Tuesday 22 May 2012

Vulnerability and Academic Dynamics

Every now and then I get into a social situation where I feel uncomfortable. It may be that someone says something to me that upsets me, or I'm particularly nervous about saying something, or have my hopes dashed in an exchange with a colleague or a student. In such moments, I can feel exposed and vulnerable: letting show feelings which I'd prefer to be hidden. Over the years I've learnt to be more comfortable with this, and accept vulnerability and feeling uncomfortable as part of a process. I've learnt to value it because the rawness of emotion that arises from such moments can often spur new directions. Vulnerability, to me at least, is important.

Students are often vulnerable in this way. Many try to cover it up - avoiding the uncomfortable issues, trying to do the socially acceptable thing, making it 'look good' and putting on a good show even if underneath it doesn't feel good at all. It's not uncommon in academia to find teachers who play similar games. Over the years they learn bravado and confidence, but with bravado and confidence goes the need to defend their own position (and consequently, an inability to grow). Ironically, I've found that it is often the most vulnerable students who are capable of undermining the greatest confidence in professors and teachers. Academics sometimes don't take well to such challenges, often patronising their students with long words that mean nothing (and the students know it). Tragically, such bravado and defensive behaviour is often the most successfully transmitted knowledge to students.

These are age-old problems. No doubt Socrates patronised Plato when Plato said something that didn't fit Socrates's sense of identity. From those ancient dialogues, we get no sense of the 'positioning' between teacher and student. In modern universities, academics compete with one another as to who is 'top dog'. Once again, bravado and the brass-necked confidence kicks in. Too often it is survival of the most confident and quick-witted, rather than survival of the most sensitive and thoughtful. This dynamic has characterised academic life for centuries.

Learning to embrace vulnerability is to recognise it as meaningful and useful. Indeed, the visceral emotional reaction to an uncomfortable situation is as meaningful as the excited, passionate enthusiasm for some new idea or individual. But whereas excitement and passion lead to new avenues and opportunities, awkwardness and vulnerability lead to retrenchment and insularity. Yet if we learnt to look at awkwardness as a sign for something, and asked ourselves "what does it mean?" then I believe it can be seen as something as positive (if not more so) than excitement and enthusiasm. After all, excitement and enthusiasm rarely leads to a critique of what it is that made us excited, but instead entails an overlooking of the emotion as we look to new opportunities.

I think there are important lessons for academic behaviour and the way we value students here. If vulnerability is seen as a strength rather than a weakness, then it is students who have the greatest advantage, not professors. They have the fresh eyes, ears and brains. Knowledge lies waiting to be revealed in the challenge between fresh perspectives on the world and the established positions of academics. If academics dismiss their students as "no good", or they assert their own confidence over the students' (or colleagues) vulnerability they dismiss not only their students' privileged insight, but also their own opportunities for growth. The job of transmitting culture is precisely the job of opening hearts.

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