Vulnerability and Strength

There’s an intense vulnerability that comes with stepping into a classroom, whether as a student or as an instructor. In a classroom, you’re asked to put yourself out there in very challenging ways, to confront the limits of your knowledge and experience, and to push past those perceived boundaries into the unknown.

After awhile, you come to take it for granted, to forget that you’re asked to be vulnerable just by stepping through the door. This is just how it is, right? A natural state? And of course we bluff through it; we all do. Admitting vulnerability is a whole ‘nother level to experiencing it.

But let me go ahead and admit: we’re all vulnerable in the classroom. It’s scary and uncomfortable, and the challenge we all face, together, is not necessarily to become comfortable — and certainly not complacent — but rather to find a way to be productively uncomfortable. To remain vulnerable, keeping in mind that vulnerability is a synonym for openness; to remain open to new ideas, new concepts, new approaches.

As an instructor, the vulnerability looks and feels a bit different to what I experience as a student (lifelong learner here!) and it felt particularly acute at times this semester. My aim with this self-reflection is to trace out some of that vulnerability and how it has operated productively for me during our time together.

But before I do that, I want to take a minute to again thank each and every one of you for your intense labour and deep engagement with our course material (our texts and our conversations) this semester, even and especially when it wasn’t easy — as indeed it often wasn’t. Y’all were open to so much this semester, made yourselves vulnerable, trusted each other — and as a result, as you are all noting in your individual reflections, each of you have grown in different ways. It has been a genuine pleasure to be with you on this journey and a privilege to be a part of it. Thank you.

More below the cut — this is long-ish!

One of the things I think about a lot is feminist and critical pedagogy. The latter term comes from the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. The idea is that education can be used to liberate, to decrown authority — rather than to reinscribe norms (Freire calls this the ‘banking model’ of education: what the instructor knows is handed down to you verbatim to recite/regurgitate) and reinforce existing power structures (Marxist intellectual Louis Althusser refers to schools as ‘ideological state apparatuses’, non-government actors that work to shore up the state’s power, producing a compliant citizenry by indoctrinating them into the dominant or hegemonic ideology). Feminist pedagogy has the same aims, but adds patriarchal norms to the list of things to be subverted. (The key figure here is bell hooks, of ‘feminism is for everybody’ fame.) There’s a list of practices over on Wikipedia that’s helpful here.

For me, feminist pedagogy is about building empowerment by legitimizing individual voices and multiple forms of authority within a community of trust. Some of the adjustments I made towards this goal in our classroom were simple: if you think back to the first day, rather than handing down a list of rules for classroom behaviour, I asked each of you what would make our class a success (and what success even meant!) and how we could work towards that. Some of them were tiny: I try really hard to talk about “our class” rather than “my class”, for example. (Don’t always manage it, but I try.) Others were tougher, both for you and me — as, for example, in handing over discussion to one or two of you each week.

In a traditional classroom, in which the instructor is the dominant voice, teachers have the opportunity to frame discussion in ways that open and close various avenues: this can be used for good, to address critical issues — but it can be used for evil, to keep the conversation on safe ground, on the instructor’s home turf in which they can assert total authority. Ceding that territory … scary? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely yes. (Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have liked to feel better prepared for the turns our conversations took at times. But who ever feels totally prepared anyway?) Y’all asked me to think, hard, every single time we met. There was no possibility of a phoned-in lecture or a potted speech, no way to vague out and keep up. It was awesome, in every possible sense of that word (roll out your OED again!).

This vulnerability, layered on top of the fundamental vulnerability inherent to walking into a classroom where you’re outnumbered 23ish to 1, was amplified by the fact that this semester, I was off my home turf anyway. I’m not a literature scholar, as most of you know — although I had visions of myself as one once upon a time, enrolling in my BA intending to focus on English lit. I lasted something like two weeks before my frustration with The Canon And Its Traditional Interpretations drove me over to the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas, which was all about texts from mass and popular culture, and discussing their political and social effects. Getting assigned to teach a traditional literature class — ‘teach them to close read, how to use the OED, that kind of thing’ — was kind of an oh-shit moment for me.

I had some opportunity to frame the course around my expertise and interest — my work is in feminist science and technology studies, and popular culture, so feminist science fiction made sense — although I was concerned about figuring out an approach that worked for my ethics. In a feminist classroom, the instructor is one authority among many, has one kind of expertise among many … but real talk, all instructors cling to a sense that they know a lot about what they teach. As I was designing this course, I didn’t feel like that was the case. Feminism? Sure. Science? Sure. Fiction? Well, I am good at analyzing other kinds of texts … and really everything is a fiction … and oh well, I’ll do my best. Which is all we can ever ask of ourselves or anyone else.

And you know what? In admitting that vulnerability, in walking into our classroom aware of it, in deciding to trust myself and trust you, I found myself in a stronger position — learning more, doing more, experiencing more, growing more. This has been a profoundly rewarding semester, in ways that I couldn’t have imagined last summer as I prepped. Thank you for joining me in this vulnerable space. And I’m so glad to see us all walk out stronger for our vulnerability.

Speaking of vulnerability, I feel vulnerable posting this publicly. But I am being open to new things, so … 🙂

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