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Composition Forum 47, Fall 2021

Redesigning Graduate Composition Courses for Justice: A Case Model for Promoting Access, Inclusivity, and Trauma-Informed Pedagogy

Bridget Gelms, James Gilligan, Robert Kohls, Tara Lockhart, and Mark Roberge

Abstract: After the pandemic necessitated a move to online learning and brought forth a multitude of traumas for students and faculty, faculty teaching in the graduate Composition program at San Francisco State University came together to redesign our graduate courses. This program profile describes a process by which the redesign efforts were organized, which included establishing a framework for online teaching and learning before reassessing course outcomes, reading lists, and assignments. The process also included deep meditations on inclusive pedagogical practices and trauma-informed teaching and learning. Ultimately, our process helped us articulate our shared values as graduate faculty, gaining new understandings of our practices to better serve students in the graduate Composition program.

Part 1: Introduction

In the summer of 2020, faculty in the English department at San Francisco State University (SFSU) worked on redesigning our graduate program track in teaching composition. As the global pandemic necessitated a move to online modes, we saw this as an opportunity to reflect on how expanding our online offerings in the graduate program could promote access and inclusivity during a time of extreme turmoil. Further, we saw this moment as one that demanded we better prepare our graduate students—some new to the profession and others practicing educators—to teach online. And perhaps most importantly, we wanted to center our redesign around conversations of trauma-informed pedagogy as injustices of many sorts—racial, political, environmental, economic, public health, and more—permeate U.S. culture. Our redesign helped us to take stock of our collective values as individual teachers who comprise the graduate faculty in our MA Composition program at SFSU.

In this article, we provide readers with our process for program redesign while reflecting on the aspects that we found to be the most fruitful. After providing background information about our program and institution, we describe our process which worked to center a commitment to justice, equity, and inclusion in our classrooms via a deep dive into course content and our pedagogical practices and values. We conclude with reflections on our own professional growth and recommendations for how other programs can undertake these activities as part of program redesign efforts.

History & Context

The graduate program in Composition at San Francisco State University is deeply rooted in the historical, political, and social context of the San Francisco Bay Area and California. Starting in the mid-1960s, demographic changes in California’s population, political demands for educational justice (see Whitson on the SFSU student strike of 1968) and greater access to college afforded through open admissions policies all led to an increasingly diverse student population in California community colleges. Thus came the need to prepare future college composition teachers in new and responsive ways. Our teacher training program in the English department began modestly with a single course on sentence-level pedagogy (reflecting the paradigm at the time), expanded into a Certificate in Teaching Composition, and then—paralleling the professionalization and specialization within the field of Composition—began to offer an MA in Composition as well as a Certificate in Teaching Postsecondary Reading (MA Composition Faculty). (For the sake of convenience throughout this article, we will refer to both the Certificate in Teaching Composition and the Certificate in Teaching Postsecondary Reading as our graduate certificate programs.)

Many of our graduate students are from the Bay Area and will stay here after they graduate. As a result, for several decades now, our graduate program has served as one of the primary teacher training grounds for local and regional community colleges (SFSU itself originated as a normal school in 1899)—a mission we have characterized as a “locally responsive, socially productive” commitment in our prior program analysis (Ching et al.). Throughout this time, we have seen an increasing demand for teacher training and professional development in composition, yet this demand remains unmet because few local institutions offer programming focused on teaching composition. Furthermore, in-person only curriculum impedes access for many practicing teachers with full schedules; myriad conditions of the Bay Area also create “super commuters,” students who travel ninety minutes or more to attend classes (Martell). Over the last five years or so, our faculty has debated whether we could better serve a wider range of students if we were to move our certificates online.

Two moments occurred in 2020 that made us keen to implement changes to our programming: the global pandemic, which forced all teaching online, and the cultural move in the U.S. towards greater racial justice. As we taught online throughout the year, we did so while watching and participating in local and national protests of racial injustices. In doing so, we began to see the intersection of these two moments as a call to deepen and extend our social responsiveness. In committing ourselves to making our programs accessible to a more geographically and economically diverse pool of applicants, as well as to prepare future teachers to foreground goals of social justice and inclusivity in their own teaching, we endeavored to redesign our certificate courses.

Part 2: Establishing a Foundation for the Redesign

Creating a Community of Inquiry

Towards the end of the spring semester 2020, we formed a working group of seven faculty in our department who teach in the graduate certificate programs. To support our work, we applied for a grant offered by our Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CEETL). These grants aimed to support faculty who would redesign courses for effective online modalities for Fall 2020, funded by CEETL’s allocation of the CARES-2 federal grant. Each member of our team earned $1,500 for their work on the redesign project.

In addition to their grant program, CEETL provided additional professional development support for undertaking this work. In response to COVID-19 and the move to online instruction, they developed an Online Teaching Lab for faculty: a mostly asynchronous learning experience (approximately 15 hours) aimed at promoting effective online instruction. All faculty involved with our redesign enrolled in the Online Teaching Lab in the spring or early summer 2020, pulling from the experience a commitment to ensure robust student engagement, flexibility, and choice for students in our online courses. Additionally, CEETL offered a professional development course called JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity) Pedagogies of Inclusive Excellence, which was full of theory and strategies for deepening social justice pedagogy. Two members of our team completed this course in tandem with our redesign work and were thus able to bring relevant ideas and materials back to the whole group. For example, they discussed course design and pedagogies that are responsive and adaptable to the realities of the pandemic (Bali; C. Davidson). JEDI also provided the group with practical heuristics that aid individual teachers in examining the material realities of their courses, such as a workload estimator tool (Barre et al.) and the Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool (Taylor et al.) created by cross-campus colleagues at SFSU. The theoretical frameworks and practical tools provided to us by these professional development opportunities no doubt laid much of the groundwork for our redesign process.

Our thinking about the redesign was also organized by the racial justice movements and uprisings happening during the summer of 2020 and the impacts these had on local and national communities. For instance, we read This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice! by the 2020 CCCC Special Committee on Composing a CCCC Statement on Anti-Black Racism and Black Linguistic Justice, Or, Why We Cain’t Breathe! (Baker-Bell et al.). Further, over the summer and simultaneous with our redesign work, three of our team members worked their way through the Black Minds Matter syllabus (Wood), and two members took Showing Up for Racial Justice Bay Area’s Study and Action course (Study and Action Series)—a hyper-local community-based course on white supremacy and anti-racist action. In coming together to examine what our shared goals and values were with this redesign, ongoing racial injustices and pervasive white supremacy culture (Okun) was at the fore of our collective minds.

Establishing a Framework to Guide the Redesign

Our work started with us discussing the curriculum and ways to improve it. A core objective of our redesign was for each member of the team to remodel one graduate course we had previously taught, with input from the rest of the team. These courses included:

  • ENG 700: Introduction to Composition Theory

  • ENG 701: Theoretical Backgrounds for College Reading Instruction

  • ENG 707: Response to and Evaluating Student Writing

  • ENG 709: Seminar in Teaching Integrated Reading and Writing

  • ENG 710: Course Design in Composition and Post-Secondary Reading

  • ENG 715: Pedagogy & Practice of Postsecondary Reading

Sharing our syllabi, learning objectives, and signature assignments with each other (discussed in more detail below) compelled us to reflect on our beliefs about academic literacy and graduate education and on how best to teach composition theory, pedagogy, and assessment to future composition teachers. The conversations allowed us to recognize the conceptual frameworks we use to develop learning objectives, select readings, and adopt assessment practices.

Alongside our two primary goals—bringing our graduate certificate programs online to be more accessible to students and infusing our curriculum with a deeper commitment to inclusivity—we were guided by the following programmatic goals:

  • Foster a sense of community and mutual support among students;

  • Embrace diverse learning styles and provide numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning and knowledge;

  • Provide ample scaffolding of assignments and activities to promote student success;

  • Provide students with opportunities to engage in experiential discovery-based learning activities;

  • Draw on students’ strengths and knowledge about teaching and learning; and

  • Through our redesign, work collaboratively to articulate how such goals are embedded in each of our classes and strengthen their existence in our courses even more.

Our efforts to bring these programs online was guided by substantial work in the field on online writing instruction and online learning. Specifically, we relied on the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison et al.; Stewart), which understands learning as a social action that’s facilitated by cognitive, social, and teaching presences. These three aspects of an online course don’t exist in compartmentalized vacuums but rather work together to co-create a learning experience that is collaborative and interactive. For example, cognitive presence promotes sustained reflection and discourse within the community of inquiry, while social presence refers to an environment where community members are able to “project themselves socially and emotionally as ‘real’ people,” showcasing their full personality (Garrison et al.). Teaching presence addresses the design and facilitation of the course, attending to concerns of how the teacher creates the conditions of the learning experience—conditions that encourage cognitive and social presence among community members.

We were also influenced by the PARS model (Borgman and McArdle, Personal and PARS), which aims to create personal, accessible, responsive, and strategic learning environments online. “Personal” considers all the ways teachers can bring their humanity to the course and encourage students to do that same while building community and fostering connections among members. “Accessible” considers how we can remove barriers to learning while designing courses that leverage the benefits of online learning environments. “Responsive” establishes norms, routines, and boundaries for communication and feedback in the course. Finally, “strategy” helps teachers think through the user experience of the students and put together a plan for the course that attends to the personal, accessible, and responsive elements.

With so many aspects of online teaching and learning being highly contextual and ever-changing, it’s easy to become overwhelmed before you even begin. What’s more, some theories of online teaching and learning can feel overly abstract and difficult to imagine in practice. What appeals to us about the Community of Inquiry and PARS models are how both distill valued practices of online instruction into key areas that are concrete, actionable, and timely. To this end, these models gave us a rich theoretical and practical blueprint for our redesign.

Alongside these frameworks for online learning, we layered in our commitment to social and racial justice, primarily through deepening the instantiation of inclusive, culturally sustaining, and trauma-informed pedagogies and texts in our courses. Our approaches to such pedagogy are explored more below; from a framing perspective, however, it is worth noting that we sought to embody these pedagogies not only in our teaching but also via our curricular design and programmatic strategy. That is to say, our decision-making was guided by the recognition that our students are multidimensional individuals with complex personal histories, and we are committed to modeling for our graduate students how they might support their own students as well.

Our understanding of trauma and its influence on classroom environments is rooted in Fallot and Harris’ framework, which identifies five core values of trauma-informed practice: safety, trust, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. Each of these values work together to promote a culture that’s sensitive to the pervasiveness and multidimensional nature of trauma while actively working to address the negative effects it has on teaching and learning (S. Davidson). Prioritizing safety, for example, asks us to attend to the physical and emotional access of our classrooms, while trust means developing clear goals, objectives, and boundaries for and with students. Similarly, choice enables students to become active shapers of their educational experience, and collaboration privileges community that is mutually constructed with students. The fifth core value, empowerment, means everyone’s skills and strengths are not just recognized but valued.

These core values of trauma-informed pedagogy overlap tremendously with the practices we already sought to champion in our program, but the explicit attention to how they can be used to increase access, inclusion, and engagement while reducing potential harm helped us examine our daily practices and overarching program philosophy. Later in this article, we further discuss how trauma-informed pedagogy came to bear on our redesign work.

Part 3: The Redesign Process

Inventing a redesign process: where and how do we begin?

As all good projects often begin, we started with a fast-approaching deadline and a rare opportunity to be paid for significant curricular work. By working collaboratively to articulate how our programmatic goals merged with our current situation of online teaching and deepened commitment to racial justice, we quickly laid out a proposal and waited to hear if we would be funded. Similarly, when our proposal was accepted, we realized that if we wanted to have our new versions up and running by Fall 2020, when several of the certificate courses would be offered, we would need to work with focus to complete our redesign within the next six weeks.

Since she often writes collaboratively, runs meetings in her administrator capacity, and coordinates an interdisciplinary faculty writing group, Tara offered to serve as project lead— managing our process and a host of digital tools. Since Tara and another member of our group had been working in parallel fashion to study and propose a process for evaluating online teaching and learning with our move to remote teaching, they were able to kick off our work by introducing the group to the Community of Inquiry and PARS models. This, coupled with the work we were doing in the CEETL professional development courses, gave us theoretically-informed touchpoints for our curricular revisions.

Given our short timeline, we chose to meet for 90 minutes every week for five weeks to share the progress we had made individually over the week. We devoted a final sixth meeting to a three-hour retreat to wrap up our project the week before school. Our plan proceeded roughly as follows:

Week 1

  • Share individual motivations and goals for the redesign project

  • Map our collaborative goals, work processes, and timeline

Week 2

  • Discuss key principles/practices of trauma informed pedagogy

  • Discuss program and course outcomes; map them onto an “outcomes grid”

Week 3

  • Discuss key principles/practice of effective online teaching

  • Map readings and assignments across courses; discuss how they support our values, goals and outcomes

Week 4

  • Discuss key principles/practices of culturally sustaining and socially just pedagogy

  • Share individual/personal goals for fostering social justice in our own classes

Week 5

  • Present and discuss our six revised courses

  • Exchange views about how to be more intentional and reflective in our teaching

Week 6 (Concluding retreat)

  • Synthesize key values and concepts that undergird our new newly revised certificates

  • Discuss how we will assess the newly revised certificate over the next 5 years

To actually complete the significant work of the redesign, each team member was responsible for overhauling one course; members would complete a series of revision tasks during the week and we would share out, collaborate, and set the next week’s tasks together during our weekly meeting. Google Drive and Google Docs were our constant companions, with many documents circulating back and forth. Most participants also chose to build out their revised course in our institution’s learning management system (iLearn) as they were revising, so team members could be added to each course and see how the course looked from the student perspective. Tara kept us on task with agendas, notes, and “homework” in a central Work Plan Google Doc as well as through weekly reminders. This accountability was particularly essential in keeping up momentum toward our fast-approaching deadline.

Overarchingly, our main goal was to get a bird’s eye view of the program to assess what we were communicating about our values as a collective program through the individual courses in service of redesigning for access and inclusivity. As we worked to understand where and how our courses fit together, and as we worked to build our own expertise in areas such as trauma-informed pedagogy, Tara often set up learning tasks or collaborative activities for us to share our emergent thinking. For example, when many members struggled to operationalize trauma-informed pedagogy, we took a step back to do the following:

  • Crowdsource some key readings group members had found helpful (and read them for next time);

  • Brainstorm the traumas we know many of our students have encountered or are actively encountering;

  • Brainstorm possible strategies or “salves” for these traumas within our teaching contexts;

  • Articulate immediate and long-term teaching goals in service of access and inclusion; and

  • Engage the meta-level of our teaching by brainstorming the ways that we model or draw future teachers’ attention to key trauma principles (e.g. resilience, empowerment, appropriate boundaries and expectations).

By setting out focused learning tasks that allowed us to both share and build collective knowledge, such exercises became a key part of our working method. Other collaborative tasks via Google Docs allowed us to compare our reading lists, map our key assignments across courses, revise our SLOs to accommodate our renewed commitment to culturally sustaining, inclusive, and trauma-informed pedagogy, and chart the writing experiences students were building across their coursework. Finally, by adding to, reading, and discussing one another’s contributions to our shared repositories—collecting signature assignments from our classes and effective strategies we used for online teaching—we both diversified our knowledge of “what works” and created additional bridges or connections between our courses.

In what follows, we discuss some of these tasks to reveal what this process looked like on a smaller scale.

Reflecting on Course Content—Learning Outcomes, Reading Lists, and Assignments

To better understand what we were asking students to read and engage with in each course, we shared syllabi and student learning outcomes (SLOs) from each individual course. On a practical level, we all contributed to a shared spreadsheet that allowed us to juxtapose our syllabi and the student learning outcomes from each of our courses to determine how we demonstrated engagement, flexibility, and inclusivity in our course design, the assigned readings, and major writing assignments. This approach provided us with immediate feedback on how we fulfilled the certificate program objectives but also helped us to identify areas where our readings and assignments overlapped to determine where revisions were, perhaps, needed.

Initially, we naturally gravitated towards the SLOs as a good place to begin our work, as conversations about SLOs have become more prominent within our field and institutional discourse. When we discuss our undergraduate writing courses, for instance, the WPA Outcome Statement is always somehow in play, but by contrast, our discussions about graduate curriculum have focused less on outcomes and more on current developments in the field. Like many faculty, we have been skeptical about discourses around outcomes, questioning whether they foster student learning or merely function as part of the “audit culture” of higher education.

However, we were pleased to see Vandenberg and Clary-Lemon’s 2010 article arguing for recognition of the MA in Composition as something more than just a stepping stone to a PhD because it made space for disciplinary conversations about what we value the most—preparing teachers to serve student populations in open-access intuitions such as California community colleges. Recognition of the complex context-dependent purposes of the MA also echoed our own goal of preparing reflective practitioners in our graduate certificate programs with informed choices about their teaching (Lockhart and Roberge) and strengthening the writing of our future writing teachers (Lockhart). Our thinking has continued to develop, in dialogue with work such as the TYCA Guidelines to Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College (Calhoon-Dillahunt et al.), Hassel’s editorial in a 2017 special issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and Gallagher’s call to use SLOs as a way to foster conversations about curriculum.

Thus, organizing our redesign work around the SLOs proved to be more complicated than expected because while each individual course had well-articulated SLOs, we felt that they didn’t necessarily capture the richness and the complexity of the intellectual work that we actually do in these courses. In short, it became clear that many of the SLOs as they were written functioned more as institutional requirements than as an intellectually productive space for discussion about program redesign. So while we wanted to address and revise the SLOs, we were careful to avoid having them govern the entire trajectory of the redesign work we wanted to accomplish. Instead, we opted for a process that allowed us to look at the SLOs in conjunction with the day-to-day material conditions of each course: What were we assigning students to read? What were we asking students to discuss and write? How were we building community and fostering active and collaborative learning? In what ways did our individual course policies facilitate and/or hinder these activities?

Once we posted our syllabi, we created a chart to help each of us determine how our courses met the student learning outcomes. Here, we could add, remove, or update our individual SLOs, include revisions to major and minor assignments, and identify major projects yet to be reconceptualized (See Table 1). Once we completed the chart based on major assignments from our syllabi, we annotated each using six criteria that reflected our program values and goals. Each of these criteria (defined below) pushed us to consider the ways we build inclusive classes that provide students with opportunities to engage in rich course content that is inclusive and fosters intellectual and professional growth.

Values Criteria used to annotate our SLOs and course assignments:

  1. Creating class community: Foster a sense of community and mutual support among students.

  2. Diverse learning styles: Embrace diverse learning styles and provide numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning and knowledge.

  3. Scaffolded assignments: Provide ample scaffolding of assignments and activities to promote student’s success.

  4. Experiential discovery-based learning: Provide students with opportunities to engage in experiential discovery-based learning activities.

  5. Promote students’ strengths and knowledge: Strive to support students by drawing on their strengths and funds of knowledge.

  6. Social justice and inclusivity: Prepare future teachers to foreground goals of social justice.

In Table 1, ENG 700: Introduction to Composition Studies is an example of how we annotated each of the six required courses in the program. ENG 700 is also the first course that incoming MA Composition students take when they enter the program. The course introduces students to key scholarship in composition theory and its impact on classroom practice and grounds students in theory that informs later course work in responding to writing, integrated reading and writing, and course design and curriculum development.

In the chart, the instructor outlined the SLOs, major and minor assignments, and larger projects. In column three, they annotated each of the four assignments using the values criteria checklist. For example, they typically engage their ENGL 700 students in enriched, collaborative discussions about key assignments. This practice satisfied the following four pedagogical values: creating class community (C), diverse learning styles (DLS), scaffolded assignments (S), experimental and discovery-based learning (E), and strengths and knowledge (SK). In the process of annotating, the instructor discovered areas that they would need to develop in order to meet with further values such as social justice and inclusivity, for example. To address this need, they included specific additions/revisions such as include more on social justice, equity, resilient pedagogy, online teaching and learning, and revisit/develop framing questions for weekly readings and discussions specific to these areas in their “Big-to-dos'” list.

Table 1. SLO Cross-Comparison chart for Course Redesign

Course Name

Any SLOs you struck, added, or revised

What are your major writing assignments?

What smaller assignment do you typically use to scaffold?


ENG700 Introduction to Composition Studies

Ok, except add:

  • Experiment with various pedagogical theories and tools in an effort to become more informed, reflective, and equity-minded teachers

  • Reflection paper on Naming What We Know

  • Reading reflection/synthesis paper

  • Theory to practice project resulting in a pedagogical artifact and a theoretical explanation

  • Collaborative discussion leading assignment (C, DLS, E, SK)

  • Pedagogical artifact & feedback presentation (C, DLS, S, E, SK)

  • Drafting, feedback, revision on final project (C, DLS, S)

  • In-class activities that examine practical aspects of theory for that week (C, DLS, E, SK, SJI)

  • Revise reading list to include more on social justice, equity, resilient pedagogy, online teaching & learning; revisit/develop framing questions for weekly readings and discussions specific to these areas

  • Revise assignments for online context: discussion leading, pedagogical artifact/feedback presentation, peer response activities

  • Review weekly lesson plans from Spring 2019 to see which activities can be translated to an online context, which need tweaking, and which need to be reimagined

  • Map the CoI model onto course design to see when/where the various presences are fostered

Each faculty member annotated their SLOs and key assignments in a similar fashion. Doing a cross-case comparison, we discovered that our course designs were firmly rooted in social learning theories that included the following—critical engagement with readings and learning theories, student-led discussions and presentations, student choice and variety through jigsaw readings, autoethnographies of writer histories, and fieldwork projects involving teacher interviews. These assignments also satisfied our values criteria by fostering community, recognizing diverse learning styles, scaffolding assignments and engaging in discovery based learning, and foregrounding students’ strength and knowledge.

We learned that one area was not as robust as other criteria—our engagement with social justice and inclusivity. Although a social justice and inclusivity focus was present in certain assignments—readings, teaching philosophy statements, and book clubs on social justice issues—we realized that this is one area we could better promote through additional course readings (e.g., conceptual and empirical studies on race, gender, sexual orientation and literacy), including studies by multilingual scholars and scholars of color, as well as further reflection on ways to engage in social justice theories and practice in the day-to-day activities we do with students.

Connecting Signature Assignments to Inclusive Pedagogy

Our next step was to go deeper than high-level content and learning outcomes and compare the signature assignments across courses to get a better idea of how they model engagement, flexibility, and inclusivity. Across the six courses we were redesigning, we shared various assignments including reflection papers, reading units, and digital essays. One signature assignment in ENG 707: Response to and Evaluating Student Writing included a fieldwork component in which students were asked to contact a current composition or L2 writing instructor at the university or at any of the local community colleges and interview them about their beliefs about good writing and their approaches to giving written feedback on student writing. These interviews allow pre-service writing teachers to apply theory to practice by learning how seasoned writing instructors prioritize their written commentary, use feedback to support multilingual writers, and conduct successful writing conferences. The interviews culminate in a theoretically informed paper that connects the teacher’s approach to response scholarship.

With each signature assignment, we each described how that assignment met with broader pedagogical objectives including engagement, flexibility, and inclusivity. In the case of ENG 707, the instructor saw fieldwork and qualitative interviews as a way to get students to see themselves as part of a larger community of writing teachers. In terms of engagement, students learned more about the feedback process by interviewing writing teachers and asked questions that were relevant and meaningful to them about the feedback process. The assignment offers flexibility as students author their own interview questions and have the opportunity to complete this assignment individually or in pairs and are given six weeks to complete the project. As a form of inclusivity, interviewing writing practitioners is essential to building a community of practice. Students learn to see themselves as writing teachers and as our future colleagues. By connecting with writing teachers, students build critical social and professional networks among Bay Area writing practitioners and programs.

Doing a cross-case comparison, we discovered that our signature assignments provided rich opportunities for engagement (e.g., students reflect on how they learn, collaborate on project design and implementation), offered students flexibility (e.g., explore what’s meaningful for them, choice of how to design and present assignment) and promoted inclusivity (e.g., values multiple kinds of knowledge, collaborative perspectives on assignment design).

Reflecting on Teaching Practice: Trauma-informed Pedagogy

As part of our work on becoming more attuned to the experiences of our students, we wanted our redesign to be sensitive to current cultural contexts, both within the Bay Area and the broader world. Early in our process at our second meeting, we discussed trauma-informed pedagogy (S. Davidson 15; Venet; see also Jones on the dangers of “trauma porn”) through several activities. We started by reading and discussing a trauma-informed teaching and learning chart created by CEETL and adapted from Berke and Ghabour along with Carello. The chart maps the principles of trauma-informed teaching and learning to best practices that emphasize kindness, courage, curiosity, and consistency in pedagogy (see Appendix 1). The ten principles in total—which include empowering students, inclusivity and collaboration, cultivating cultural competency, resilience, and more—reveal an urgency to offer support at all levels of teaching, whether through assignment design, discussion facilitation, mentoring, or assessment methods. The value of consulting this chart stemmed from being able to openly discuss the ways in which we were already applying strategies for trauma-informed teaching and learning and where we saw opportunity for more.

One of our major goals in this redesign was to not only create a program that was more inclusive and accessible, but we also wanted to be sure we carefully model valued practices to our students who go on to become teachers themselves. A question we consistently returned to was: how can we fuse the student-centered underpinnings we want to embody as a program with the actual course content students will encounter across the certificate courses?

A first step towards that goal was to map our meta-practices through the trauma-informed teaching and learning chart. We each spent some time assessing the “best practices” listed in the chart and determining how we already or planned to model or draw future teachers’ attention to each principle. For example, under the principle “understand your students,” we collectively noted that our programs are committed to implementing community building activities throughout each semester in addition to offering low-stakes assessments and regular opportunities for feedback and student input in how the course is designed and facilitated. A distinct benefit of this activity was how it revealed the gaps in our meta-practice, turning our attention to key areas where we needed to continue developing content and discussing pathways towards trauma-informed teaching and learning (for a blank version of the table we used for this activity, see Appendix 2).

At this stage in our process, we thought it necessary to discuss the myriad traumas our Fall 2020 students may be facing. A daunting task indeed, our thought-process was to name these traumas in order to anticipate what the impending semester might look like and develop responsive pedagogical practices. Our list included:

  • The ongoing financial and student debt crises;

  • Geographic dislocation, including physical separation from family, friends, school, and student-teaching sites;

  • The ongoing public health crisis and exposure to COVID, particularly among those who were deemed essential workers;

  • New constraints surrounding childcare and family needs as a result of the Bay Area’s stay-at-home orders;

  • Uncertainty stemming from the impending national election;

  • Continued racial injustices and pervasive white supremacy culture; and

  • The ongoing environmental crisis, including the approaching and recurring fire season in California.

In short, our list revealed to us the extreme stressors we all—students and faculty—were finding ourselves in, exacerbated by the massive uncertainty that loomed on nearly all levels of public life.

The real work happened afterwards, when we considered this list and brainstormed strategies (or “salves,” as we continued to refer to them) to these traumas, thinking through ways our in-class practices could responsibly acknowledge these realities. Our list included:

  • Pedagogical flexibility;

  • Collaborative decision making among faculty and students;

  • Foregrounding accessibility in course design;

  • Quality over quantity in things like attendance requirements and assessments;

  • Empathy and active listening;

  • Emphasizing community in our courses, and centering student experiences and backgrounds;

  • Centering gratitude, mindfulness, and self-care; and

  • Creating a central repository of community resources for addressing basic needs.

While not an exhaustive list, developing these ideas was a crucial part of our process as we continued to think about our goals and values both as a program and as individual teachers. Frankly, we were all feeling worn down and anxious leading up to the Fall semester of 2020, having just come off of a tumultuous Spring semester ravaged by COVID and fires, with displacement and rolling blackouts in the Bay Area along with extreme economic precarity. Preparing for a semester that would also likely be just as chaotic felt untenable. However, this particular activity brought us some hope during the uncertainty. Fusing a macro-view of the challenges the students in our program would face with more nuanced approaches to addressing these challenges through culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris; Paris and Alim) activated us as we geared up to work on our individual syllabi and assignments. It gave us concrete actions to build towards.

We used this document as a touchstone for our work throughout the summer, and later on in our redesign we did another round of reflecting on how we as individuals wanted to apply valued practices for trauma-informed teaching and learning to our own classrooms. We built a chart (see Appendix 3) where we each defined actions we wanted to engage with and for our students in the upcoming semester. Answers included practical and immediate actions such as building in enough time to create and revisit collaboratively written rubrics or abandoning strict deadlines in favor of more malleable ones. In completing this task individually, it allowed us to see where there were overlaps in what we planned to do while also sharing ideas with each other on things like fostering collaboration and student choice in our classes.

In this chart, we all also defined future ideas or questions to explore on a longer-term timeline than we had over the course of the summer. Some of these contributions flowered out of discussions in which we wanted to pursue an idea further but simply didn’t have time within the strict constraints of our redesign. This practice helped us to maintain that energy and document those ideas so we didn’t lose them completely amidst all of the other more immediate work we had to do. Crucially, this step helped reinforce the idea that program (re)design doesn’t just happen in isolated instances but is instead an ongoing endeavor. Many of our reflections touched on, in some way, the importance of continuing our own education in the topics that had come up throughout the summer, namely trauma-informed pedagogy and cultural competence (see Appendix 4 for further reading that informed our ongoing education). Further, in service of maintaining an understanding of the continuous evolution of the field, there was also a pervasive want to broaden our own theoretical lenses—a general desire to better understand niches of the field our individual research areas do not often touch.

Part 4: Reflecting on our experiences: benefits of the redesign process

There were many benefits to our redesign process, some anticipated and some that revealed themselves throughout. Primarily, conducting this redesign process afforded us the rare yet incredibly valuable opportunity to map out, at a macro level, what our programmatic values are and how those values are made explicit in our day-to-day work with students. As faculty, we of course have institutional and programmatic commonalities that run through our programs, but being able to see what nuanced practices our colleagues engage in with students was so important in understanding what our program says to students as a whole about what our faculty value.

Additionally, this process allowed us to see what gaps existed in our curriculum, giving us explicit direction in understanding what we need to add to individual courses. For example, we had conversations about when and where students should encounter issues of online teaching and learning, and where those concepts should be repeated and reinforced. We also talked about how much we wanted to devote to professional development in certain courses. Overall, this process helped individual faculty not feel so anxious and compelled to fit in everything we feel students need to encounter in our course. Instead, we reallocated topics and concepts across the program as a whole, paying acute attention to where certain concepts or theories are introduced and where they should be revisited and reexamined.

These discussions, ones grounded in the specifics and practicalities of each individual course, revealed to us the genres within which students were writing across the program and how these genres were named by individual faculty. For example, what one person might call a “literature review” might be referred to as a “reading synthesis” by another. This process helped us build more consistency into what we call certain assignments in service of eliminating confusion for students.

Of course, this redesign started out as one that was wholly meant to benefit our students, and yet we found ourselves as faculty being supported in ways that were much needed. In a sense, the redesign served the additional purpose of providing peer mentorship to the early-career faculty we had on our team. For instance, as we met throughout the redesign process to review and discuss the content of each course in the program—with particular focus on how each course (and its associated forms of assessment) helped students achieve both course-specific learning outcomes and program learning outcomes—Jim began to form a more coherent sense of these programs. As a pre-tenure faculty member who had taught just one course in the program (and only once), he was largely unfamiliar with the scope and sequence of the programs, in addition to the content and skills associated with each course. Courses that had up until now existed as merely numbers to him (e.g., 700, 701, 710) began to take on substance and texture. We were sharing our course objectives and specific assignments, as well as the knowledge and skills those assignments assessed. The more we discussed our individual courses and the pedagogical strategies we employed, the connections among the courses and within the programs grew more apparent. Bridget too, who had taught ENG 700 twice before but hadn’t observed any of the other graduate courses in the program, always felt curious about whether her assignments or reading load were appropriate for our context and the goals of the broader program. Seeing what others were doing gave her more insight and confidence in her role as graduate faculty. As any educator will tell you, especially early-career faculty, sharing course syllabi with your colleagues can be anxiety provoking. While we are a close-knit faculty, it is uncommon to discuss our entire course content with each other and doing so was both validating and enriching.

There was also a professional development component to this redesign that served the interests of the entire team. For instance, we shared the names of authors, scholars, and researchers whose work we used in our courses; many of these names were familiar to most, but everyone came away from the experience having learned about a new idea, author, or line of inquiry within the field. Along the same lines, this process required us to embark upon a collaborative search for new materials and techniques that would infuse our courses with the content and values that we sought to include as part of this project—antiracist pedagogy, trauma-informed teaching, social justice, inclusion, and more equitable access.

Our redesign process also gave us a space to share our anxieties, our fears, and our measured accomplishments during a uniquely unusual and perplexing time for educators (as well as the rest of the world). None of us had ever lived through—let alone taught through—an experience even remotely similar to the circumstances wrought by COVID-19 and the host of interrelated events and injustices described above. As each of us juggled the complex mix of personal and professional challenges that now constituted our worlds, our collaboration provided us with a place to connect with colleagues whom we already knew and respected, ask questions, trade ideas and recommendations, and exchange assurance and support. Though impossible to quantify, this affective dimension of our work together was equally—if not more—valuable to us as the curricular work we were completing.

The impetus for our collaboration was to reconceptualize, restructure, and revise these programs—at both the program level and at the course level—in response to the inevitable constraints forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had shunted all instruction online. The pandemic kept us physically apart from each other and from our students, yet our reaction to these limitations was a concerted effort to forge stronger professional (and personal) connections via technology. While it’s possible that the five of us would have somehow chosen to collaborate on this project (or a similar one) without the incentive of a global pandemic, it’s not very likely. Under “normal” (i.e., non-pandemic) conditions, it’s quite easy to operate independently, even those of us who teach in the same program. This project brought together not only faculty within the graduate Composition program but also members of the TESOL, English Education, and Professional Writing and Rhetoric programs. Although we did not set out to combat “the silo effect”—a phenomenon that occurs when faculty members inhabit “their own little part of their academic neighborhood and consequently experience minimal interaction with colleagues” (Linton)—collaborating on this redesign resulted in our inadvertent creation of an online faculty learning community, which breaks down barriers among colleagues and encourages “interaction that will help them improve their effectiveness as educators while also meeting some of their personal needs” (Linton). One goal of our work together was to foster support and community for our students; almost inevitably, we were concurrently doing the same for ourselves.

Like many curriculum redesign projects and cross-program collaborations, we encountered various, but not insurmountable, challenges as we met to develop a focus, purpose, and direction of the new curriculum. Our team was made up of faculty from different programs including composition, professional and technical writing, TESOL, and English education. We each had different levels of familiarity with the composition program—some had taught all courses, others specialized in a few or others just one—and differing perspectives about what roles learning theories play in writing pedagogy. Although these differences could potentially be a source of conflict, they instead provided us with opportunities to talk about the courses we taught, share our reading lists, and discuss our assignments both during regularly scheduled meetings as well as through co-authored spreadsheets, tables, and documents. Through ongoing dialogue, we sought to clarify for ourselves what degree cognitive, constructivist, or sociocultural theories of learning play in a curriculum with an anti-racist lens. Rather than requiring one universal learning theory, we agreed that students learn from a rich variety of perspectives on learning brought by the individual faculty member.

Another challenge was tackling the vast amount of material for each course. We realized that we likely had some overlap from one course to the next. To remedy this, we created a spreadsheet to organize our courses around topics, readings, and assignments to allow us to observe collectively the degree to which students were meeting program requirements. Remarkably, there was very little overlap across the courses. In the rare occasion in which different courses assigned one or two of the same readings, faculty switched out overlapped readings for new literature or intentionally chose to revisit a key text later on in the course progression. Here again, dialogue also served as a way for us to discuss a balance between conceptual assignments such as literature reviews and critical summaries and more pedagogical assignments like developing a curriculum, syllabus, and a lesson plan.

What made our endeavor so successful was a shared passion for and investment in the program, curriculum, and students. Creating opportunities for dialogue and ways to recognize, learn, and grow from the strengths of all faculty helped to make this collaboration a meaningful and purposeful undertaking.

As we look forward, there are several steps we hope to take to sustain and continue this work. First, we plan to meet as a group after our redesign implementation to discuss what worked well and what work remains. Second, we plan to gather student perspectives about our course content and delivery in ways that explicitly make reference to our goals of pedagogical flexibility, collaboration, accessibility, empathy, community, mindfulness, and social justice. Of course, a longer-term goal is to determine if our intended outcomes are being met (and being met in the places we envision them being met). Another long-term goal is to explore opportunities for team teaching, as this redesign has reignited our understanding of just how beneficial the merging of approaches and perspectives can be.

Ultimately, this redesign raised the occasion to come together in community as we prepared to teach during the most unreasonable conditions. As we seized an unlikely kairotic moment, we gained new understanding of our current curriculum and practices to see how we can better meet and serve our students. Further, the experience of coming together around shared action helped us to strengthen our intellectual and pedagogical ties to one another and our program—ties that felt fragile in a time of social upheaval and distant learning. We hope some of the processes shared above may help other faculty connect deeply to their students, one another, and to the goal of creating and sustaining more inclusive and socially just learning spaces.


  1. Appendix 1: Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Chart developed by SFSU’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning
  2. Appendix 2: Worksheet for applying Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning chart (Appendix 1) to our meta-practice with future teachers
  3. Appendix 3: Mapping the Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning chart (Appendix 1) to our personal goals for Fall 2020 and beyond
  4. Appendix 4: Recommended for Further Reading

Appendix 1: Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Chart developed by SFSU’s Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (PDF)

Appendix 2: Worksheet for applying Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning chart (Appendix 1) to our meta-practice with future teachers


Using above bullets, use this column to note ways we model or draw future teachers’ attention to concept

Physical, Psychological, Academic Safety

Understand your students

Clarity of expectations

Inclusivity and Collaboration

Empower Students

Appropriate Boundaries and Assignments

Cultivate Cultural Competence


Mentoring and Engagement


Appendix 3: Mapping the Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning chart (Appendix 1) to our personal goals for Fall 2020 and beyond

Concrete things I want to do with my students this semester...

Future ideas or questions to think more about together later on...


  • Create services document and remind students of resources

  • Use greater choice/flexibility in pacing/deadlines

  • Ensure enough time/space to create and revisit collaborative rubrics

  • Learn more about creating cultural competence as the world around us changes

  • Learn more about how “students cue their trauma”


  • Build in significant flexibility for deadlines

  • Be mindful of screen time and workload

  • Scaffold writing assignments; devote class time to drafting, feedback, and revising

  • Continue working on active listening skills and skills that allow me to see needs that aren’t necessarily being vocalized

  • Learn more about cultural patterns in our grad student population in order to create more relevant and inclusive course materials

  • Continuing education about the field


  • Encourage students to connect course topics, readings, discussions to their own trauma/challenge/hardship experience and to the things society is going through right now. (text-to-self-to-society)

  • Revise assignment expectations to foreground flexibility, individual choice, and collaboration

  • Roster collaboration in more varied ways (that go beyond just zoom break-out groups) so that students can develop a stronger sense of community and support

  • Broaden my own personal “theoretical lens” beyond traditional Marxism. (I did a BA concentration in Socialist Economics, and I still see things mainly through that critical lens, e.g. primary function of schools is to reproduce economic inequality.)

  • Learn about ways to foster cultural competence


  • Empower students through flexible deadlines

  • Ensure inclusivity and collaboration by including “writing retreats” in the course

  • Foster mentoring opportunities by designing assignments that encourage engagement with writing teachers/practitioners

  • Offer students the opportunity to complete assignments collaboratively or individually

  • Learn from colleagues how they address trauma in their courses

  • Learn more about generating class rules collaboratively

  • Gather mid-semester feedback on what’s working/what needs to be revised


  • Share with students (as appropriate) my own struggles with trauma and invite them to share theirs—as well as strategies for addressing and overcoming trauma—as part of early-semester community-building activities

  • Include as much choice as possible not only within assessments but also in class activities

  • Design courses so that students may complete all required work and engagement either synchronously or asynchronously

  • Abandon strict deadlines for assignments and offer students suggested deadlines; negotiate with students who need additional time in order to mutually determine appropriate expectations for submitting work

  • Continue to educate myself about trauma, the ways in which it affects teaching and learning, and strategies for effectively acknowledging, addressing, and overcoming it (e.g., read Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score).

  • Learn more about integrating (as opposed to simply adding) elements of TIP into my teaching and students’ learning.

Appendix 4: Recommended for Further Reading

Avineri, Netta, et al, editors. Language and Social Justice in Practice. Routledge, 2018.

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge & National Council of Teachers of English, 2020.

Carello, Janice. Creating a Trauma-Informed Program or Department: Questions to Facilitate Self- Assessment. Trauma Informed Teaching Blog. March 2020, Accessed 8 March 2021.

Davila, Bethany. Standard English and Colorblindness in Composition Studies: Rhetorical Constructions of Racial and Linguistic Neutrality. Writing Program Administration, vol. 40, no. 2, 2017, pp. 154-173.

Garcia, Gina Ann. Decolonizing Hispanic-Serving Institutions: A Framework for Organizing. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, vol. 17, no. 2, 2018, pp. 132-147.

Inoue, Asao B. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. Parlor Press LLC, 2015.

Inoue, Asao B. How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy? College Composition and Communication, vol. 71, no. 2, 2019, pp. 352-369.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, vol. 32, no. 3, 1995, pp. 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 84, no. 1, 2014, pp. 74-84.

Matsuda, Paul Kei and Ryan Skinnell. Considering the Impact of the WPA Outcomes Statement on Second Language Writers. The WPA Outcomes Statement—A Decade Later, edited by Nicholas N. Behm, et al., Parlor Press, 2013, pp. 230-241.

Moran, Molly Hurley. Writing and Healing from Trauma: An Interview with James Pennebaker. Composition Forum, vol. 23, 2013, Accessed 21 February 2021.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom: A Resource for Educators, 2017, Accessed 8 March 2021.

The Online Writing Instruction Community. PARS, Accessed 5 March 2021.

Price, Devon. Laziness Does Not Exist but Unseen Barriers Do. Human Parts, 23 March 2018, Accessed 21 February 2021.

Slevin, James F. Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti, et al. Other People's English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Teachers College Press, 2014.

Works Cited

Baker-Bell, April, et al. This Ain't Another Statement! This Is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice! Conference on College Composition and Communication, 3 Aug. 2020, Accessed 21 February 2021.

Bali, Maha. Literacies Teachers Need During Covid-19. Al-Fanar Media, 13 May 2020, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Barre, Betsy, et al. Workload Estimator 2.0. Wake Forest University Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Berke, Debra L. and Rebecca M. Ghabour. Trauma-Informed Educational Practices (TIEPs) in Higher Education. National Council on Family Relations, 29 January 2019, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Borgman, Jessie, and Casey McArdle. Personal, Accessible, Responsive, Strategic: Resources and Strategies for Online Writing Instructors. WAC Clearinghouse, 2019.

Borgman, Jessie, and Casey McArdle. PARS in Practice: More Resources and Strategies for Online Writing Instructors. WAC Clearinghouse, 2021.

Calhoon-Dillahunt, et al. TYCA Guidelines for Preparing Teachers of English in the Two-Year College. National Two-Year College English Association (TYCA), 9 April 2016, Accessed 21 February 2021.

Carello, Janice. Principles for Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning. University of Buffalo New York, 2013, Accessed 21 February 2021.

CEETL. Center for Equity and Excellence in Teaching and Learning, San Francisco State University, n.d., Accessed 21 February 2021.

Ching, Kory, et al. The Locally Responsive, Socially Productive MA in Composition. MA Programs at Work, edited by Margaret Strain and Rebecca Potter, National Council of Teachers of English, 2017, pp. 3-21.

Davidson, Cathy. The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course. Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, 11 May 2020, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Davidson, Shannon. Trauma-Informed Practices for Secondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest, n.d., Accessed 21 February 2021.

Fallot, Roger D., and Maxine Harris. Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC): A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol, April 2009, Accessed 17 June 2021.

Gallagher, Chris W. The Trouble with Outcomes: Pragmatic Inquiry and Educational Aims. College English, vol. 75, no. 1, 2012, pp. 42-60.

Garrison, D. Randy, et al. Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education, vol. 2, no. 2-3, 2000, pp. 87-105.

Hassel, Holly. Preparing the Next Generation of Two-Year College English Teachers. Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 45, no. 1, 2017, pp. 5-7.

Jones, Angela. Trauma Porn: Necropolitics, Slow Death, and Everyday Life. Dr. Angela Jones, 1 February 2020, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Linton, Gregory. The ‘Silo Effect’ in Academia and Its Consequences. Higher Education, Pedagogy, & Policy, 14 January 2009. Accessed 21 February 2021.

Lockhart, Tara. Flexibility, Hybridity and Writing: Theory and Practice for Developing Post/Graduate Literacies. Research Literacies and Writing Pedagogies for Masters and Doctoral Writers, edited by Cecile Badenhorst and Cally Guerin, Brill, 2016, pp. 371-388.

Lockhart, Tara and Mark Roberge. Informed Choices: A Guide for Teachers of College Writing. Bedford/St. Martins, 2015.

MA Composition Faculty. Certificate in the Teaching of Composition. Department of English Language and Literature, San Francisco State University, Accessed 21 February 2021.

MA Composition Faculty. Certificate in the Teaching of Postsecondary Reading. Department of English Language and Literature, San Francisco State University, n.d., Accessed 21 February.

Martell, Maci. Super commuting ‘sacrifice’ takes toll on SF State students. Golden Gate Xpress, 25 November 2018, Accessed 3 March 2021.

Okun, Tema. White Supremacy Culture. DRworks: Dismantling Racism, n.d., Access 21 February 2021.

Paris, Django. Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, vol. 4, no. 3, 2012, pp. 93-97.

Paris, Django, and H. Samy Alim. What Are We Seeking to Sustain Through Culturally Sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 84, no. 1, 2014, pp. 85-100.

Stewart, Mary K. Communities of Inquiry: A Heuristic for Designing and Assessing Interactive Learning Activities in Technology-Mediated FYC. Computers and Composition, vol. 45, 2017, pp. 67-84.

Study and Action Series. SURJ Bay Area, Accessed 21 February 2021.

Taylor, Sherria D., et al. The Social Justice Syllabus Design Tool: A First Step in Doing Social Justice Pedagogy. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity, vol. 5, no. 2, 2019, pp. 133-166.

Vandenberg, Peter, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon. Advancing by Degree: Placing the MA in Writing Studies. College Composition and Communication, vol. 62, no. 2, 2010, pp. 257-282.

Venet, Alex Shevrin. The How and Why of Trauma-Informed Teaching. Edutopia, 3 August 2018, Accessed 17 February 2021.

Whitson, Helene. STRIKE!... Concerning the 1968-69 Strike at San Francisco State College. Found SF,!..._Concerning_the_1968-69_Strike_at_San_Francisco_State_College. Accessed 17 February 2021.

Wood, J. Luke. Black Minds Matter. 6 July 2020, Accessed 21 February 2021.

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