Peer Review

Vulnerabilities in Global Classrooms

What can one learn from the experience of being objectified to the point of being vulnerable? At some point, I imagine everyone has been reduced to a specimen, minimized as a responsibility, dehumanized as a representative of a gender, sexualized as a body for pursuit, or simply treated as an object to the point of being harmed or hurt. I would like to argue here that objectification is a critical component of global learning, such that becoming an object—gazed at and surveyed by others or by oneself—is a necessary piece of global competency that requires more attention. I contend that objectification may not be enough on its own, but that we need to pedagogically stir vulnerabilities and ultimately recognize vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness (Brown 2012). Lastly, I propose that ethnography can help us reframe our classrooms as global learning spaces that spur transformation through vulnerability.

Global Learning and Self-Reflection

Global learning calls for self-reflection. The Global Learning VALUE Rubric from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), for example, encourages global self-awareness and a recognition of one’s personal connections and responsibilities to local, national, and global causes. I suggest that learners and educators ratchet this up and do more than reflect or be aware: they need to expose, dissect, and lay themselves bare. Learners and educators should objectify themselves and peel back the many layers of their existence so they can tap into the inner values, ideas, and connections that define who they are.

W. Duffie VanBalkom (2010) argues for an anatomy of perspective, an educational paradigm that he suggests is required for a cosmopolitan worldview. At the core of this new educational framework is the self-realization that one’s own ingrained values and ideologies are in fact as much an other as the difference we regularly encounter in global experiences. For us to be cosmopolitans, he advocates that we “exotify” ourselves and recognize that our ideals and practices are not foundations of truth but are some of many perspectives in twenty-first-century global teaching and learning.

Some of you may say this is nothing new, that this is a basic form of practice in anthropology or cross-cultural communication, where one turns the table and demonstrates how odd one’s own practices and beliefs are. You may recall Horace Miner’s (1956) "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema," a classic anthropological text about the strange hygiene practices of an exotic Nacirema tribe, where the reader ultimately learns that the bizarre tribe represents American (Nacirema spelled backwards) culture. One of the main goals of this well-known article is to demonstrate how anthropologists need to be more objective when viewing their own culture as well as others. In many ways, it is about the importance of objectifying oneself.

Global learning must do the same thing. As global educators and learners, we must put ourselves in the spotlight and unwrap the various perspectives, ideas, beliefs, histories, and cultural values that define who we are. This is not easy, but it is vitally important to be reflective in global learning. However, I propose we take it one step further. We need to objectify ourselves to the point of being vulnerable, which Brené Brown argues is the “core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences” (2012, 24).

Learning through Vulnerability

Vulnerability is the state of being at risk of being harmed. This harm can come in many forms—emotional, psychological, physical, legal, sexual, spiritual, social. Being vulnerable is when safeguards are not available to protect a person from being hurt. Rather, the person is exposed, fragile, accessible, uncertain, positioned as a potential victim, and somehow in reach of violation.

At AAC&U’s 2017 Network Conference on Global Engagement and Social Responsibility in New Orleans, Louisiana, I heard Donald Harward speak about vulnerability. This is where I first started to think about the pedagogical need to encourage vulnerability, and I spent a lot of time musing about the implications for global learning. I started to consider how vulnerability provokes open-mindedness and how processes of objectification might be what places us in a context of vulnerable learning. I considered how being under scrutiny is what helps one achieve that sense of global engagement and responsibility that global learning educators all recognize is an essential piece of global education. I mused about how vulnerability promotes transformation and shifts in perspectives. I also began to ponder how we put ourselves in a position of being objectified: How do we pedagogically create vulnerability? How do we dissect our anatomies of perspective and isolate the raw vulnerability that may be a critical, and too often overlooked, piece of global learning? How do we transform vulnerability into a strength?

I have had a few of, what I call severe, moments of vulnerability. All of them included not only vulnerability but extreme objectification, when I became an object of scrutiny, when others transformed me (or I transformed myself) into a representation of something else. One of these moments was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, an experience which I coincidentally turned into a lesson for global learning (Kahn 2015). It was Donald Harward’s presentation in 2017 that stirred my thinking about the position of vulnerability and objectification and its role in allowing me to reveal myself and turn my experience with breast cancer into a form of global pedagogy. Was it my own vulnerability of being a cancer patient, being at the will of a biomedical infrastructure, scrutinized by nuclear medicine, infused with chemicals, surgically reduced, or minimized as a stage or diagnostic indicator? I was constantly under the gaze of everyone around me, and I was not in control in a way I was accustomed. I was an object, a diagnosis, an illness. I was cancer. It was this vulnerability, I now believe, that laid the framework for me being able to glance into myself, to think about my cancer as an anatomy of perspective, to reach far beyond and consider my experience a form of global learning.

Being vulnerable and objectified is clearly part of the deal of having cancer. However, one can transform this into a moment to explore oneself to an unprecedented depth. This is what I attempted to do. Self-analysis that emerges from objectification and vulnerability is what changes you, opens your mind, makes you global.

I have had other experiences when I was completely objectified. Many of them occurred when I was immersed in a culture that was not my own. When I was conducting fieldwork in Guatemala, for example, I remember being the gringa who was stared at relentlessly. Not only did I look and speak differently, but in Guatemala I was a symbol of so much inequality, neocolonial relations, and violence and wrongdoing that I was almost always objectified as something else. I certainly had friends who knew me well, but most people saw only a figment of what I represented. It made me turn inside myself, reflect on my own politics, and transform into an ethnographic subject. The vulnerability of being in the field allowed me to objectify myself, which ultimately helped me piece together my ethnographic understanding. It helped me discern my voice and see myself as an anatomy of perspectives.

Ethnographic Vulnerability in Global Classrooms

The remaining question is how to turn vulnerability into an opportunity for global learning. How can we get our students to learn from vulnerability? How can we teach vulnerability without truly putting our students in harm’s way? How do we encourage students to be objectified and then to self-objectify? How does this become regularized as a powerful pedagogy?

Vulnerability is productive in learning situations and can stimulate the shift in perspectives so critical to global learning (Jacobsen 2015). A pedagogy of vulnerability is not only about the learners—it also requires that faculty take risks of all kinds, including a possibility of not knowing (Brantmeier 2013). This aspect of admitting one does not know is at the core of vulnerable learning, where learners mutually reveal themselves. This starts with faculty, who are also expected to lay themselves bare for scrutiny. Perhaps this is what I have already done for you.

Challenging the typical classroom dynamic of educator and student is the first step in this process, as educators model the type of objectification and vulnerability being encouraged in a classroom. A culture of trust is vital for such dialogic classrooms, where an educator becomes a learner alongside one’s students, who also become educators in their own right.

A Space of Trust
If educators are to encourage students to disclose themselves and get themselves thinking about their own entangled complexities, then the classroom needs a space of trust. Educators need to create a learning environment where learners feel that they are safe, are able to share and expose themselves, and are heard.

I say this out of experience, as I recall another vulnerable moment that was quite pedagogical in nature. I was in a fieldwork course in graduate school, and the students were instructed to get in pairs to practice interview techniques in the hallway. A young woman and I paired up and we ended up talking about my mother who, coincidentally, was having surgery the next day due to her own incident with breast cancer. I was telling my interviewer about my mom and my concerns when the professor called us back in the classroom. The interview was over. The student got up. She did not thank me. She never looked back. Nothing. I remember how hurt I was, that I stupidly and mistakenly opened up to this woman and that she simply walked away. I was demeaned. I was fragile. I was hurt. I still remember this nearly twenty-five years later. If we aim to create forums for vulnerable colearning and exploration, it is imperative that we avoid this type of emotional damage. We need to build rapport in classrooms where students feel part of a unique community and where vulnerability and objectification will not lead to pain. We need to create collaborative learning spaces that involve sharing experiences, listening, and excavating difference and dissonance together. I propose we redefine our classrooms as spaces of ethnographic fieldwork.

It is not coincidental that the importance of building rapport in a classroom is similar to the need to foster trust in ethnographic fieldwork; there are many other similarities between ethnographic engagement and global learning. For example, like global learning, an ethnographic learner or researcher is required to step in and out of cultures and discern the many subcultures that give meaning to practices and ideas. Further, in ethnographic writing and research, writers have to establish a voice (Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater 2012, 40), which is not dissimilar to what we ask of students, who we hope will learn who they are, will know what they are committed to, and will develop a voice that is maintained while they regularly interact with diverse others and cultural difference.

Understanding Connections of All Kinds
Ethnographic fieldwork also requires that the ethnographer be a participant and an observer, that one shuffle between objectivity and subjectivity, between “insiderness” and “outsiderness.” This is exactly what is demanded in a global classroom, where students need to recognize their own subjectivities and the plethora of others’ subjectivities as they piece together a more complex notion of themselves and others. Ethnography is about gathering as many diverse opinions as possible, not just searching for a conclusion that suits your own ideas, but rather engaging multiple voices to get a cohesive and comprehensive understanding of an issue. Ethnography is about looking at a topic through as many lenses as possible, whether these perspectives are economic, cultural, political, ethnic, social, historic, or geographic. And, of course, as demonstrated in the Nacirema piece, ethnography requires that we think of ourselves as peculiar and that we normalize what may appear outlandish. This is all in addition to the fact that ethnography is about information gathering, about talking and listening, about collaboration and understanding.

And, lastly, as I can attest from my own fieldwork experiences, ethnography is about being objectified and putting your heart on your sleeve, such as when you might walk into a thatched-roof church in the middle of a Central American jungle and have gazes cut you like glass. Fieldwork is about sitting in your room at night, reflecting on everything that happened during the day, wondering why certain emotions were stirred in you, and piecing these actions and thoughts together with social structures, histories of migration, or economic inequalities. Fieldwork is about understanding connections of all kinds, including those deeply embedded within yourself.


Global educators might consider transforming their classrooms into global ethnographic field spaces, where students interact with themselves and others, listen and speak through difference, articulate subjectivities and objectivities, and lay bare a bit of themselves. Through this ethnographic immersion, students will provoke discovery as they put themselves under the microscope and objectify themselves, and ultimately become vulnerable in a comfortable and safe setting. Learners will turn their own ordinary lives into lessons of global learning. Once they do that, they will have the skills to not only understand the world and take responsibility for their commitments, but also to articulate and reveal more about their own complexities. From this they will find their voice, collectively produce new knowledge, and learn whenever the gaze is upon them.



Brantmeier, Edward J. 2013. “Pedagogy of Vulnerability: Definitions, Assumptions, and Applications.” In Re-Envisioning Higher Education: Embodied Pathways to Wisdom and Transformation, edited by Rebecca L. Oxford, Jing Lin, and Edward J. Brantmeier, 95–106. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Brown, Brené. 2012. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Harward, Donald. 2017. “Are Higher Education’s Efforts to Advance Global Engagement, and Global Citizenship, Un-American?” Presentation at the AAC&U Network for Academic Renewal Global Engagement and Social Responsibility Conference. New Orleans, LA, October 13.

Jacobsen, Ushma Chauhan. 2015. “Cosmopolitan Sensitivities, Vulnerability, and Global Englishes.” Language and Intercultural Communication 14 (4): 459–74.

Kahn, Hilary. 2015. “The Birthday Suit: A Lesson for Global Learning.” International Educator 34 (6): 46–47.

Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58 (3): 503–07.

Sunstein, Bonnie, and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater. 2012. FieldWorking: Reading and Writing Research, 4th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

VanBalkom, W. Duffie. 2010. “Educational Transformation with a New Global Urgency.” Perspectives on Education: Voices of Eminent Canadians 3 (2): 147–155.

Hilary Kahn, Dean of International Education and Global Initiatives and Director of the Center for the Study of Global Change, Indiana University–Bloomington

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