Disclosure, Vulnerability, and Empowerment in the Classroom

The unit that stayed with me most from my time in the #OLDFF Fellowship focused on vulnerability and failure. A recurring thread during those two weeks was the paradoxical empowerment that accrues by welcoming vulnerability in the classroom—on the part of students and faculty. Yes, of course! I thought. Encouraging vulnerability has been a mainstay of my teaching practice, especially in first-year courses. Explaining the idea of a “tutorial” to students new to university, I encourage them to embrace the discomfort of making themselves vulnerable by taking chances, asking questions, sharing ideas that are still in the rough. Only through taking risks ourselves can we create safe environments for others to do so.

It’s pretty easy to tell students to embrace vulnerability, but what about embracing it myself? As precarious faculty, I carry a vulnerability that is always present and palpable to me, even if it’s not visible to students. The discussions in the #OLDFF meetings brought me to reflect on my own relationship to disclosure and vulnerability in the classroom and to recognize with greater conviction the value in making visible the vulnerability of precarious work as it’s experienced by me and my precarious colleagues, who fill more than half of the teaching positions in postsecondary education today.

When I started teaching as a sessional instructor, I took great pains to obscure any sign of my own shaky job status. I never let on to students, for example, that I had just barely made it to class on time after the 2-hour drive from one institution to another, or that I was running on 5 hours of sleep because I’d been working other part-time jobs to stay afloat. A permanent-status colleague once joked to me in front of an entire class about how little I was paid for my teaching; I felt humiliated. Most of all, I worried that the students would lose respect for me, as if my credibility as an instructor came solely from my position at the university.

My talks with colleagues in #OLDFF helped me see the extent to which my thinking on this issue has shifted over the years. I now make a point of telling my students that I, like most of their instructors, have insecure employment. I’m currently lucky enough to be on a full-time limited contract, so I no longer have multi-hour drives between institutions; many of my colleagues, however, are not so lucky. I tell students that their TAs are teaching high-enrollment courses at several schools, so it’s important to include one’s name and course title in emails to avoid confusion. Through disclosing the realities of today’s academic precariat I learned that, despite my worst fears, students didn’t take me less seriously as an instructor. Paradoxically, those acts of vulnerability empowered me by revealing that my credibility in their eyes didn’t in fact depend on my position at the university.

Those disclosures also empowered students. By making visible our own vulnerable positions, precarious faculty make visible the workings of a system that leaves students similarly shortchanged as they struggle to keep up with tuition costs by working part-time and even full-time jobs that sometimes take them away from the very classes they’re working to afford. Students and precarious faculty share vulnerabilities brought on by an increasingly dehumanizing system that divides our attentions between the goals of the classroom and the economic exigencies of maintaining a place in that classroom. The first step to humanizing that system may be to speak its truths, online and off.

Amanda Paxton

Assistant Professor (Limited-Term Appointment)

Department of English Literature

Trent University Durham

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

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