The Shame Factories of Academia

The Shame Factories of Academia

              The look of utter horror on the faces of my luncheon companions was only visible for an instant, before they reestablished their habitual control over their emotions.  But in that moment the terror that my words had inspired was unmistakably visible.

            I had, quite unintentionally, produced this effect with what I thought was a minor thought experiment. For some time I had been pondering the moral courage of my long-time friend and frequent mentor, John Maurer, who had, as a college student, devoted a week to intentionally appearing as stupid as possible. In order to face his own fear of potential rejection, he went out of his way to make statements that would mark him as an intellectual untouchable to the people around him.

            For a time I contemplated attempting a less threatening version of this moral exercise, in which I would simply spend a week avoiding even the slightest intellectual pretense.  If a book was mentioned that I did not know, I would immediately confess my ignorance.  If I did not understand an idea being alluded to, I would volunteer that information to anyone within ear shot.

             I never had the courage to implement this experiment, but I did – in retrospect unwisely – share the idea with the two Ph.D. candidates, with whom I was having lunch. They were both prime examples of the kind of macho intellectual that is often fostered in Ph.D. programs.  They were highly intelligent academic game players, always ready to demonstrate their intellectual superiority and deep understanding of the latest intellectual theory to arrive on a boat from Paris.                

            But I never would have imagined how utterly terrifying the very notion of acknowledging ignorance would be to these fine specimens of homo academicus. The suggestion of dropping the pretense of intellectual omnipotence seemed to threaten their very existence.

            A quarter century had to pass before I recognized what this moment in the lunch room had to teach me about the challenges facing the reform in higher education.  It was only very recently, when I began reading Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead that I fully realized that the extreme reaction of my luncheon companions was evidence that they and I were living within a social system based on shame.  Brown describes social organizations marked by perfectionism, negative comparisons, and notions of self-worth based on productivity.  Survival in such environments can seem to require the ability to disguise weakness and to project an image that one is all-knowing and all-powerful. But beneath this false exterior is an internalized shame and a constant fear of exposure.*    

          The culture of the university in which I taught in was not very different from the institutions described by Brown, and it seems very likely that the Ph.D. students’ display of fear and its rapid repression were a result of such a dysfunctional emotional environment.  They had been socialized in their Ph.D. programs to play an aggressive and highly competitive game of intellectual pretense in which the exposure of ignorance was the ultimate humiliation and, quite often, the occasion for symbolic or even literal exclusion from the community.  The intensity that was revealed on my companions’ faces in that moment of terror was a reflection of the abyss of shame that looms constantly before so many academics.

               To the extent that this kind of emotional torture chamber is common in many – perhaps most — of the departments that produce future college teachers, the implications for undergraduate teaching are very disturbing.  It is difficult to imagine a system of emotional training that would be less suited for creating effective teachers than the kind of shaming that Brown describes.   As she points out, in such worlds it is the possession of knowledge that is really validated, not an openness to learning.  If ignorance is the ultimate marker of unworthiness, how is a teacher to respond compassionately to the needs of novice learners?  If teachers themselves define worth in terms of a steep hierarchy based on the possession of knowledge and intellectual facility, how can they avoid seeing the intellectual poverty of their students as indications that these ignorant mortals are unworthy of serious concern?

            In the world of community organizing, there is a parable about a village in which people see a baby floating down a river. They plunge in and with great difficulty prevent the infant from drowning.  But then there is another baby and another.  And soon the good people of the town are spending all of their time trying to save these lives, until somebody realizes that it is time to go upstream and find out who is throwing babies in the river.

            In reading Brown and contemplating that moment in the lunchroom, I realized that those of us, who are working so hard to change attitudes towards teaching in higher education, need to go “upstream” and consider what is creating the attitudes that prevent so many of our colleagues from really reaching their students.  It is difficult to imagine an experience more inimical to developing good rapport with novice learners than the kind of shaming that is so common in the preparation of college teachers.  Faculty socialized in a world in which not-knowing is the original sin, and knowledge is a tool for social domination can find it very difficult to sympathize with the confusion of those who are new to a discipline or to nurture novice learners through a difficult experience of learning. Ignorance is a precondition for learning, and, if we automatically associate it with our own shame, we will project those feelings onto our students.

            One of the great joys of writing a blog is that one can ruminate on problems like this without the pressure of having an immediate strategy for solving them.  Nonetheless, here are four tentative thoughts on the subject.

  • First, this issue should be a reminder that the problems facing the reform of teaching in higher education are rooted in patterns of thought and behavior that are deeply rooted in the culture and forms of social interaction in academia. If colleagues resist our calls for a reformation of college teacher, the cause may lie, less in the insufficiency of our arguments, than in the social patterns that have shaped their attitudes. Altering these patterns cannot be achieved solely by presenting ideas in a convincing intellectual manifesto.  This will require serious strategic thinking and analysis, followed by focused action, and that action may need to focus on the production of future faculty, as well as reshaping our current faculty.
  • Secondly, the scholarship of teaching and learning can have a central role in an effort to challenge the culture of shaming. As Randy Bass proclaimed in a seminal essay at the very beginning of the movement,** at the core of SoTL is a reconceptualization of the problems we encounter in the classroom that transforms into intellectual challenges.  Reframing of students’ learning difficulties as an intellectual problem shifts our attention away from their inadequacies (or our own failure as teachers) and, thus, moves them outside the world of shaming. Once we begin to treat student learning challenges as an intellectual question, and not as a sign of moral failure, we are in a better position to identify with their plight and to take steps to improve it.  (I would argue that that the Decoding the Disciplines interview has proven to be a particularly effective way to help faculty shed the habits of shaming that were instilled during their own academic socialization, but more of that in other entries.)
  • Thirdly, a meditation on academic shaming should serve as a reminder that in creating a scholarship of teaching and learning, we must be careful to choose which elements of the broader academic culture we adapt and which we reject. In the early days of our movement, we focused a great deal of attention on ways to incorporate certain elements of traditional scholarly research into the analysis of teaching and learning.  But we also rejected the hierarchy, snobbery, and shaming that encased that research. I am sure that I am not the only participant in SoTL conferences who has been struck by how much the social environment at such events differs from that at disciplinary meetings, where the social hierarchy can be as rigid as that of Louis XIV’s Versailles and academics evaluate the status of the institution listed on someone’s name tag before they decide whether to initiate a conversation on the elevator.  The absence of such systematic shaming within the world of SoTL has produced a safe space for sharing ideas that offers a potential vision for how the broader world of academia might function.
  • Finally, those of us, who truly care about changing undergraduate education and who, ourselves, teach in institutions that are preparing future college teachers, have a responsibility to begin to challenge the notion that humiliation is a necessary component of professional socialization by producing small havens within Ph.D. programs in which more nurturing values are cultivated and the shaming of ignorance has no place. Organized around pedagogy seminars, training programs for teaching assistants, or more informal SoTL discussion groups, such safe spaces can supplement formal training in the scholarship of teaching and learning with a direct experience of a different, more nurturing and ultimately more honest intellectual environment.

* Brené Brown, Dare to lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (Penguin, Randon House, 2018), pp.113-114.

** Randy Bass, (1999). “The Scholarship of Teaching: What’s the Problem?” Inventio: Creative Thinking about Learning and Teaching 1(1).

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Linda Mann

    This is a thoughtful piece. It seems to encourage a different view of acquiring knowledge and reminds me of the “growth mindset” that has been written about by Carol Dweck and others. Thank you for writing and reposting it, David.
    It was also great to see recognition of our mutual friend and mentor, John Maurer.

  2. Andrew Stein

    It’s always what we don’t know that matters more than what we think we know.

  3. Carol Hostetter

    I love the focus on shame and how that motivates those of us who have to be the “smartest person in the room.” If professors accept our flaws and show humility to students, they would be more authentic with us. Let’s hope.

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