Vulnerability is a Topos for Rhetorical Empathy


The Fall 2020 semester saw Composition programs across academic institutions struggling to adjust to the multiplied limitations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. While colleges made many different accommodations, ours offered a number of—primarily technological—solutions which differed according to instructor and student comfort levels: synchronous online, asynchronous online, “hybrid,” and “hybrid” with a remote option. With such varied classroom environments, often within the same class section, instructors modified their pedagogies with attention to individual student needs. Furthermore, those needs, exacerbated by social and economic inequities and intense political anxieties, became more obviously emotional. “Health and Safety” sections on syllabi fell short of comforting students who would be expected on campus and served to antagonize others provoked by the politicization of safety guidelines. 

Our Fall 2020 Composition classrooms begged to become places for experimental pedagogies, especially ones that catered to the anxieties writers experience and the emotional labor necessary to meet students where they are. In our department, we witnessed the empty corridors and technological mediation where our faculty met in Zoom although physically just down the hall; we knew routine questions turned into lengthy emails; and we were privy to the university’s plans for limiting student interactions while inviting them to move away from friends and family. We turned our attention to the emotional labor our students would soon go through as they navigated a strangely computer-mediated physical space and to the literature of emotional pedagogies arguing for practical strategies in vulnerability.

Recent scholarship theorizing emotionally invested pedagogies have emphasized important strategies for accommodating student anxieties and trauma. In particular, “critical witnessing” (Dutro, 2011), “thinking with” (Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen, 2014), and “rhetorical empathy” (Blankenship, 2019) concretize illusive pedagogies with practical strategies made even more important for communities dealing with trauma or hardship, like a pandemic. Elizabeth Dutro (2011) explains that literacy classrooms necessitate a “critical witnessing” in which not only students are asked to deliver testimony but instructors too must “allow [students]to be [their]witnesses—even when it is hard, even when it feels too risky” (p. 194). In “Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness,” Magnet, Mason, and Trevenen (2014) develop a number of “micropolitical strateg[ies],” the first of which urges instructors to engage in “thinking with” as a classroom pedagogical practice (p. 9). 

And like Blankenship’s (2019) empathetic rhetorical strategy of “feeling with,” Magnet, Mason, and Trevenen’s (2014) politics of kindness and “thinking with” places instructors and learners in a mutually vulnerable relationship. Warning us about the dangers of confusing kindness and leniency, they quote Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor who describe a pitfall for instructors  “not being motivated by the learner’s needs but simply avoiding responsibility for the student’s confrontation with the inevitable pain of learning” (qtd. in Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen, 2014, p. 10). In the idea of “pain” in learning, Magnet, Mason, and Trevenen (2014) describe a role for pathos in the intervention that teaching makes in learners’ writing processes. In such a relationship where instructors are “feeling with” and “thinking with,” if instructors are expected to guide students to and through pathos, instructors then cannot expect to carry an immunity from this pain. Indeed, as we share our feeling and thinking, we must also share our vulnerability.


So, in the Fall, we set aside time in our socially distanced, hybrid classrooms to be vulnerable. We moved much of the routine practices of our composition pedagogy to asynchronous, online writing instruction while our in-person meetings focused on building personal relationships, broaching difficult subjects, and undermining normative power dynamics. We were motivated with a desire to “get through this with” our students. But, in doing so, we found one tactic paid dividends for ourselves and our students. We gave ourselves a quota: Share one story every class that made us feel vulnerable.

Our tactic worked wonderfully. Sometimes, our story would prompt another student to share a similar story of an emotional experience—one removed from our current pandemic plight—and a portion of class would devolve into a kind of cathartic one-upmanship of sharing bad things that happened to our cars once-upon-a-time. But, often our story prompted students to engage in introspection of their own feelings, their shared mortality, their own investment in their (largely electronic) school work, and ultimately how their temperament affected their writing process. Theorizing the role of temperament in students’ writing process is not new (cf. Emig, 1967), but by merely sharing a vulnerable story with our students, we were getting them to fill in the missing premises of our pedagogy, to think about how their idiosyncratic pathos affected their idiosyncratic writing process. 

Outside of our Fall 2020 composition classrooms, the pandemic and rapid adoption of online instruction has been teaching our students “separateness rather than interconnectedness” (Yagelski, qtd in Boyle, 2016, p. 537). Between social distancing, masking, and online education, our students were learning in their other classes how separate they were from each other, and how the technological world of word processors, emails, LMSes, and HTML textboxes is material enforcing their difference. In their composition classroom, we were sharing experiences that prompted their self-reflection and unifying empathy—everyone had fears, loneliness, or bad things that happened to our cars.  

We find that the role of empathy during a pandemic is more important. The more traumatic our students’ lives become, the more we must share, if only to further our ends and learning objectives. The pandemic requires us to confront our students’ embodied health: Their writing process was often stymied by managing the daily anxiety of distance education and a national health crisis in which presence was a threat. Being present for our students, emotionally, vulnerably, allows us to talk plainly about frustration, anxiety, and depression with our students. While we are prompted to rhetorical empathy and kindness as best practices, tactics for demonstrating vulnerability can be difficult but productive practices which lead to those broader pedagogical categories.


Blankenship, L. (2019). Changing the subject: A theory of rhetorical empathy. Utah State University Press: Logan, UT.

Boyle, C. (2016). Writing and rhetoric and/as posthuman practice. College English, 78 (6), pp. 532–554.

Dutro, E. (2011). Writing wounded: Trauma, testimony, and critical witness in literacy classrooms. English Education, 43 (2), pp. 193–211.

Emig, J. (1967). On teaching composition: Some hypotheses as definitions. Research in the Teaching of English, 1 (2), pp. 127–135.

Magnet, S., Mason, C. L., & Trevenen, K. (2014). Feminism, pedagogy, and the politics of kindness. Feminist Teacher, 25 (1), pp. 1–22.

About Author

Brown and Hubbell

Ryan Brown is an English lecturer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville whose academic and research interests include ecocomposition, environmentalist rhetoric, and ecocriticism. Gaines Hubbell is an assistant professor and WPA at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where he researches the history of rhetoric and video game criticism.

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