Last fall semester, Beth Madison posted on the CSR blog about vulnerability in the classroom—a vulnerability on the part of professors that could lead to openness from students, and ultimately growth toward wholeness. I’d like to look at the issue of vulnerability from a different angle—that of students’ vulnerability in the classroom—and consider some of its limitations.
Many people view vulnerability as a quality that has taken its place among contemporary virtues, or at least as a subset of the cardinal virtue of courage—courage to tell one’s inner truth. As Carl Trueman explains in Strange New World,1 many people today believe that living in accordance with one’s inner self, regardless of societal conventions, is the surest path to happiness. In this view, conveying authenticity is the only way to be an honest individual; it is a matter of personal integrity. Authenticity is thus linked with morality, and vulnerability is the courage to engage in such self-expression.
Surely much of this thinking is at least partly a reaction to rampant hypocrisy exacerbated by social media, as seen on curated Instagram feeds. This repugnance toward hypocrisy has led to the creation of yet another social media platform, BeReal, on which users post only once a day and only when prompted, all within a two-minute window so that there is little time for posturing. The app uses both front and back cameras on users’ phones, so posts reveal a more complete view of people’s surroundings. Posting after the two-minute window results in a notification to other users, providing social pressure to be honest about what people are doing at that very moment. In late 2022, Saturday Night Live produced a skit about BeReal in which bank patrons convince a thief in the middle of a robbery to download the BeReal app and post about what he is doing. With dramatic humor, everyone in the bank informs the bank robber that he can’t post late or else everyone will know “that your being real wasn’t being real.” Of course, his vulnerability lands him in jail, but the moral thrust of the skit is that we should celebrate the existence of an allegedly honest social medium that champions vulnerability.
In the education sector, strong public support for student vulnerability goes back at least decades. The late bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins), a professor and social activist, championed vulnerability in the classroom in her book Teaching to Transgress,2 going so far as to describe students who refused to disclose their deepest traumas as “resistant.” For hooks, destroying the public-private boundary was a necessary part of progress toward self-actualization, and radical, engaged pedagogy should settle for nothing less than full participation in this process by every student.
Interestingly, our culture has recently shown some signs of exhaustion regarding the terminology of vulnerability, especially when it appears to be a shtick. Barely a month after the BeReal skit, SNL ran a skit about big dumb hats, at the end of which a man approaches several women and says, “Hello, ladies. Let’s get vulnerable.” The women immediately reject his advances in disgust. The insurance company State Farm has several commercials in which customers blurt out personal information, thinking that their vulnerability will lead to their securing a personal price plan: “I like to smell my beard after a really good meal”; “I save my shrimp tails. I have a whole collection. I keep them in jars under my bed”; “I shave small animals into my chest hair.” In each commercial, an embarrassed State Farm agent says, “You don’t need to get that personal.”
These are silly examples, yet I have received numerous serious examples in undergraduate students’ essay proposals. In my English composition courses, I have seen narrative and argument proposals that are far too personal. Many students have felt the need to share sensitive information with me, such as experiences with anxiety, disabilities, self-harm, etc. This sharing is potentially much more public, since I ask students to share their writing with classmates throughout the semester.
Over the years, I have taken a more proactive approach, telling students ahead of time that I will not accept proposals or essays on sensitive topics, not because I don’t care about them, but, in part, because it is nearly impossible to give critical feedback without students’ taking it personally. I never enjoy giving students low grades, but it’s worse when the topic is very personal. What am I supposed to say? “Thank you for baring your soul to me regarding your depression, but your thesis is unclear, and you have too many comma splices—D minus.”
I should add that this aversion to sensitive topics is not simply a matter of personal squeamishness. In general, trained medical and psychiatric professionals can address trauma better than university professors. I have a limited ability to properly care for students’ disclosed traumas, and directing students to professional help can be a better way to care for students than allowing unfiltered vulnerability in the classroom.
Furthermore, there are larger principles of decorum in play here. One of my colleagues recently pointed me to Hannah Arendt’s description of the blurred lines between public and private life: with modernity’s “rise of the social,” every relationship is seen as a therapeutic one.3 Even more contemporarily, with the popularity of reality TV and social media, consumers and users are encouraged to observe and participate in a kind of emotional exhibitionism that often spills over into the classroom setting. The irony is that one can articulate revulsion for inauthentic expressions on social media while simultaneously engaging in a similar kind of exhibitionism by disclosing private information to the wrong audience in a misguided attempt to be authentic. Unfortunately, in gaining the alleged values of authenticity and vulnerability, we have lost the values of restraint and self-control.
Obviously, limits on vulnerability do not require us to imitate Elsa’s initial “conceal, don’t feel” motto in Disney’s Frozen—a motto that she rejects later in the film.4 But just a moment’s consideration reveals the complexity of vulnerability. A dragon should not want a loose scale any more than a knight should want a missing piece of armor. Vulnerability where there should be protection is a liability. And yet vulnerability is a necessary component in something such as love, as C. S. Lewis points out in his chapter on “Charity” in The Four Loves: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”5
Because of this complexity, we cannot view vulnerability as an unqualified good. Vulnerability possesses an amoral quality in the sense that it could be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the subject matter, setting, audience, etc. This complexity requires wisdom to navigate. Beth Madison wisely wrote in her post that some students “are uncomfortable with [professors’] vulnerability,” and thus it is her “opportunity and responsibility [as a professor] to know when, where, what, and how much to share.” The same principle applies to students in their sharing, and while this post does not aim to provide a list of specific guidelines for developing discernment for sharing, it is a brief reminder that the formation of student discernment should include classroom discussions about the limits of vulnerability.
- Carl R. Trueman, Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022).
- bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994).
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).
- Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, Frozen (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013).
- C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1960).