Vulnerability in the Age of Increased Precarity

Is it common to feel simultaneously inspired but also uneasy about a pedagogical stance, let alone a concept? This question summarizes how I feel about the conversations we had in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship program on vulnerability in the Fall.

The topic of the second module of the program was “Students as Agents of Diverse Destiny: Vulnerability and Failure.” I did my homework (i.e., read the suggested readings and listened to a couple of podcasts on the topic during my commute) in advance of the first session and I was quite excited about our discussions that eventually turned out to be intriguing, insightful, and very eye-opening. Yet, both during the conversations in breakout rooms and after the sessions ended, the uneasy feeling stayed with me. Something was keeping me from feeling warmer to this increasingly popular notion of “showing vulnerability in the classroom” which, quite ironically, fits perfectly within my teaching philosophy, at least categorically. Being authentic, open, and honest with students, which is the constitutive element of vulnerability in teaching, is also an integral component of my teaching pedagogy. In fact, I routinely talk about my positionality in all courses that I teach, including the courses where we discuss issues that often go deeply to the self, such as inequalities and discrimination with respect to gender, race, and class. I am also a big believer that when students think that a professor is rather “approachable” and “down-to-earth,” they tend to engage further with the material and participate more in class, which in turn feeds into their learning.

Interestingly enough, it took me a few days (and quite a bit of self-reflection) to dig deeper into my discomfort to understand what was going on, and my conversations with several colleagues bolstered my confidence in that if we want to have a productive discussion on vulnerability in higher education, we need to face the discomfort (and the pain) and start talking about institutional hierarchies that are there and quite real. I am convinced that, in doing so, we also need to make space for alternative ways of discussing vulnerability that do not disregard, but rather fully acknowledge, its situational nature.

Fineman, a prominent legal scholar who has written one of the most cited pieces on vulnerability, argues for the need to recognize that “we are positioned differently within a web of economic and institutional relationships” and that “a vulnerability analysis must have both individual and institutional components” (2008: 10). Once I applied this lens to understanding vulnerability in teaching, I had an easier time at pointing at the root of my ambivalence about this controversial, yet very exciting and powerful, concept. I will be direct and say that I have a problem with the way vulnerability is typically discussed at pedagogy workshops and in the teaching community (and I happily observe that this is changing drastically with the ongoing EDI initiatives). More precisely, I disagree with the common view that vulnerability is primarily an individual trait and/or a personal achievement that allows some faculty members show emotion, make mistakes, and acknowledge those mistakes in the classroom. I believe that we cannot have a truly fruitful discussion about ways to humanize our teaching without saying a word about the defining characteristics of increasingly neoliberalized higher education both in Canada and elsewhere and the manifestations of the current system that include contract jobs (read as precarious) making up a big majority of available academic positions, multiple layers of institutional hierarchies (e.g., those between the university administration and faculty, between tenured and non-tenured faculty, between tenured/tenure-track faculty and limited term faculty) and hierarchies among hierarchies (between full-time and part-time contract faculty where the latter are paid significantly less than the former).

As a junior faculty on a limited-term appointment, I often find myself negotiating a delicate balance between my own vulnerability and that of my students. On the one hand, I am well aware of research that has shown that modeling vulnerability and “productive failure” brings tons of opportunities for transformational learning in the classroom (Vaughn & Baker 2004; Yair 2008). I also know very closely that being seen and known by students, which can only happen when a professor chooses to be vulnerable in the classroom, is an excellent reward for professors who are used to navigating academia, which is a field known for delayed gratification. I do know all of this. I regularly (yet with some limits and reservations) practice vulnerability in the classroom. In fact, I usually go first in class when we discuss a sensitive and/or controversial topic and share a bit of my own life that is relevant to what we are covering. Obviously, I am fortunate that Sociology is rich for offering such opportunities due to the nature of topics we discuss in courses and the perspectives we as critical sociologists use in our teaching.

I also choose to become vulnerable when an assignment does not go the way I planned it. I acknowledge if the instructions are not clear enough or the expectation is too high, say, for a second-year course. I ask my students for their feedback and use that feedback to improve my teaching. In the meanwhile, I also come to recognize that a particular component of the course was not particularly perfect and that I need to work further on it. Going down the path of vulnerability is often (but not always or completely) a deliberate choice that one makes in the classroom. My experience so far is that students generally respond very positively to me being vulnerable, either in the form of sharing my humanity and the mundane and most essential aspects of my life, (“I have a young family and things may be hard from time to time due to my/our lack of social support in Canada”) or inviting them to work with me to improve their learning experience in the course. More specifically, when I open up with students, when I make jokes (which I see as a form of risk-taking in the classroom) and/or admit that I could have been clearer in my instructions, students do not retreat from the course or from reaching out, in fact on the contrary. They participate more, get more curious about the topic, and become more willing to share their experiences with the rest of the class and be part of our discussions.

Bell Hooks wrote that “[w]hen professors courageously share personal experience in a manner that illuminates assigned material, we help lay the foundation for building an authentic learning community” as “[h]earing one another’s personal experience in the classroom promotes an atmosphere of cooperation and deep listening” (2009: 56-58). Yet, she added, that in her untenured years, she had a hard time to “teach in ways that differed from the norm” due to “a fear of punishment” (ibid., p. 35). The “punishment” that Hooks referred to thirteen years ago is more real today due to the factors I mentioned earlier in this piece and many more.

The thing is that vulnerability comes with certain professional and emotional risks that may include losing credibility in the eyes of students (and self-confidence in one’s skills) or not getting the evaluations that one needs to get (those evaluations might eventually play a role in future job prospects). So, maintaining a competent, distanced persona in the classroom may easily seem to be the most strategic and less risky thing to do for faculty holding contingent positions. The risk is further heightened for those of us coming from racialized backgrounds considering that different aspects of one’s identity do not only impact how vulnerable they can safely be but also how that vulnerability will often be received by others (i.e., students, fellow faculty, the university administration).

Unfortunately, I do not have a magic formula about the best (i.e., safe for faculty and productive for student learning) way to embrace vulnerability for those of us who just cannot take the risk of failing in the classroom, at least fully. I wish I did. I really do. However, I know that unless we begin to recognize that vulnerability is unevenly distributed on the lines of job precarity/security, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and geography along with the distress caused by the uncertainty that many of us have in our work, vulnerability will, much to the chagrin of many of us, remain largely as a realm of the privileged. To mitigate this unevenness, I propose that we all become vulnerable by welcoming conversations about the increasingly hierarchical structures of higher education and the ways that current politics and practices affect both students and teachers in many—overwhelmingly negative—ways, regardless of how uncomfortable these conversations might be. This necessitates not overlooking how vulnerability, a seemingly individual stance or mindset, requires more than individual willingness, competence, or belief in one’s skills; rather, such an effort calls for thinking about the burning question of who can afford to be vulnerable in the classroom. Only after we fully understand that vulnerability is situational and largely dependent on a set of discourses and practices that are profoundly structural and systemic, we can start having productive conversations about new teaching and learning methods that are oriented to humanizing our courses, both in person and online. Such an effort may even provide an important opportunity to finally challenge the many discourses and practices that hurt many of us. I consider myself lucky to have been part of this emerging effort as a participant in the Online Learning Digital Fluency Fellowship program this past fall.

Tugce Ellialti-Kose

Assistant Professor of Sociology (LTA)

Trent University

References

Hooks, B. 2009. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge.

Vaughn, L. M., and R. C. Baker. 2004. “Psychological Size and Distance: Emphasising the Interpersonal Relationship as a Pathway to Optimal Teaching and Learning Conditions.” Medical Education 38 (10): 1053-1060.

Yair, G. 2008. “Can We Administer the Scholarship of Teaching? Lessons from Outstanding Professors in Higher Education.” Higher Education 55 (4): 447-459.

Photo by Miikka Luotio on Unsplash

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