‘Excruciating’ and ‘exquisite’: The paradox of vulnerability for students and academics in enabling education

Jenny McDougall


Vulnerability can be an uncomfortable, even painful experience, yet it is also linked to courage, empathy, trust and liberation. In this paper, I explore this intriguing paradox and its relevance to university settings, with a focus on enabling (access) education. Taking an autoethnographic approach, I draw on my personal experiences as an educator and researcher to illustrate some of the ways students and lecturers experience “uncertainty, risk, and self-exposure” (Brown, 2012, p. 34). Students transitioning to university can struggle to feel that they belong. They need a supportive, respectful environment so they feel safe enough to take risks, at both a personal and academic level. Though less openly acknowledged, the role of the academic can also be characterised by uncertainty and discomfort. Our teaching ‘performances’ are constantly judged, and there are limits to how open we can be with our students; the research space is another form of self-exposure, and one that can feel particularly brutal. However, vulnerability also implies opportunities for learning and growth, and this is as true for academics as it is for our students. Letting go of our need for power and control can bring greater self-awareness, authenticity and creativity to our teaching and research, and the possibility of more holistic, transformative working environments.


vulnerability; enabling education; autoethnography; holistic learning; transformative learning; critical self-reflection

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Banner image: Kira Jovanovski (2020), movement score 01 (detail): oil stick and acrylic on paper. Photograph by Kira Jovanovski. Cover image: Kira Jovanovski (2020), grunt_iteration 02 in the boughs and stamped: installation in University Gallery. Photograph by Jedidiah Cranfield. (c) the artist.





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