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PWR 1VK: The Rhetorics of Trauma

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Spurred, in part, by the events of September 11th and the plight of American service members returning from combat experiences in the Middle East, the public’s gaze has been drawn toward the concept of trauma. But what constitutes trauma? Coming from the Greek word for “wound,” trauma means different things to different individuals and their communities. Moreover, what counts as trauma shifts in response to prevailing socio-political contexts.

This course considers the rhetorics of trauma, that is, how survivors of traumatic incidents, witnesses, psychologists, doctors, civil and military leaders, politicians, and the general public interpret trauma. These different understandings of trauma compete for social awareness and limited resources. By exploring what constitutes trauma – and what does not – we gain insight into social values around who merits our concern and treatment, including both medical and psychological.

Course readings will be drawn from a range of texts authored by trauma survivors including Sebastian Junger, Ta-nehisi Coates, and Leslie Jamison, and scholarly arguments for how to understand and treat traumatic experiences, as in Trauma and Recovery and The Body Keeps the Score.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages) You will analyze an account of a traumatic event from the readings, considering how the speaker reaches out to the audience to establish authority or integrity, garner empathy, and advocate for a conception of trauma.

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) You will conduct preliminary research to begin exploring a question or controversy surrounding understandings of “trauma.” The sources you choose will help identify your question and present a “conversation” already taking place. You might build on an example of trauma we’ve discussed in class or you are familiar with that meets or challenges an accepted clinical or social definition of trauma.

Other research questions might include: Which arguments regarding the nature of trauma prevailed in the new DSM-V and why? Why do certain kinds of traumatic experiences garner more social capital than others (military combat is now nearly synonymous with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but sexual molestation is not)?

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages) Through writing the TiC (above) you will have gained a more focused sense of your research question and cases. Building on this research, you will write a research-based argument. Similar to the topics such as those listed above, projects might be drawn from a range of conceptual problems: How do members of the public decide where “to side” when trauma narratives are in conflict (trauma suffered by black men living within systematic racial oppression; trauma suffered by white police officers patrolling in hostile, armed neighborhoods)? Does evidence suggest that the label of “trauma” or “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” reinforces social norms along raced, classed, or gendered lines?

Other approaches to the topic might examine the way a previously excluded experience became accepted as a form of trauma (rape, for example), or ways currently under-acknowledged traumas might gain traction in the public sphere.