Affecting Images: A Guided Self-Reflection Document for a Trauma-Informed Art History Classroom

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: 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 open museum doors.

—Jenevieve DeLosSantos and Kathleen Pierce, Series Guest Editors

Trauma-Informed Art History Now

We initiated “Hard Lessons: Trauma, Teaching, Art History” during the fall and winter of 2020. As students and educators confronted the collective, although unevenly distributed, traumas of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and longstanding racially motivated injustices, we aimed to call attention to trauma-informed pedagogy as a generative and care-centered practice that could build community and resilience in our classrooms. Discourse around trauma-informed pedagogy certainly preceded 2020. Yet it was clear that this mode of teaching could offer special tools and insights for instructors to call on as we supported students as learners and as whole people. Even as vaccines, booster shots, and treatments have become available–yet again, unevenly–viral mutations continue to cause illness and shape our social and pedagogical landscapes in unpredictable ways and, what’s more, many are now contending with long COVID, whose amorphous symptoms remain underrecognized. Even as activists have called attention to and demanded change around violence rooted in systemic racism, we continue to see attacks perpetrated against Black, Asian, LGBTQ+, Jewish, and Muslim people in the United States. All the while, shifting and inconsistent responses to these crises among our communities, educational institutions, and our local and federal political institutions continue to tax both our time and energy as we repeatedly calculate how to best navigate the world to protect and care for ourselves and our students. A trauma-informed approach remains crucial in this space of extended, collective trauma and the growing mental health crisis affecting students, faculty, and staff.1 Yet it is also worth remembering that trauma-informed pedagogy remains equally important as a tool to support student learning whether or not we find ourselves experiencing collective traumas, and even when our content seems unlikely to activate a trauma response. In this spirit, we wish to conclude the series with a tool visual arts educators might use as they seek to be mindful of trauma in the classroom and support student learning. While there are a variety of more general resources available to educators, there is little that explicitly addresses how trauma-informed pedagogy might be specifically adapted for those of us working with visual materials at the center of our teaching.2 We designed the self-reflection guide below (and downloadable here) to help educators introspect on how a trauma-informed lens might shape their thinking at the nexus of course learning goals, classroom environments, and the images they choose to bring into their classrooms.

As educators working with visual imagery, the importance of a trauma-informed framework is multivalent. As Mays Imad has told us, trauma has physiological effects on the mind and body. Images, as we explored together, are powerful signifiers and often deliberately constructed to elicit emotional responses. Trauma’s effects on the mind and body shape how we exist in all spaces, including the classroom, where working between visual and textual modalities, as art history study demands, further taxes cognitive processing for new learners.3 A trauma-informed approach also helps educators to make space for myriad, distinct perspectives, as museum educators Damon Reeves, Key Jo Lee, Dalila Scruggs, and Gabriela Martínez emphasized in our roundtable. “Holding space,” as Reeves terms it, for learners to bring their whole selves–inclusive of manifold identity-based differences–to the museum or the classroom not only validates diverse lived experiences, but also fosters community building and, potentially, healing through collective engagement with visual culture. Healing was also emphasized by Aliza Shvarts, who took up the mantle of a trauma-informed lens in her studio classroom. As Shvarts revealed, pedagogy in the arts, through an emphasis on consent, could be leveraged to offer crucial spaces for repair through performance and community building. Finally, Allison Kim reminded us of the ways violence can close the gap between past and present in her exploration of teaching early modern images of sexual assault. As Kim underscored, in artworks canonically positioned as beautiful, that beauty often works to dissimulate violence. For Kim, a trauma-aware framework can work to surface that violence and validate the connections students make to present-day perpetrations of sexual assault, especially those occurring on college campuses. In sum, through “Hard Lessons,” we sought to illuminate the multifarious ways a trauma-informed lens supports student learning by alleviating both cognitive and material stressors–stressors that can challenge a student’s sense of belonging and impede the careful, critical study of images we often aim to cultivate.

While most of the contributions to this series have explored the use of trauma-informed pedagogy to support student engagement with potentially activating subjects, we want to emphasize that applying a trauma-informed lens to our teaching supports student learning more broadly. It is relevant whether or not instructors would readily label their course content challenging, difficult, or fraught. People experience trauma in deeply personal and distinct ways. Similarly, the traumas people bring into the classroom are equally distinct and may include experiences that others may not immediately associate with trauma. Educational shaming, food insecurity, poverty, medical abuse, body shaming, family conflicts, emotional abuse, and manipulation, microaggressions, and experiencing ableist discrimination are just some of the many traumas that instructors might not immediately consider (as opposed to more widely discussed traumas, such as sexual assault), but that might very well impact the students in their classrooms, or even instructors themselves. Images, with their remarkable potential to affect us, always harbor the possibility, regardless of their form or content, to trigger students or instructors alike. Indeed, a student might not recognize their own trauma response to a seemingly neutral image until it is unfolding within the space of the classroom. Or, an image that you suspect might be challenging may not activate any students. The larger and most crucial point, here, is that trauma-informed pedagogy is a lens one applies to their teaching. It is a practice, and will develop over time. It is iterative and will look different for every instructor and at different moments of educators’ careers. It comprises a facet of one’s teaching, and often overlaps with other pedagogical philosophies, such as inclusive teaching and social and emotional learning.4 As a framework, trauma-informed pedagogy supports learning by making space for myriad, sometimes overlapping and seemingly contradictory, student experiences by emphasizing community, trust, safety, flexibility, diverse ways of thinking and being, and care. To truly develop a trauma-informed pedagogy, one might need to routinely revisit their approach to images, objects, topics, and discussion points and consider the ways in which they can best introduce them to students and acknowledge their own biases.

. . . Trauma-informed pedagogy also asks us to consider our own goals, limitations, and what triggers us.

Some readers may infer that a trauma-informed approach could discourage instructors from discussing difficult, violent, or potentially activating histories and content. We want to emphasize that the inverse is the case. A trauma-informed approach to teaching helps make space for students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experiences to navigate manifold, shifting, and sometimes emotionally charged reactions to complex stories about the past and present. A trauma-informed framework helps instructors build a classroom community and infrastructure within which students can be vulnerable, make mistakes, and admit errors and assumptions. Most importantly, a trauma-informed lens enables instructors and students to feel supported as they engage with class materials, regardless of the course content, and regardless of whether or not they have personal, community, or (inter-)generational connections to trauma. At the same time, trauma-informed pedagogy also asks us to consider our own goals, limitations, and be alert to what triggers us. It may be the case that a particular subject either elicits a response in us as educators or coincides with campus or broader events that make a thorough and responsible discussion of these subjects particularly challenging. Similarly, instructors working within a department that heavily circumscribes the assigned content or pace at which a course must progress might find it challenging to devote adequate time to a particular subject. This is especially the case as colleges and universities increasingly rely on precariously employed instructors, who may have less agency to make these changes, and who are often not remunerated for developing their classroom curricula. Likewise, educators’ abilities to do this work may be shaped by increasing pressure from these same institutions, as well as their local governments, to eliminate discussions of these very topics from their curricula. Here, trauma-informed pedagogy teaches us that we might need to rethink our subject matter, our approach, or our framing in the classroom. To be clear, this is not to say trauma-informed pedagogy is without its limitations. For one, its origins in counseling and healthcare can make its translation to pedagogical applications challenging; when used without care, scholars have pointed to its capacity to pathologize students. In addition, as we know, trauma is systemic and oftentimes inscribed in the very structures of educational spaces. While trauma-informed pedagogy could work to mitigate these structural realities, it also harbors the potential to exacerbate them, as its reach is limited to the classroom.5 Despite these limitations, in our current moment, a trauma-informed approach developed with care, attention to complexity, and the need to be flexible and responsive offers one of the most compelling ways to build a classroom environment that can support and encourage the deep and critical exploration of images–materials we know have an incredible potential to be affecting.

No matter what geographical region, time period, or medium we teach, almost all arts educators center images at the core of their teaching. As editors, this series has repeatedly reminded us that while we may carefully choose the images we present, we cannot and should not fully understand the impacts they might have on our students. Likewise, the series has reminded us that we must remember the affective power of images. We regularly teach works that are deliberately constructed to make us think and feel, although the intellectual space of the classroom can naturalize an emphasis on the former. Yet images crucially resonate with us as people, that is to say, affect us as whole human beings. This includes their capacity to elicit the full range of human emotions, that is to say not only sadness, anger, and fear, but also joy, hope, curiosity, and wonder. Below, we offer a self-reflection guide that we hope can support instructors as they work to build more inclusive learning environments. We offer this series of prompts and questions for instructors who wish to develop a trauma-informed pedagogy as part of their teaching philosophy. We hope these moments of inquiry help instructors understand the manifold ways images may function in their classrooms, affect students in their communities, and connect to contemporary politics, conflicts, and social issues.

Affecting Images: A Guided Self-Reflection for a Trauma-Informed Art History Classroom

Below, you will find a three-part self-guided reflection document. A downloadable PDF version of this guide, which includes spaces to take notes and respond to reflection prompts, can be found here. It was designed specifically with art history education in mind. We offer a series of guiding questions to both encourage reflection on past teaching and support scholar-teachers in developing their own trauma-informed approach. We especially hope to promote thinking around how we select images for the art history classroom, as well as the particular images one might choose. While these questions may be particularly useful when considering images with potentially activating content, they are also useful when applied more generally. In our own development of these questions, we have in part looked to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the national agency whose guidelines have most robustly informed academic discussions about trauma-informed pedagogy. SAHMHSA identifies six key principles for trauma-informed care: safety (S); trustworthiness and transparency (T); peer support (PS); collaboration and mutuality (CM); empowerment, voice, and choice (EVC); and cultural, historical, and gender issues (CHG) (and which we here expand to include other aspects of identity and lived experience). Recent scholarship has emphasized a seventh principle: resilience, growth, and change (R).6 To facilitate engagement with this reflection document, we have used these initials to identify where questions connect to particular principles. While these principles might seem abstract and challenging to tie to specific aspects of pedagogy, such as choosing images, we hope this guiding document bridges that gap.

Each of the three parts includes a series of questions designed to help you critically consider the images you include in your teaching within a trauma-informed framework that still aligns with your learning goals. You may scroll down for the web version of this guide, or download a PDF version here, which includes dedicated space to make notes, brainstorm, and record your reflections. We have designed this document so that you might implement it into your preparations to the degree that you would like or are able, whether in relation to a single image, one day’s lecture, or your broader approach to image selection throughout the semester.

Part One: Choosing Images

What are you hoping to elucidate by including these images in your course materials? To set up this section, begin by considering the following self-reflection questions:

1. Focus on Learning Goals:

  • What is the overall goal of your lesson or lecture?
  • How do the images you are considering serve these goals?
  • Are there other images that could serve these goals?

2. Focus on Images:

  • How do you plan to frame your discussion of these images? Are you highlighting issues of style or formal analysis? Are you using the images to illustrate vocabulary terms? Are you exploring historical context? Will you be exploring how these images or objects aid in developing tropes, stereotypes, iconographic patterns, constructions of identity, etc.?
  • Do you have ample time in your class to discuss these images, or do you have to move quickly through your content? Will a particular image be a core case study, or are you using one of these images as a quick example?
  • What does this image say about race, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, ability, or other facets of identity and lived experience? Spend time here reflecting on these topics as they might resonate in the past as well as the present, even if they are not what you intended to emphasize in your lesson. (CHG)
  • Does the image’s subject matter or context evoke violence? (S)
  • Was this image made without the subject’s consent? Will you discuss consent in relation to image production? (T) (CHG)
  • Will you explain or explore with students why you have chosen to include this image? (T) (S)
  • What implicit biases might you bring to the discussion of this image and how can you prepare yourself to address them? (T) (CHG) (R)
  • Will you allow time for student responses, questions, and/or objections? (EVC) (R)

3. Reflection: After considering the above questions, do the learning goals for your class align with the responses above? If you find that your learning goals do not allow for examination of the themes you’ve identified, consider including some of the alternate images you identified above, or, modifying your class to frame these images in a way that acknowledges their content and leaves space for student responses and reflection. If you do not have the option of changing set images or the pace of your course, might there be a way to invite asynchronous reflection, engagement, or opportunities for students to offer their reactions?

Part Two: Classroom Environment

How does the structure of your classroom help to facilitate engagement with images? To set up this section, begin by considering the following self-reflection questions:

1. Focus on Learning Goals:

  • What is the overall goal of your lesson or lecture, and how does the structure of your lesson or lecture, as well as your classroom generally, support those goals?
  • How does the community that you have built in your classroom support the goals of your lesson?
  • Are there factors beyond your control that may impact your classroom community (such as roster size, seating arrangements and furniture, or material conditions of your campus buildings)? What are some ways you might address these challenges, either in class or asynchronously?
  • Are there additional activities you might bring into your lecture or lesson to support these goals?

2. Focus on classroom environment or structure:

  • How have you worked to establish a sense of community in your classroom? Have you developed classroom norms, discussed expectations for classroom discussion and behavior, provided opportunities for students to engage with one another, and/or employed content warnings? If you have not, how would you describe your classroom community? Do students feel comfortable participating? Do they seem open to collaboration? Do you sense that they feel open to approaching you as the instructor? (CM) (EVC) (T) (S) (R)
  • How do you plan to facilitate your lesson in the classroom? Will you be primarily lecturing, using active learning, employing group work, or hosting a group discussion? How do you plan to frame your discussion of these images? In what ways have you considered accessibility in designing your lesson?7 (CM) (PS) (S)
  • Is there an opportunity in your teaching of this image to invite student collaboration? (CM)
  • How have you communicated to students that they can share their own perspectives on an image or topic? How can you support students in self-reflection activities as well as group reflection activities? (ECV) (R)
  • Has there been anything in recent news or on campus that might impact your students’ interpretation or experience of either a work or a topic of discussion? Have you acknowledged this as a group? What is at risk in having this dialogue or in not having this dialogue? (T) (S)
  • Do you feel prepared to effectively host a potentially divisive conversation? How will you manage a hot moment or support students who might have misspoken or made a mistake? (CM) (PS) (S) (R)
  • If a student opts out of a discussion because of an image you select, how will you support that student? Or are there ways to encourage students to support each other in discussing the image/topic? (PS) (S) (R)

3. Reflection: After considering the above questions, how do the conditions you have created in your classroom and through your pedagogy align with the learning goals you have identified above? If you find that your learning goals and classroom environment are not mutually constitutive, consider how the seven principles listed above might help you to build community and increase a sense of belonging among your students. Examples might include developing in-class exercises, designing asynchronous activities, or facilitating group discussions. 

Part Three: Self-Assessment

What have these questions and the reflection they have prompted revealed about your teaching–past, present, and future? How do you wish to develop your approach to teaching with a trauma-informed lens from here? Consider the following self-reflection questions:

  • Reflecting broadly, what went well in your teaching of the images you selected? What might you do differently next time?
  • How efficacious were your learning goals? Might you adjust them next time?
  • What did you learn about the experiences and perspectives of your students? Would you modify your plan for student engagement, participation, and reflection next time?
  • How did this reflection help to elucidate your own biases or assumptions about the material you teach?

Additional Bibliography

Carello, Janice and Phyllis Thompson, eds. Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, 2022.

Carello, Janice and Phyllis Thompson, eds. Trauma-Informed Approaches to College, Crisis, Change. Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

Eyler, Joshua. “Emotion,” from How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching (Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2018).

Imad, Mays. “Teaching to Empower: Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now to Help Students Become Self-Regulated Learners,” The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education 20, no. 2 (Winter 2022): A252–60

Vernet, Alexis Shevrin. Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education. W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Jenevieve DeLosSantos is associate teaching professor of art history and director of special pedagogic projects in the Office of Undergraduate Education for the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, New Jersey. In her dual role, she teaches art history courses while working on larger initiatives devoted to teaching and learning and undergraduate research. She recently published the book Poetries—Politics: A Celebration of Language, Art, and Learning that explores project-based learning in the humanities. Her art history scholarship focuses on nineteenth-century American Orientalism and, more broadly, on race and imperialism in nineteenth-century visual culture. 

Kathleen Pierce is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of art history at Smith College. Her research and teaching explore intersections of art and medicine in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French empire, attending closely to intersections of gender, race, health, power, and visuality. Recent scholarly writing has appeared in Medical History and Buildings & Landscapes. Pierce has also published public-facing scholarship in Nursing Clio and Synapsis: A Health Humanities Journal.

  1. For additional recent sources discussing this long-standing, yet expanding crisis, see: Beth McMurtrie, “A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2022; Alicia Andrzejewski, “Academics Don’t Talk About Our Mental Illnesses. We Should.,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 5, 2023; and Julian Roberts-Grmela, “Emotional Stress Remains a Top Challenge to Keeping Students Enrolled,Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2023.
  2. There is a large body of scholarship on trauma-informed teaching and pedagogy, with a great deal of literature devoted to K-12 education. There are also a number of more general (rather than discipline-specific) resources scholar-teachers have developed for educators focused on trauma-informed pedagogy in the higher education space. Janice Carello’s blog “Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning: Bringing a Trauma-Informed Approach to Higher Education” offers an excellent starting place; Carello has also gathered together a variety of resources including useful tools, videos and publications.
  3. Scholarship on Cognitive Load Theory explores the impact that multiple modalities in course design and course materials have on student learning. This theory offers a framework for thinking carefully about how instructors ask students to process different kinds of information (such as visual, textual, or oral) in the classroom, and how students’ required shifts across these different ways of receiving and processing information might alternatively help or hinder learning. For more on cognitive load theory, see John Sweller, “Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning,” Cognitive Science: A Multidisciplinary Journal 12, no. 2 (April 1988): 257–85; Roland Brünken, Jan L. Plass, and Roxana Moreno, eds., Cognitive Load Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Slava Kalyuga, Managing Cognitive Load in Adaptive Multimedia Learning (New York: Information Science Reference, 2009); and Slava Kalyuga and Anne-Marie Singh, “Rethinking the Boundaries of Cognitive Load Theory in Complex Learning,” Educational Psychology Review 28, no. 4 (December 2016): 831–52.
  4. Additionally, some scholar-teachers have pointed to intersections as well as conflicts among trauma-informed pedagogy and other pedagogical philosophies, such as culturally responsive teaching and culturally sustaining teaching. For more on these philosophies and how they intersect, see Jenna Rush, “Embedding Culturally Responsive Practices into Trauma-Informed Schools,” Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia, Institute of Education Sciences, July 14, 2021; Dee Sherwood, Karen VanDeusen, Bridget Weller, and Jessica Gladden, “Teaching Note—Teaching Trauma Content Online During COVID-19: A Trauma-Informed and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy,” 57, no. supplement 1 (2021): 99–110; and Vanessa Lopez-Littleton and Dennis Kombe, “Racial Trauma: Dismantling Anti-Black Racism in Classrooms and Academia,” in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy in Higher Education: A Faculty Guide for Teaching and Learning ed. Ernest Stromberg (New York: Routledge, 2023). Additionally, many essays included within a special issue of the Bank Street Occasional Paper Series discuss points of intersection among trauma-informed pedagogy and manifold additional pedagogical philosophies. See Tracey Pyscher and Anne Crampton, eds. “Possibilities and Problems in Trauma-Based and Social Emotional Learning Programs,” Occasional Paper Series 43 (2020).
  5. For discussions about these and other limitations of trauma-informed pedagogy, see Tracey Pyscher and Anne Crampton, “Introduction: Issue 43: Possibilities and Problems in Trauma-Based and Social Emotional Learning Programs,” Occasional Paper Series 43 (2020): 3–9; Noah Asher Golden, “The Importance of Narrative: Moving Towards Sociocultural Understandings of Trauma-Informed Praxis,” Occasional Paper Series 43 (2020): 71–78; Debi Khasnabis and Simona Goldin, “Don’t Be Fooled, Trauma Is a Systemic Problem: Trauma as a Case of Weaponized Educational Innovation,” Occasional Paper Series 43 (2020): 44–57.
  6. For multiple teacher-scholars’ definitions of these principles, see Janice Carello, “Trauma-Informed Teaching & Learning General Principles,” March 2020; Janice Carello, “Examples of Trauma-informed Teaching & Learning in College Classrooms,” March 2020; Karen Costa, “Trauma-Aware Teaching Checklist,” 100 Faculty; Mays Imad, “Leveraging the Neuroscience of Now,” Inside Higher Ed, June 2, 2020; and Mays Imad, “Our Brains, Emotions, and Learning: Eight Principles of Trauma-Informed Teaching,” Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Education eds. Phyllis Thompson and Janice Carello (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022).
  7. As scholars, theorists, and activists have long argued, art history and art historical education often inhere ableism through their reliance on vision and sight. Concerns around accessibility in the art history classroom also extend to the resources with which we ask students to engage, the physical spaces (and even their representations) we ask students to occupy and study (such as museums or architectural spaces), and beyond. Although this topic is much larger than the scope of the current project, we want to acknowledge the role that disability may play in students’ traumas and encourage educators to frame images, objects, and spaces with attention to inclusive language and an acknowledgement of accessibility concerns that can help students to feel seen and validated in addition to ensuring students with diverse disabilities have equitable access to our courses. For a range of perspectives on accessibility and art history pedagogy, see: for the possibilities opened up by the digital (regarding both reproductions of images and web-based access to resources), see Nancy Um, “Teaching the Practices of Art History in the Age of Abundance,” Art Journal Open, 2022 and Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “Making the Absent Present: The Imperative of Teaching Art History,” Art History Pedagogy & Practice 1, no. 1 (2016): 1–7; on the possibilities opened up by Open Educational Resources, specifically, see Sara Ishii, “Art History, Open Educational Resources (OERs), and Social Justice-Oriented Pedagogy: Adaptations to Introductory World Art History Survey Courses,” Art History Pedagogy & Practice 7, no. 1 (2022); for meaningful integration of lessons from disability studies for the teaching of architectural history, see “Disability Studies and Architectural History,” workshop held by the Society for Architectural Historians, featuring participants Gail Dubrow, Laura Leppink, Sarah Pawlicki, Aimi Hamraie, and Perri Meldon, 2020; for a discussion of art history’s often unexamined vision-centered approach, see Yayoi Mashimo, “Multi-Sensorial Pedagogy for Art History Education: Integrating the Collective Wisdom of People Who are Blind and Have Low Vision to Reconsider Conventional Academic Norms,” Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 13, no. 3 (2019): 305–22.