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Showing vulnerability

Tyll Zybura, 17. Februar 2020

Acknowledging our vulnerability as teachers by addressing difficulties in class openly is a powerful strategy for connection and learning.

“Vulnerability is the willingness to say ‘I love you’ first. The willingness to do something where there are no guarantees. The willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.” —Brené Brown, TED talk “The power of vulnerability”, 2011.

Teaching unconditionally means embracing the risk that our teachings remain unheard or are rejected.

Teaching unconditionally is only possible when we embrace our own vulnerability. That’s because Unconditional Teaching is a willingness to establish communication between persons and to put trust in the processes of learning between these persons, while letting go of the expectation of particular outcomes. It’s the willingness to invest in students without expecting anything in return to be worth it.

Teaching unconditionally means accepting uncertainty in process and embracing the risk that our teachings remain unheard or are rejected. It means seeing breakdowns in classroom communication as opportunities to reflect and communicate more – instead of regulating more. It means engaging with students with all our presence and awareness and integrity, no matter what, because that is the right thing to do.

Its opposite, conditional teaching, is an attempt to avoid vulnerability by taking control, dictating methods, policing outcomes. Conditional teaching says to students “You are only worth my time and effort, my attention and energy, on these conditions – and if you don’t fulfil them, I’ll drop you.”

Conditional teaching is a show of power, it is a fear-based performance of authority and privilege, it is a raising of guards for the self and of barriers for others. The underlying premise of conditional teaching is that vulnerability is weakness and that a person of authority cannot afford to appear weak. It is a denial of human connection.

The beautiful thing about showing vulnerability is that it strengthens relationships.

Unconditional Teaching, rejecting these assumptions, sees the strength in vulnerability, the courage it takes to be open to connection, honest with others, true to one’s self. The beautiful thing about showing vulnerability is that it strengthens relationships: In the acts that make us vulnerable, that take courage, we show something of ourselves – and human beings appreciate that, always.

This is not about laying open your soul or your anxieties, it is not about confession or admission. To me, it is an existential honesty, the acknowledgment of our shared struggle for place and identity, the acknowledgment that, as human beings, we are never ‘done’, never ‘grown up’, never complete, that we must make and remake our place in the world again and again without guarantees. It is the willingness to look that fact in the eye unguarded and to let others see you in that state of unguardedness.

In that sense, vulnerability is also a prerequisite for doing empathy: To be empathic you need to make yourself vulnerable to the inner world of others, you have to accept that there is pain in human experience and be willing to ‘take it’, to hold it, to bear it.

Being vulnerable as teachers in the classroom

Showing vulnerability in teaching is not a technique or method, it is a stance or mindset with which we step into the relationship to our students. Embracing vulnerability is at the heart of my practice of speaking to students about self-care and mental health and it is at the heart of practices of empathy and Radical Acceptance.

In addition to that, I want to give a couple of examples of situations where I felt vulnerable in my teaching and chose to embrace it with outcomes that changed the classroom dynamic in powerful ways and that changed me as a person and a teacher.

  • In a team-taught seminar Katharina and I had to skip a session for another commitment. We trusted our students to make the session work on their own with just a set of tasks relayed by our assisstant, because we were convinced that learning is not something that only happens when there’s a teacher in the room directing the learning process. Unfortunately, our plan didn’t work at all and many of our students – who had been so enganged and enthusiastic before – even left the session early, one by one. When we heard about it later, we were a little taken aback, but we also knew we had made a mistake – just not what it was.

    Katharina and I decided to admit being at a loss in the following session; we explained what we had expected to happen and asked our students for help in figuring out what had gone wrong. We made ourselves vulnerable. The students reacted graciously but candidly, and we learned that, in a sense, we had betrayed the social contract that we ourselves had built in the first place: We had made our teaching personal, had proved our commitment and in turn inspired that of our students. It mattered that we hadn’t been there for them: Our well-intentioned trust in the students’ ability to work on their own was beside the point, it was their trust in us that we had let down.

    Admitting a mistake and asking for help was a difficult step for us. But taking this step afforded us a new and special connection to our students. Our initial insecurity gave way to an appreciation of how much engaging with us meant to our students, and of the responsibilities that go along with that. To me, this was the point where I realized that Unconditional Teaching means showing up always, with all my heart.

Unconditional Teaching means showing up always, with all your heart.
  • In a cultural studies seminar on Cyborgs, I had dedicated a session to discussing the current boom of sex robots and their representation in documentaries – a graphic and contentious topic. Only at the end of an intellectually and emotionally intense discussion did my students express the need to also address the related topic of child-bodied sex dolls for the use of adults, a shocking phenomenon we had become aware of during the research for the session. I found this very difficult to engange with both as a scholar and as a person, and so did my students.

    I acknowledged to the seminar my insecurity in dealing with the topic, that I felt overwhelmed but also wanted to honor their research interest. This set the tone for a session that left us all emotionally raw but intellectually resolved that we had a responsibility to not look away. Here, my own vulnerability and that of my students brought us closer together and from this one session I have taken so much courage and faith in personal, honest communication.

  • In a seminar of 80 students, I grew annoyed with the fact that almost only male students participated in classroom discussions when three quarters of students were women. In my experience, this is a self-reproducing dynamic: women speak less and less the more discourse is dominated by men. Finally, I tried to force a change by asking all men to be quiet for 10 minutes and let only women speak. Unsurprisingly, this measure failed spectacularly: no-one said anything. Because I had acted out of annoyance and without explanation, my interdiction had been an authoritarian act of conditional teaching – for the men and the women.

    During the next session I addressed my mistake, explained my rationale for the intervention, and admitted to being at a loss for how to resolve the underlying issue, which I didn’t want to let continue. I asked students for their opinions and input. From this resulted a very personal and emotionally enlightened discussion about gendered classroom discourse, and everything changed after that without enforcement. What made this possible was my acknowledgment of insecurity after a failed didactic intervention, and an openness to the risk of further rejection by addressing it again afterwards. The risk was rewarded by equally honest contributions from the students.

To me, these were all examples for how acknowledging our vulnerability as teachers by addressing difficulties in class openly is a powerful strategy for connection and learning.

As a student, I have often experienced the opposite: that contentious issues or sensitive situations were avoided, hiccups and unease were brushed over, or problems were ‘solved’ by teachers with one-sided powerplays without dialogue – those are the strategies of conditional teaching that undermine honest relationships.

It also doesn’t help to ask students what ‘went wrong’ without first admitting that everything going wrong in our classrooms is on us: As teachers, we have to take all the responsibility and admit that doing this is hard, so that students then can – maybe – feel free to share the responsibility of their own accord, without conditions.

The first step is always to talk about our own position, show our vulnerability, and then to ask the students how it was for them, what they felt, what they think, with the intent to hear them and learn from them.



12. März 2020

I'm fine with showing vulnerability when it comes to classroom situations or content issues such as the ones you've shared with us. But when you say that "taking control, dictating methods, policing outcomes" is conditional teaching, I can't quite see how teaching in our current educational system could do without them. Every time I give an assignment, I dictate a method and take control, every time I grade, I police an outcome - and I'd say that I even do so if I allow students a range of assignments or topics to choose from.

And of course I don't require my students to end up with specific answers to prestructured questions. Still, I usually require that the questions students work out take a certain form - a form accepted by the discipline - and that their answers do as well. I'd also accept a certain amount of subversion of disciplinary conventions, I'd say - but I don't think that such a subversion is even possible without knowing what the conventions are and being able to reproduce them.

Unconditional teaching definitely sounds cool, though.

Tyll Zybura

12. März 2020

Thank you for the comment! I feel this has more to do with the pragmatics of Unconditional Teaching than with the topic of vulnerability, but let me take that up:

But when you say that "taking control, dictating methods, policing outcomes" is conditional teaching, I can't quite see how teaching in our current educational system could do without them. Every time I give an assignment, I dictate a method and take control, every time I grade, I police an outcome …

I both agree and disagree.

Yes, many of the actions that constitute what we think of as ‘teaching’ in the institutional context – providing a syllabus, setting the topic of a session, providing pass requirements, setting assignments, grading them, etc. – are based on notions of authority and its use that are fundamentally conditional. Yes, our current educational system is one of conditional teaching.

But at the same time, some of these actions can be framed in ways that make them ‘more unconditional’. (Un/conditionality actually is binary and not a scale, that’s part of the power of the concept. But sometimes it’s more useful/pragmatic to think of it as a scale to find the wiggle room in structurally conditional circumstances.)

For example, whether ‘setting an assignment’ is part of a conditional teaching strategy depends on a lot of factors that have to do with the rhetoric in which I set the assignment, with whether I demand students to use very specific strategies to complete the assignment (that’s more what I mean with ‘dictating method’), with the criteria that I use to evaluate results, and with the consequences that I exact on students who don’t meet my criteria or who don’t complete the assignment.

All of these factors leave room for me to adopt a humane mindset that revolves around helping human beings to become part of my discipline, instead of guarding my discipline against rookies by punishing their mistakes. Unconditional Teaching is not about whether we set assigments or not, it’s about the way we communicate every aspect of the assignment.


13. März 2020

Thanks for taking the time to answer!

I think we are very much in agreement that even within our current educational system, it is possible to invite people in rather than to exclude them. What I was trying to express however is that as someone who is invested in opening up pathways to the humanities and sciences to all comers, I hardly ever encounter teaching-related situations without experiencing an extreme tension between my investment on the one hand and institutional strictures on the other. My approach to teaching is probably a result of trying to think through this tension - and to shape what I do to minimize gatekeeping effects while not violating principles of fairness and the ethics of my discipline.

When I first read the contributions to this page, it seemed as if you had found a way of transcending this tension entirely - or as if you were denying it. But if I read you correctly, you are aware of it too. Maybe one could say that unconditional teaching is your response to it. Perhaps unconditional teaching is a kind of ongoing struggle to remain open and vulnerable and to withstand institutional dynamics that nudge - and bully - us to close down.

I personally find what we as teachers do and how we do it extremely important - but I find equally important that we also talk about the institutional contexts in which we work - and that we work on them. At the same time, I see that talking about the ethics and politics of teaching has the potential to widen our field of vision to include institutional issues as well. At my institution, though, there's little real talk about teaching, and it's hard to get such talk going if you're hovering on the margins of the institution.

Tyll Zybura

13. März 2020

Perhaps unconditional teaching is a kind of ongoing struggle to remain open and vulnerable and to withstand institutional dynamics that nudge - and bully - us to close down.

Yes, thank you, this exactly. I feel very much seen and recognized by your comment. :)

When we started this project in summer 2019, we agreed to deliberately focus on the ways that we as individuals can resist the institutional strictures you mention, to subvert power structures that we experience as toxic, and overcome some of their damaging effects. Because this kind of resistance is and has been so important for our teaching practices. When you say that our writing makes it seem as if we had transcended the struggle, it signals to me that we succeeded in bringing across some of the possibilities for agency that we have carved out for ourselves in a very restrictive system.

But of course this agency was hard-won and needs to be defended and reaffirmed constantly. Unconditional Teaching is hard and this project aims to document the struggle. We could easily have focussed on pure criticism and deconstruction, writing one acerbic analysis after another – and I’m sure in future essays, we will also document some of our ‘losses’. But I personally would have worn myself down focussing on all the ways in which university sucks. Developing practices of Unconditional Teaching during years of teaching, working on my own mindset, fostering more wholesome relationships with my students, daring to resist systemic pressures – that has always given me strength, as much as it took a lot of energy. This is why I try to focus more on my own successful practices here than on the institutional strictures.

But yes, Jessica, Katharina and I stepped out of our institution, where good teaching is equally underappreciated (structurally and individually), to put our ideas out there and seek the discussion with a wider audience. Thank you for becoming part of that discussion! :)

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