Crafted in a moment of extraordinary collective trauma, “Hard Lessons” brings together contributions from art historians, practicing artists, and museum educators to explore the multivalent ways arts educators make space for learning through varied—and often intersecting—experiences of personal and collective traumas. We hope that the space “Hard Lessons” carves out for critical reflection, coupled with the tools and actionable advice offered by our contributors, will provide support for educators not just during this period of collective trauma, but beyond. Indeed, we aim to foster an extended conversation, one that continues to build trauma-informed pedagogies explicitly tied to the teaching of visual materials as we return to in-person teaching and reopen museum doors.

—Jenevieve DeLosSantos and Kathleen Pierce, Series Guest Editors

To read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and even necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones.

—Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

I am an artist often in the position of having my work trigger warned.[1] I am also an educator often in the position of having to decide whether I should trigger warn the artwork of others situated in the same aesthetic and political lineage as me, one centered on performance-based practices that rely on resonant objects and embodied acts. On one hand, these practices make work from lived trauma, often representing, referencing, or otherwise reproducing that trauma; on the other, they do so with a vested interest in seeking justice, building collectivity, or finding repair. Trigger warnings present a conundrum for artists and scholars like me. I believe in my audience’s and students’ real relationships to the traumas that the work frames. I believe in consensual viewing and learning as a core principle of this work. Yet I am concerned about the way trigger warnings presuppose and structure the relationship someone will have to a piece, and perhaps more importantly, I am wary what they implicitly communicate to us about the limits of art and academia as transformative spaces. As someone whose first relationship to this discourse is that of being the trigger, I wonder: Why do we presume that the repair we find in an artwork will devolve into injury when we attempt to teach it?

In a moment where many of us are grappling with how to address the unprecedented and ongoing trauma of a global pandemic and nationwide racial reckoning, it is useful to critically reexamine the institutional policies already in place that attempt to adjudicate trauma. As one of those policies, trigger warnings implicitly frame pedagogical space as one where we have the potential to engage our students not only intellectually but also emotionally. Yet such warnings follow a paranoid logic: one where the capacity to be moved disappears into the capacity to be harmed. This is especially true when it comes to showing students work or empowering them to make work that addresses the lived experience of structural harms such as racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and xenophobia. In order to better understand existing institutional responses to the specter of trauma, we might turn to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick influential formulations of the paranoid and the reparative in her essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” which give us a vocabulary with which to ask: What can the successes and failures of the trigger warning tell us about the possibilities and limitations of pedagogy as a mode of repair?

I am not the first to argue that teaching can be a realm where we do something more than disseminate information. Louis Althusser understood education as the primary ideological state apparatus, that is, where we learn to become political subjects, or in his parlance, where the subject as ideology is reproduced and maintained.[2] From his critique, we know that the space of education is never neutral, never safe, but rather a structure that shapes us into ideological beings we call “subjects”—subjects who can no less strip ourselves of our ideological formation than we can our own skin. Nonetheless, others have found a liberatory potential in education. Paolo Freire posited education as an instrument for liberation insofar as learning is a mutual, world-mediated process between teacher and student, one that “makes both teachers and students” and moves us towards becoming more fully human together.[3] Similarly, bell hooks proposed that “to educate as a practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn,”[4] advocating for an “engaged pedagogy” wherein “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own wellbeing if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.”[5] Both Freire and hooks recognize a formative power and active force in the practice of teaching—one that not only forms community, but actualizes the self. Across these different understandings, we see that education is an action that exceeds its content: it is a practice that has the power to both subjugate and liberate, to harm and heal. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney propose we navigate this ambivalence with cunning. They argue that the only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one: “To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of—this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.”[6]

Yet for me, Sedgwick’s concept of the reparative in particular offers a provocative blueprint for not only a reading but also a teaching practice that navigates the increasingly paranoid logic we encounter both inside and outside the university, be it around fake news[7] or institutional liability. To return us to the epigraph: Sedgwick argues that to take a reparative position is to “surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new.”[8] What is captivating about the reparative, as Sedgwick employs it here, is the suggestion that teaching can do something other than confirm what we already know: it can be a practice that, like artwork itself, leaves us open to surprise. In my own work in the classroom, I have been exploring what such a “reparative pedagogy” might look like.[9] It is not one rooted in protection, but rather in the transformative potential of the difficult, didactic, identity-laden, and politically engaged artwork I believe in. If we believe in what can happen when we make or see this work, then we must also believe in what can happen when we teach this work—that is, when we make it available to students as something to think with and actively use. A reparative pedagogy in many ways inverts the logic of the trigger warning. It does not posit the potential of an artwork to unexpectedly impact or move a person as always-already harmful. Instead it takes as its premise, to invoke Sedgwick’s words, that in addition to terrible surprises, there can also be good ones. Reparative pedagogy is therefore one that allows students and teachers to creatively and provisionally assemble the resources they find in the course materials, in themselves, and in each other. It is one where neither teacher nor student presumes to know the outcome beforehand.

1. To Trigger

For over a decade, I have thought a lot about what it means “to trigger,” largely because I have been told by various arts and educational institutions in both implicit and explicit ways that my work—which uses real experiences from my life and my body as material—is too dangerous for unmediated consumption. This ultimately suggests that I am myself dangerous when unmediated—a sentiment that echoes the long-held stigmatization of queer and femme subjects. That said, I believe in the premise of trigger warnings; they were not conceived to censor or punish, they have nothing to do with being “correct,” politically or otherwise.[10] One does not choose to feel triggered. The language of triggers emerged from clinical psychiatric research on war-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more recently, trigger warnings became part of online feminist cultures as important acts of maintaining community and performing care. They were akin to other kinds of content warnings (“18+,” “NSFW,” and so forth) and emerged in response to the unique layout of journaling platforms such as LiveJournal and Tumblr, with the intent to enable rather than foreclose difficult conversations.[11]

Certainly in an individual classroom, trigger warnings can still have such functions, and as something communicated relationally in the context of learning, a trigger warning allows a student to opt in rather than to opt out. As university policy, however, the trigger warning takes on a different role. As we have seen in the case of workplace sexual harassment trainings and university Title IX policy, practices that originated in feminist activism are often appropriated by institutions to position and protect themselves as violable bodies rather than protecting vulnerable members of the community. In the logic of the trigger warning, someone speaking about or otherwise representing her experience of sexual assault is just as potentially injurious as someone sexually assaulting. For a number of years now, trigger warnings have become mobilized within the university context as part of an overall program of protecting the institution itself from liability; as such, have been a subject of queer, feminist, and anti-racist critique.[12] As university policy, trigger warnings can censor or otherwise estrange work by artists who deal with violence, trauma, and the body as part of an activist practice, while naturalizing and re-centering historically white masculine “apolitical” practices as valuable objects of study. Queer, “crip,” feminist, BIPOC, and otherwise “identity”-laden artists find that we ourselves are trigger-warned when we make work about our own experience. Too often, the tools of power find their usual targets.

Reading Sedgwick’s essay, we might recognize that the current discourse on trauma and trigger warnings follows what she describes as psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s logic of the “paranoid position”[13]: a splitting of good and bad objects, good and bad pedagogies, good and bad art. Notably, these discussions of triggering in the classroom emerged at an increasingly paranoic time in American politics, coinciding with broader crises of faith in public discourse perpetuated through online echo chambers—one that the pandemic has only compounded. In her essay, Sedgwick takes up Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic terms as a lens for critiquing contemporary queer theory, arguing that although paranoia can be useful for “discovering” the “secret” harms we always knew to be present (the misogyny, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, etc. which structure the world we live in), we can forget that paranoia is not the only option for critical thought. Paranoia arises out of a perceived need for self-defense; however, it exists always in relation to another, reparative position: one “from which it is possible in turn to use one’s own resources to assemble or ‘repair’ the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though … not necessarily like any preexisting whole.”[14]

As institutional paranoia, the trigger warning is defensive and anticipatory: it is meant to protect us from bad surprises.[15] At the same time, it collapses any kind of temporal unfolding of experience, leaving us always-already alive to an assumed totality of content’s impact. Such paranoia has its uses: many things truly are sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, homophobic, and ableist, born of the violence and enduring material legacies of capitalist expropriation, colonization, enslavement, gendered disciplining of the family as a reproductive unit, and race-based conceptions of property. Yet we need not entirely dismiss the knowledge that paranoia time and time again “exposes” in order to constructively assert that teaching can be more than merely affirming the presence of those violences that we already know. Particularly for those of us who teach from the lived experience of navigating such violences, it becomes necessary for us to also imagine that teaching can be a mode of repair, one that allows us to slip the singularity of our subject positions to attend to experiences held in common.

Trigger warnings can thus be useful provocations—especially for those of us who are regularly told that we are a trigger—precisely because they point to the capacity of both art and pedagogy to impact us. Unlike law, or medicine, or other frameworks for repair, art and pedagogy do not require that we testify strictly to our own experience or that we understand violence and injury as necessarily parceled out among discreet, autonomous, treatable, and compensable bodies. Art and pedagogy are spaces in which we can imagine and attend to the interiority of another, and posit violence as collectively experienced in ways that exceed concrete measurement. Through arts pedagogy in particular we train students in the transformative potential of this kind of imaginative work that primes us not only for empathy or solidarity, but also for understanding the porousness of the self. Our classrooms are the places where we can provisionally enact what law and medicine must repress, but activists already know: that we come into being through our relation to others. To the reparatively positioned teacher, education is a process of not only imparting to students a set of technical skills, but also instilling in them the idea that they are part of something larger—a discourse, an artistic lineage, a community of thought. Teaching is a way of telling them that they, and we, are not alone.

2. To Repair           

As someone who has tried to think critically and accountably about what it means to trigger, I have necessarily thought a lot about what it means to repair. Pedagogical spaces are not, as I have noted, medical spaces or legal spaces. We must understand that the kinds of repair they offer are distinct from medical healing or juristic recompense, and that distinction is the foundation of their great possibility. To say that pedagogy can “repair” us is to insist that we can do more with each other than the paranoid work of cataloging the harms that could befall us either inside or outside of the classroom—as important as that task can be. It is to insist that we can use the resources of our field to creatively assemble the disparate pieces of knowledge that our criticality has parsed into something like a whole, though to invoke Sedgwick’s words again—“one not necessarily like any preexisting whole.”

The reparative mode of teaching runs in many ways counter to what commonly feels like meaningful knowledge production. When I teach Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading” text, I often illustrate this point by asking my students to think about how embedded the language of “critique” and “criticality” is in arts education. What would we do together, sitting in a room, if not critique the work presented to us? What other word besides “crit” might we use for such a group activity? An “appreciation”? Why is it that terms not rooted in criticality sound so jarring, unrigorous, or even silly? In the context of arts pedagogy, being reparative perhaps translates to using the creative strategies of the artists we study—or the artists we are—to process, negotiate, and make something out of the experiences, violence, and traumas we have helped our students to name. This approach accomplishes two things. First, it demonstrates a good-faith belief in the knowledge we produce, one that takes seriously the idea that there is something unique, even remarkable about art that is more than merely an illustration of concepts produced elsewhere in the humanities and the sciences. Second, this belief demonstrates a meaningful engagement with the techniques of such knowledge production, allowing for an activation of the visual, spatial, and performative dynamics and vocabularies that are our objects of study.

Sedgwick tells us that “paranoia is nothing if not teachable.”[16] The reparative, on the other hand, resists teachability in that it must be provisionally and locally enacted in order to be apprehended. For this reason, I cannot be more prescriptive about what reparative pedagogy might entail than to offer an example of an in-class exercise that has been successful for me: one that uses performance to explore the relationship between consent, dissent, and repair. This exercise employs a strategy derived from my own investigations as an artist which my students and I found useful. Certainly, there are others. I share this experience with the hope that it can be helpful to those of us exploring the reparative possibilities of pedagogical work.

Despite the issues I have identified in their institutional application, trigger warnings are useful for the way they open a space for consent in the classroom. They mark the way the conditions of viewing within a classroom are not the same as within a gallery: a student is often part of a captive audience. Trigger warnings also highlight, depending on your reading of them, a capacity for dissent. Yet what trigger warnings fail to identify, and perhaps even occlude, are the many different instances of choicelessness students encounter as part of their education. That is to say, we ask students to choose—but always in conditions not of their choosing.

My classroom exercise takes its impetus from a video artwork I made in 2018 entitled Disconsent: Pedagogy. The artwork was produced outside the context of teaching, though it took the power dynamics between teachers, students, and the institutions in which they meet as its subject, and it looked at pedagogical space as one in which various practices of consent and dissent unfold. I hired four former students from four different programs in which I had taught to perform in the work by following a score. The score instructed them to relate narratives to the camera describing times they either consented or dissented within the context of school. It explained that they should not relate anything that they would be uncomfortable sharing, and that it was up to them how detailed, or even how factual they wanted to be. Then, I asked them to retell the narrative of another participant, “flipping” the terms of consent and dissent. This flipping could range from replacing the terms used in the original narrative (for example, replacing “yes” with “no”) to inventing entirely new details. When exhibited, the video is played on a continuous loop without identifying which of the narratives is “original” or to whom it originally belonged:

Aliza Shvarts, Disconsent: Pedagogy (2018), digital video, 11:17min, Participants: Kevin Quiles Bonilla, Juliana Broad, Jeion Green, Aaron Madison

To be clear, the resulting video was not yet a teaching exercise. It is a work I made as an artist, which explores consent—usually a speech act—and its imperfect opposite, dissent, which often exceeds speech to be performed by the body.[17] I did not apply to the artwork the kinds of parameters I might in a class assignment: for instance, there were no criteria for evaluation, and the students were paid for their labor as performers following “Working Artists in the Greater Economy” (W.A.G.E.) guidelines. At the same time, however, we collaboratively discussed what might feel like the most comfortable filming conditions and how the performers wanted to be identified in relation to the work (they settled on the term “participants”).

Yet despite its original framing, Disconsent: Pedagogy (2018) is not something that remains squarely in the realm of my professional art practice. During the course of making it, I realized that as much as the power dynamics within educational institutions were the collective subject of this work, so too was my own relationship to teaching. I couldn’t being so proud of my former students for the way they performed the score. They didn’t know each other beforehand, but performed and reperformed one another’s narratives with such intelligence and care. Their performances were utterly novel; their tellings and retellings surpassed any expectation I had of what the work could be. Yet in the details they included and in the way they chose to navigate the score, I could hear echoes of my lectures, assignments, and our class discussions. This raised a profound question for me about where our labor, knowledge, and creative work begins and ends. As an artist, one is taught that the boundaries of one’s authorship are well defined—that in the absence of a named collaboration, you are the originator of the work. Yet in teaching, how knowledge is produced and by whom becomes blurrier. It is not uncommon—indeed it might be a sign of your success—to hear your words on someone else’s lips, words that were probably never yours in the first place.

Encouraged by this experience, I decided to develop an in-class exercise from this piece, which I had the opportunity to implement in a class titled “Performing Beyond the Body,” which I taught remotely via Zoom for the Danish Royal Academy of Art in spring of 2021. The exercise followed the same score as Disconsent: Pedagogy and consisted of three parts. In between each part, the students read aloud their texts so that we could hear the evolving permutations of their various narratives:

Part 1: Pick three different contexts in which you have either consented or dissented, excluding the context of sex. These contexts could be school, medicine, friendship, family, labor, and so forth, or another of your own choosing. Write a short narrative for each that describes the act of consenting or dissenting.

Part 2: The professor will instruct each student to send their three narratives to another student. Rewrite the three narratives you have received, “flipping” the terms of consent and dissent. This rewriting can range from simply changing a ”yes” to a “no,” or inventing entirely new details for the narrative.

Part 3: The professor will instruct each student to send their three rewritten narratives to another student. Rewrite the three rewritten narratives you have received, “flipping” the terms of consent and dissent. This re-rewriting can range from simply changing a ”yes” to a “no,” or inventing entirely new details for the narrative.

This transformation of an artwork about pedagogy back into an expanded educational exercise felt successful. The students provided overwhelmingly positive feedback, and from what I could gather from their comments, part of our success had to do with the way the successive rewritings and re-rewritings of the score became vehicles for not only enactment but transformation. What we took from the Disconsent: Pedagogy video and mobilized in this performance exercise was a simple hypothesis: that there is something useful in unburdening the individual as the sole person to have experienced powerlessness or harm, particularly the coded and often deeply anecdotal harms typical of the classroom. By passing one’s self-authored narrative on to another person to rewrite and re-perform, we open ourselves up to the capacity to be something other than who we always are in the classroom, in the world, and in relation to each other. These narratives remain our own yet become not our own, and this is perhaps where the reparative is ultimately manifested. For the paranoid and reparative positions are mutable positions we take up actively, rather than static or essential identities we embody, positions that “on a smaller scale than the level of individual typology . . . operate also on a larger: that of shared histories, emergent communities, and the weaving of intertextual discourse.”[18] What the exercise perhaps opened up was the possibility for the individual author to shift from the state of high-alert that is the paranoid position—that “always-already” readiness to identify the dangers that await us both inside and outside the classroom—to temporarily occupy a reparative position, making meaning from the fragments of the good and bad things we have recognized as having happened to not only ourselves, but to each other.

The in-class exercise lasted for about two hours. There was something incredibly moving about hearing a story of power or powerlessness described by one student and re-imagined otherwise by the next. These re-imaginings and re-re-imaginings brought to mind something else Sedgwick writes of the reparative: “Because the [reparatively positioned] reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”[19] Imagine. That the everyday misogynies, homophobias, racisms, and microaggressions that were the main substance of my students’ narratives need not have happened, that things could have been otherwise—this is indeed a profoundly painful, profoundly hopeful truth performatively staged in this classroom exercise. Perhaps a reparative pedagogy, finally, at its core, is one that allows us to move forward from the enormity of the violence that we train ourselves and our students to identify—for example, the violence of heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and colonization, to which no trigger warning can ever fully attend—in order to recognize, if only provisionally, that something else has always been possible. Indeed something else still is.

Aliza Shvarts is an artist and theorist who takes a queer and feminist approach to reproductive labor and language. Her current work focuses on testimony and the circulation of speech in the digital age. Shvarts received her PhD in Performance Studies from New York University and has taught at Parsons School of Design, the New School; Pratt Institute; Barnard College; New York University; and the Royal Danish Academy of Art. She currently serves as Director of Artist Initiatives at Creative Capital.

Epigraph: From Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 146.

[1] My artwork first came to widespread attention in 2008 when my undergraduate work Untitled [Senior Thesis], which consisted of a yearlong performance of self-induced miscarriages, was declared a fiction by Yale University and banned from public exhibition resulting in widespread media coverage and subsequent debate. This unfinished work marks areas of inquiry I have since continued to explore in my work, writing, and teaching: how the body means and matters and how the subject consents and dissents. Recent projects have included a comparative analysis of how sexual assault evidence collection kits or “rape kits” function as objects of testimony, speaking for or over-speaking the body they purport to represent. For more information, see

[2] See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Towards an Investigation),” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 85–126.

[3] See Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergam Ramos (New York: Continuum Press, 2005), 72.

[4] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 13.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 26.

[7] For a more extensive analysis of fake news and its political resonances, see Aliza Shvarts, “How does it feel to be a fiction?” in Recess Art (April 13, 2017),

[8] Sedgwick, Touching, Feeling, 146.

[9] I am not the first to use this term or to be thinking about how Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading might be applied to teaching practices. Natalie Prizel explores how we might encourage our students to think reparatively in the era of fake news and heightened paranoia marked by the election of Donald Trump. Prizel asks, “What if we allowed our students to think reparatively as much as we demanded that they think critically,” noting via Sedgwick that one of Klein’s terms for the reparative process is “love.”  Prizel, “Love Trumps Paranoia, or Towards a Reparative Pedagogy,” Victorian Studies for the 21st Century 21 (June 5, 2018),

[10] The term “political correctness” has always struck me as a misnomer. No one invested in feminism, antiracism, queer politics, or any other kind of critical discourse or antioppression movement acts out of a desire to be “correct.” This important work is not accomplished through the tiresome labor of merely “correcting” others. What the framework of correcting or policing occludes are the more complicated analyses of how racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, and other violences are encoded in language; in addition, that framework obscures from consideration the evolving question of what nonviolent speech might be.

[11] For a detailed history of trigger warnings, please see Trigger Warnings: History, Theory, Context, ed. Emily J. M. Knox (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

[12] For a concise discussion of how trigger warnings can be mobilized to protect institutions rather than vulnerable students or faculty—particularly faculty of color and queer faculty; faculty in gender/sexuality studies, critical race theory, and the performing arts; and untenured or non-tenure-track (adjunct) faculty—see the collective statement by Elizabeth Freeman, Brian Herrera, Nat Hurley, Homay King, Dana Luciano, Dana Seitler, and Patricia White, “Trigger Warnings Are Flawed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 29, 2014, More recently, Christina Handhardt and Jasbir K. Puar pose this stark question, which further highlights the disparity between student safety and institutional wellbeing:

If we literalize the trigger as that which sets off a firearm, what are the links or gaps between student activism for trigger warnings in the classroom and against guns on campus (either concealed, as in Texas or Kansas, or held by campus police, such as at the University of Chicago or Howard University, both in once working-class Black neighborhoods) or campaigns against wealthy philanthropists like Warren Kanders (at Brown University) whose profits come from the production of weapons used in such places as Ferguson, Missouri, and Palestine?

See Handhardt and Puar, “Beyond Trigger Warnings: Safety, Securitization, and Queer Left Critique,” Social Text 145 38:4 (December 2020), 50.

[13] For more on Melanie Klein’s theorization, please see Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude (London: Tavistock, 1957).

[14] Sedgwick, Touching, Feeling, 128 (emphasis in original).

[15] Yet it doesn’t necessarily accomplish even that. In clinical psychology, there is evidence that anticipatory function of a trigger warning can be counterproductive, worsening traumatic memories. See Payton J. Jones, Benjamin W. Bellet, and Richard J. McNally, “Helping or Harming? The Effect of Trigger Warnings on Individuals With Trauma Histories,” Clinical Psychology Science 8, 5 (June 1, 2020):

[17] Disconsent: Pedagogy has subsequently become part of a video trilogy titled Disconsent: Pedagogy Labor, Care (2018-2019). Disconsent: Labor (2019) asks four people with whom I have worked to share a time they have consented or dissented in the context of labor; Disconsent: Care (2019), asks four curators who have exhibited my work to share a time that they have consented or dissented in the context of care. For the full trilogy, see:

[18] Sedgwick, 150.

[19] Ibid., 146.