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What can a pedagogy of vulnerability offer inclusivity in the academy?

This post for ‘Inclusivity Friday’ has been shared with us by Fiona Stirling, Lecturer in Counselling at Abertay University.

image is a photograph of Fiona Stirling
Fiona Stirling, Counselling Lecturer, Abertay University

‘Should higher education be about life, or something else?’ Brantmeier (2013, p1)

The central premise of a pedagogy of vulnerability is defined by Kelly and Kelly (2020, p177) as ‘purposeful and selective acts of self-disclosure by teachers [to] help build the conditions of trust and care needed for dialogue around emotionally and politically challenging topics’. The potential of this process is two-fold. Firstly, the educational context becomes humanised (Zinn, Proteus, Keet, 2009), with students able to begin linking concepts to their lives outside the classroom, enhancing critical self-reflection. Second, traditional power hierarchies are disrupted and thus new ways of relating made possible. As bell hooks (1994, p21) explains: ‘when professors bring narratives of their experience into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators’.

Of course, the choice to engage vulnerability involves risk – of not getting things right, of not knowing what might happen next – but this risk is precisely what creates the opportunity for learning to be deepened and for new discoveries to be made by both students and educators in tandem. Such risk demands both courage from individual educators, and communities of support within institutions.

I action vulnerability in my teaching by being open about my own mental health, and consciously having my self-injury scars visible. Dominique Hill (2016) refers to this as ‘embodied vulnerability’, mobilising the body within the teaching/learning process as a potential tool for forging deeper student-teacher relationships. As a lecturer in counselling the assumption can be that I am immune to mental health issues. My scars challenge such unrealistic attitudes. It is a conscious choice which brings personal risk; an associated emotional labour of being scrutinised and potentially discredited as an academic (Stirling and Chandler, 2020). Yet, it feels essential in creating possibilities in the teaching process and beyond. As Hill (2016, p434) explains, ‘I am shifting gaze and asking students to learn about themselves by seeing me’. This shifted gaze can reveal recovery in mental health is possible, that people who self-injure can still have meaningful roles in society, that the untroubled therapist is a myth, and increase comfort around scarred bodies.

My commitment to be visible in this way has profoundly impacted my students, creating a space in which they feel comfortable to explore their own life experiences at a deeper and more vulnerable level. In essence, my body sets the tone for the learning space. Impact goes beyond the classroom, prompting them to challenge long held stigmas, and even their relationship with their own bodies, creating change that will be with them for the rest of their lives: ‘I think Fiona’s scars made me feel freer; I discussed things more, and certainly felt it was a whole deeper learning experience’ (Anonymous student).

While the subject of counselling lends itself particularly well to embedding such vulnerability there is space for it within any curriculum where the educator is willing to be courageous. One simple example is the practice of saying ‘I don’t know’, which allows a new dynamic of ‘let’s find out together’ to be embraced. Even just beginning to examine the possible place of vulnerability in the teaching space can shine light on the issue of voice, as bell hooks (1994) prompts: ‘Who speaks? Who listens? And why?’.

The true essence of being ‘in it together’ is being with and alongside students. A pedagogy of vulnerability makes this possible and offers new ways for inclusivity to flourish.


Brantmeier, E. J. (2013). Pedagogy of vulnerability: Definitions, assumptions, and applications. Re-envisioning higher education: Embodied pathways to wisdom and transformation, 95-106.

Hill, D. C. (2017). What happened when I invited students to see me? A Black queer professor’s reflections on practicing embodied vulnerability in the classroom. Journal of lesbian studies21(4), 432-442.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge, New York

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