How Did I Choose My Research Topic You Say?

Here’s a bit I wrote about my educational history after I got a nasty comment from someone on Twitter. The person assumed I didn’t have a trauma history and was challenging my opinions. I owe nothing to this person who I subsequently blocked — I intentionally carefully curate my twitter feed. But maybe I do have something to say about why I chose the research topic I have chosen for my phd, which focuses on how college instructors approach trauma-informed online learning. Here is what I wrote about how trauma affected my educational experience.

As a child, when I wouldn’t get up fast enough in the morning, my dad would pick me up and take me outside and drop me in the horse trough. When my parents divorced, it was a mixed blessing. I no longer had the physical abuse of my dad, but mom had her own unresolved trauma issues and was an emotionally and physically absent parent. For all intents and purposes, I was on my own. At some point before age ten I developed ADD, anxiety and depression – the sequalae of the trauma of having to essentially raise myself. I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings and my mom rarely made me try. I missed a lot of school. I got bullied at school by both boys and girls from fourth grade all the way through high school. I was overweight, and they didn’t let me forget it. I got my first D for the semester in seventh grade but there wasn’t anyone at home who cared so the Ds turned into Fs – still no one cared. While all this was going on, I had some teachers who did care. Mrs. Branson, my junior high school counselor, was a loving adult presence when I didn’t have that at home. But teachers can’t replace the presence of a parent. I first tried to commit suicide when I was sixteen, but again, it did little to grab the attention of the adults at home. School was excruciating. Sitting still for all those hours on end with ADD was the worse kind of torture I knew. I became promiscuous. I would go to parties and sleep with the boys from my school. I could come home whenever I wanted, as drunk as I wanted, because nobody was up waiting for me. By my senior year I have failed so many classes that I wasn’t allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony. It didn’t matter though. Nobody was paying any attention.

When I went to the community college near me it got better. I didn’t have to sit for the whole day at a time. An hour or two was manageable. I also didn’t have to go full-time. I could go at a pace that didn’t require too much stress that would trigger my trauma. I was able to transfer to a four-year college, and I got my Bachelor’s degree. I later followed this up with a Master’s in Linguistics and a Master’s in Educational Technology. School was easy for me is some ways. It required minimal interaction with people, who were the main source of my trauma triggers. On the other hand, my attention and memory have been severally affected by the trauma I experienced over the years. I got my Bachelor’s in English because I was a good enough writer, and it didn’t require me to memorize anything. My difficulties with my memory and my focus for a long time had convinced me I was stupid. I couldn’t stay focused enough to understand complex concepts, and I couldn’t memorize anything. But in college I was able to construct an educational plan that would work for me and my trauma affected brain.

Higher education, as a profession, worked for me too because I wasn’t required to sit for eight hours a day. I had interaction with students, but on a relatively superficial level so no one was challenging my interpersonal trauma issues. It was different every day and every semester, so I wasn’t bored. I liked technology because there is always something new to learn, so again, I don’t get bored. It is often very independent work. A college instructor rarely has a supervisor looking over their shoulder, so there wasn’t a lot of interpersonal emotional burden.

When I started my phd I liked online learning because, for me, it was the ideal workspace – no people, work at my own pace, with technology. I loved it. In my second year I discovered trauma-informed educational practices. What if, I wondered, people could go through their educational life without being traumatized by it? Or, better yet, they were able to be supported when they brought their own trauma with them into the classroom? What if school felt like a safe space instead of a physical threat? And what are they doing to provide for this type of environment in online classes — my favorite type of classes? So here I am.

My educational experiences have both saved me and were the source of a lot of suffering. Much of school was excruciating. It still is. Sitting through lectures is still a painful experience and all the theories and concepts rarely stick. If I weren’t a capable writer, I never would have found any success at school. Or what if I weren’t bright enough to figure out how to make an impossible system work for me? It all could have been very different.

But I believe it can be different. I’m not necessarily trying to make it different myself; I’m just holding the vision for it. I still struggle with interacting with people, so I’m happy to work on the tools for other people to make it different. Movement forward. I hate to say this, but all through school I knew it could be different. I knew it should be different. And that’s where I am. Just wanting it to be different.

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