Dr. Jennifer W. Davidson, Dean and John Dillenberger Professor of Theology at the GTU, joins other GTU professors, students, staff, and alumni in GTUx’s Spiritual Care and Ethical Leadership for our Times library with her conversation on “Ethical Leadership x Brave Space.” In this offering, Dr. Davidson speaks about creating a “brave space” in the classroom as a way of opening dialogue to create new pathways of understanding and development in her students. In this interview, Dr. Davidson speaks to her pedagogical approach and personal testimony on the power of trauma-informed spaces to foster transformative dialogue.
Tell us about how you came to the research you’ve done on the subject of “brave space.”
My research recently has focused on how to create a trauma-informed pedagogy for the graduate theological classroom. A lot of research has been done around creating trauma-informed pedagogy in K-12 institutions, but when I started my research in 2018, minimal work had been done to think about how we create this type of approach in a graduate setting, let alone in a graduate theological setting. I saw that there was this huge need for it, in large part because of what I was seeing in the classroom, what was going on around the world, and noticing the ways in which it was affecting students and faculty alike. I became aware of how much trauma is present in the classroom through the histories that we all bring — both students and faculty.
You use a lot of words around the concept of what a trauma-informed space looks like: safety, trust, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and peer support. How does that translate to the classroom?
These concepts come from social work, nursing, criminal justice, and other social-service providing areas where a lot of work has been done to develop trauma-informed care. A trauma-informed approach to teaching means that you’re intentionally shaping the learning environment so that these qualities can be cultivated. Some examples of what that might look like in the classroom include providing flexibility with classroom assignments so students can choose the type of assignment they want to complete or even the due date that works best for their schedules, providing space for student leadership in classroom discussions, or allowing student feedback to give shape to the syllabus and course requirements.
What makes a trauma-informed approach possible in the classroom?
According to the research from the field of social work, safety is absolutely key. At first I resisted that idea, because the idea of safety in the classroom is a contested concept. For a while, many teachers would say we’re creating a “safe space” in the classroom. But bell hooks, who was a Black feminist critical theorist and pedagogue, helped us to understand that there will always be people in a classroom who are not going feel safe because of different power dynamics, including racial dynamics. This is where the notion of brave space started to take hold more recently—folks showing up despite their awareness of the risks involved. And yet through my research I understood that the concept of safety is also highly practical and includes providing for the physical safety of people in the classroom. It means paying attention to disability accessibility in the classroom space, having a clean and well-maintained space that is free from hazards.
How, as an ethical leader, are you ensuring that your students feel empowered in these spaces?
As an ethical leader in the classroom, you want to make sure that you are doing your own work so that you can be fully present, authentic, and consistently respectful and thoughtful with your students inside and outside the classroom. You need to be aware of how pervasive trauma is in the graduate theological classroom and commit to cultivating the conditions that allow students to thrive and learn from you and from one another. Feminist and liberative pedagogies that foreground students’ voices and experiences in conversation with the content of the course are beneficial here. (Read bell hooks regularly and devotionally!) An ethical leader is courageous enough to know when to step back so that students can take the lead in their learning experiences.
How do you guide your students through these brave spaces?
Discomfort is inevitable if we are going to learn new things. I seek to create a space where people gradually learn how to endure and even appreciate being uncomfortable together. There will be moments when we might encounter our own pain, or I might see you encounter your pain, which can be very difficult for me, too. But as we build trust over time, we learn that we can survive those moments together and arrive at a deeper understanding because of it. In a sense we contract together that we’re going to enter spaces of pain and discomfort with the hope of coming to a better place in the end. Of course, it’s not all pain and discomfort. We also allow ourselves to experience joy together—the joy of sudden insight, the joy of accomplishment, even the joy of praying or meditating together. I always begin my classes with a time of prayer, meditation, or poetry followed by keeping silence together. Keeping silence for an extended period is often uncomfortable for students, especially at the beginning of the semester. But I think that practice is key to our ability to get through even more uncomfortable moments as the semester progresses.
Part of the responsibility that comes along with ethical leadership is being willing as a leader to enter those painful spaces, uncomfortable spaces, and joyful spaces, and to do it in a mindful way. When you approach it in a mindful way, what you’re able to do is acknowledge the discomfort that is in the space, be fully aware and acknowledge one’s own discomfort in that space, and hold that awareness in a nonjudgmental way. You don’t have to be reactive to your own discomfort. You don’t have to suddenly protect yourself because you realize that you are uncomfortable. As a leader, you need to be aware and comfortable with your own discomfort. And trust that you—and your students—will come through it to the other side.