Sharing vulnerability makes room for diversity

Uniarts Helsinki’s researchers are currently exploring methods that can help build a safer work culture in the arts sector. Sensitive teaching methods encourage reflection on issues such as the use of power in interaction. The goal is to create work and learning environments where everyone can be themselves as unique individuals.

“I don’t know how to do this.” “I’m afraid of saying something dumb because I don’t know enough about this topic.” “Participating in this exercise gives me anxiety, I wish I could step out.”

Bringing up these sentiments with colleagues or classmates can feel difficult, because it forces people to show their vulnerability to others. Professor of Dance Pedagogy Eeva Anttila and Lecturer Liisa Jaakonaho from Uniarts Helsinki are well-aware of this. Their career paths have led them to reflect on how human vulnerability could be made more acceptable both in the context of arts studies and later on when working professionally as artists.

At its best, vulnerability is a source of artistic expression and professional competence – a resource for performance and teaching situations. It helps people to grow into artists and encounter others in an empathetic way.

“When you’re in touch with your own vulnerability, you can accept it in others, too,” Jaakonaho notes.

Sensitive pedagogy and clear frameworks create safety

It is essential to understand that all people have their own insecurities and struggles. However, the aim of a teaching situation is not to have therapy-like counselling sessions around these feelings or even to always share them with others. The most important thing is to create an atmosphere where people accept and are aware of the fact that the existence of vulnerability is the starting point for work.

“This way, students will feel that despite all their wounds, traumas and flaws, they are completely appreciated as the persons they are,” Anttila explains.

Responsible and diverse teaching methods contribute to the sense of safety. The aim is to prevent accidental scratching of students’ wounds in exercises where they deal with their personal experiences. One principle is allowing students to make choices. Everyone should have the power to decide how deep into their inner world they dive in.

It is impossible to know the exact backgrounds of anyone. When asking questions, it is best to keep them open enough so that everyone can decide for themselves how much they want to reveal about themselves. A clear framework that explains what is expected of students is also something that increases the feeling of safety.

“Teachers should recognise their position of power and use their authority as transparently as possible,” Jaakonaho says.

It is a good idea to get started with work by first having a conversation about what safe space and vulnerability mean. Groups can agree on joint practices, like that it is not mandatory to participate in a certain exercise from beginning to end. Even so, it is still important to be aware of the impact that social pressure may have.

“People want to please others and have learned to remain obedient: we cope, overcome, manage and don’t sweat the small stuff. As much as you can remind people that they can drop out of something and that we can make adjustments, teachers should still observe what’s going on in the situation,” Anttila points out.

Teachers, too, can show their vulnerability

One tool for sharing vulnerability is trauma-sensitive dance pedagogy, which doctoral researcher Pauliina Laukkanen is currently developing. The idea is to create a safe work environment and to provide people support so that they are able to connect with themselves and with others. Embodied, reflective activities can stir up various kinds of emotions. It is useful to process these issues independently or with someone, during the lesson or afterwards.

“If a student is asked to influence another student’s movement in an embodied exercise done in pairs, the student can reflect on what it felt like exercising power on someone else,” Laukkanen illustrates.

The key is also to be aware of emotional coregulation within groups. When there is awareness that everybody is vulnerable, it helps all participants in the groups to be more understanding in situations where someone starts acting defensively when their wound is poked. Laukkanen points out that our autonomic nervous system is constantly reading others to detect signs of feelings of insecurity.

“If a teacher is under stress, the stress can spread to students, too, at least if the teacher isn’t aware of their emotional state and, if need be, verbalise it to the students to open up reasons for the possible tension felt.”

Then again, if everyone can be themselves in a learning or work environment, people can have genuine encounters with each other. In fact, trauma-sensitive pedagogy opens up paths towards wellbeing, because it allows people to focus on creativity and constructive interaction in a safe atmosphere instead of having to perform perfectly without making mistakes. The method can be seen as a contrast to the myth of a tragic artist: suffering is not a prerequisite for creating interesting art.

Safeguarding the right to be human makes way for diverse artist identities

The change towards a more gentle work culture could start by having professionals in the arts sector lead by example and encourage their inner circle to share their vulnerability. At higher education institutions that teach the arts, teachers can promote change through practicing good leadership and participating in pedagogical training. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t make assumptions on other people’s vulnerability, Jaakonaho notes.

“It should be everyone’s personal choice to show it when they feel safe doing so.”

According to Anttila, the arts world should also collectively engage in self-reflection: Why has the field ended up fostering a culture that favours keeping weaknesses hidden? What role does the Western conception of art have in all this, with its elitist and excluding views on art as an area of life? How do conventions of aesthetics define what we find valuable and interesting?

“We need even more of critical discussions, although we have already taken steps forward in this regard,” Anttila says.

According to Jaakonaho, sharing vulnerability is connected to increasing accessibility and equality: when people show their vulnerability, it gives room for various views on art and more diverse artist identities. It is also important to be aware of how people use power when they interact with each other, and public discussions on the topic have become more and more common in recent years.

“It may feel like we’re living in a particularly vulnerable time, but in reality, it’s just that we have started to talk about our vulnerability. It’s an opportunity for change,” Laukkanen notes.

Text: Anna Humalamäki

Eeva Anttila, Liisa Jaakonaho and Pauliina Laukkanen will discuss vulnerability and how sharing it can be supported through pedagogy at their session ‘From Hidden to Shared Vulnerability’ at the ELIA conference, which will be hosted by Uniarts Helsinki on 23–26 November 2022 in Helsinki. They have studied issues of vulnerability also within the context of an Erasmus+ project called A Pedagogy of Imaginative Dialogues together with teams with members from Norwegian, Icelandic and Dutch universities.