Vulnerability

Vulnerability is intrinsic to our humanity: the human person is contingent and inter-dependent: we are born in a state of total dependency and will die in a state of radical vulnerability –Timothy Kearney, “The Transforming Power of Vulnerability”

Judith Butler begins her work on the possibility of solidarity founded in shared loss and grief with the recognition that to be human is to be vulnerable; to be in relationship and thus susceptible always to “breakage,” to being “undone” by one another. This shared vulnerability–from the Latin “vulnerare,” “to wound, hurt, injure, maim”–cannot be evaded or “willed away”; it emerges from our state of inherent relationality with the world. Even so, Butler acknowledges, “the condition of precarity is differentially distributed”;1 even in our wounding, we are not equal.

How to develop a pedagogy that recognizes and works with these precarious conditions as sites of learning?

Classrooms are spaces where people may choose to take risks with our thinking and feeling; where immersion in words, images, interactions may call up difficult experiences or memories; where trauma of an individual or collective kind might be revisited, perhaps occluding choice. These are spaces haunted by ephemera clinging to walls, texts and exchanges, where “triggers” might touch off re-visitings or new visitations of histories that continue to reverberate in the present.

Linguistically, wounding links vulnerability with trauma. Originally from the Greek, trauma came to signify a “surgical wound,” and then psychic wounding,2 experienced individually or collectively as a response to occurrences so intense and overwhelming that they return often unexpectedly in horrific memories and dreams.

Teachers and learners bring our wounds to the classroom, which is far from hermetically sealed. Recent debates have swirled around “trigger warnings,” the practice of alerting students to material that might re-ignite their experiences of extreme vulnerability or trauma. In Inside Higher Ed, a group of seven humanities professors, including a colleague at Bryn Mawr and another at nearby Swarthmore College, argue that “Trigger Warnings are Flawed”: because teachers cannot know what material will trigger students, content warnings are necessarily incomplete, even misleading, “making promises about the management of trauma’s afterlife that a syllabus…should not be expected to keep.”3 Strikingly, and ironically, this essay shifts the locus of vulnerability from learners to teachers, with the caution that faculty who teach about social injustice are the most likely to be marginalized.

Feminist disability scholar Angela Carter points out that, for those whose lives are impacted by trauma, considering its impact on pedagogy is not a choice. Rather than short-circuiting academic freedom and critical thinking, Carter argues that acknowledging trauma is “an imperative social justice issue” in our classrooms.4 As Alison Kafer notes, “It’s hard to imagine a trauma that is not in some fundamental way attached to relations of power.”5

Recognizing trauma as extreme woundedness that can act to open up or shut down new learning, I acknowledge radical differences among students’ experiences that pose differential challenges to individuals and sometimes to us as a group. I probe this node of systemic oppression, vulnerability, and trauma as un/bounded categories that split and elide, as singular and shared experiences of “radical vulnerability” and interdependence.6

A friend and colleague with expertise in the treatment of trauma asks what happens when my prison classroom triggers difficult, sometimes traumatic responses for incarcerated women, then I leave and they return to their cells. Another friend and colleague notes that this question of “what kind of responsibility one has if one takes up these kinds of radical pedagogies” applies also to our college students: “Are there irresponsible practices that emanate from the pedagogy you embrace?” I’m reaching here to address such real, hard questions, with a pedagogy that both recognizes our radical, shared vulnerability and relationality as inevitable, and draws on these as a source of learning.

  1. Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), accessed June 1, 2016.
  2. Ruth Leys, qted. in Rachel Spear, “’Let Me Tell You a Story’: On Teaching Trauma Narratives, Writing, and Healing,” Pedagogy 4 (Winter 2014), 60.
  3. Elizabeth Freeman, et al., “Trigger Warnings Are Flawed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 29, 2014, accessed June 1, 2016.
  4. Angela Carter, “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy,” DSQ: Disability Studies Quarterly 35, 2 (2015), accessed June 1, 2016.
  5. Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013), 18.
  6. Timothy Kearney,The Transforming Power of Vulnerability,” Irish Theological Quarterly78, 3 (August 2013): 245, accessed June 1, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0021140013484429