The undefended professor: the power and limits of vulnerability

The recent revival of the “me too” campaign, in which zillions of women came out as survivors of sexual harassment or assault, was a reminder of the power of vulnerability. The cumulative force of victims breaking silence promised to transform vulnerability and shame, at least for a moment, into collective power and pride. Vulnerability as a pedagogical tool, though less dramatic, also has great potential power, though I remind myself to be scrupulously attentive to my motives and expectations while practicing it.

Maturing into my profession has brought me more confidence and a greater sense of belonging. As a young professor, and a white woman in a white man’s field, I was often insecure, and sometimes suffered from imposter syndrome. Perhaps inevitably, my shaky sea legs sometimes led me to be a bit rigid in the classroom and in my scholarly conclusions. To be sure, my insecurity was justified. Like many young women professors, I was often judged both by students and coworkers more harshly than my male colleagues were. Vulnerability, then, comes at a higher price for some of us than for others.

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As a mature professor, I more naturally experience myself as working with my students on the same plane, framing us all as “class colleagues.” I can explicitly enact strategies of vulnerability, though not with perfect success. For example, on occasions when I’ve given a grade that could be a point or two higher, I’ve humbly agreed to change it at a student’s reasoned request. Sometimes this has produced a deeper connection, as (I imagine) the student comes to better appreciate our shared humanity and my intellectual flexibility. Other times, though, the student has decided I am gravely fallible, and embarked on a semester-long campaign to nickel and dime me for more points. Even very small displays of vulnerability, then, may open the door to opportunistic encroachments.

Of course, students are not really better off on this score. For example, while some underprepared students try to bluster and bullshit their way through discussions and exams, others openly acknowledge their shortcomings and knowledge gaps. Professors and students may appreciate and respect such displays of vulnerability, of course, but they may also see them as confirming stereotypes of incompetence, especially if the student is from an underrepresented group. We may, in the abstract, wish for a world in which students and professors could more courageously and maturely embody vulnerability, but in the real world — based so often on competition, judgment, and systematic hierarchy — the rewards and risks are mixed.

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We all know how it goes. We decide to open ourselves, unprotected and undefensive, to a friend or relative, bravely acknowledging a misstep, hoping they will accept the invitation and become similarly vulnerable with us. Instead, they seize upon whatever mistake we have acknowledged and leverage it as further justification for their own righteously held grievances against us. A display of vulnerability, however sincerely offered, may well be used against us by self-protective others. If I rely on vulnerability instrumentally, then, as a mere tool to get others to treat me more fairly and humanely, I may well find myself dangling from a cross. I’ll probably end up even angrier at them and also feeling like a sap.

I’m not, of course, arguing against our being vulnerable in ways that feel right to us, just reminding myself not to do so hoping to achieve some particular outcome. If we bare our naked breasts to the world, we may well be rewarded with authentic connection and newfound respect. But we may also be run through with angry spears. And this is, perhaps, the true power of vulnerability, not that we can reliably use it to get others to behave better or like us more — they may or may not — but as an ethical expression of our own deeply felt connection to other fragile creatures, beings who may never be willing to embrace their own fallibility and imperfections. Happily, few of the spears are real, and so most of the wounds we suffer are merely to our preciously guarded pride.

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