Surviving (and Thriving) in the Academic Shame Culture

Recently I used the phrase “academic shame culture,” and a colleague, who’d recently been openly shamed at a faculty meeting and was therefore pretty interested, wanted to know where I had heard it.  I have no idea.  It seemed just pretty obvious to me that the academy uses shame as a method of keeping its members compliant.   Didn’t we all just KNOW this? 

Maybe not.  I googled, and saw that we’re doing research on it, and talking about it.  So it’s no secret.  But what it means?  No decisions yet.  What to do about it?  Also no decisions.

But for those of us in it, whatever it means, whatever we do about the larger structure, we have our own beloved lives to live, and it would be good to live those lives as healthily as possible.

So if you are thriving in academia, emotionally; and you thrive on the war of ideas; and if you are unaffected by the tone of contempt that you sometimes hear at the conventions and in meetings; and if you never  feel like you’re a total impostor and at some point people are going to figure out that you don’t deserve your position; and if you never ever come away from giving a lecture or speaking out at a meeting, and have to endure a shame attack for the rest of the day, then this blog post will be of no earthly use to you.  Catch you later.  You are awesome.

But for the rest of us, here’s my attempt at helpfulness:

1)  Articulate, as clearly as possible, your true values.  You can just jot them down, if you’ve got them already in your mind.  If you don’t, find a list of values, and see which ones you resonate with.  Then of those, pick the most important.  And notice which of your values your academic life serves.  Focus on those; when the shame hits, try looking at the situation from your foundational values.  THAT’s what’s important in the situation, rather than what other people think of you.  So see if that helps.  (On the other hand, if NONE of your foundational values are being served by your academic life, then there’s a whole nother issue that needs to get addressed.  Which is beyond the scope of this blog post, alas.  More on that later.)

2) Also take into account your strengths.  We’re taught, in this culture, and especially in academic training, to focus on our weaknesses.  That’s fine; let’s all work on getting better at whatever it is we’re not good at.  But let’s remember that when we work out of our weaknesses, we’re probably going to become mediocre in those works, whereas if we work out of our strengths, we’re likely to become brilliant.  Which is so much more fun, and comfortable.  Now, to be sure, a lot of us have no idea what our strengths are, because we take them for granted.  An excellent method of finding out what they are is StrengthsFinder (you’ll need to buy a book to get the access code; DO NOT BUY A USED COPY, as the code can only be used once).  A free questionnaire is available from a different company, VIA (Values in Action), and I like it very much; it’s simple and useful.

3) Take care of yourself physically.  It’s hard to thrive in a stressful environment, if you’re not feeding yourself well, getting some exercise, and sleeping well.  But taking care of yourself will have emotional benefits beyond the physical health benefits.  Also, you’ll find your work easier.

4) Have a life outside the academy.  It’s very tempting, if you’re in a graduate program in a new city, or in a new job, to focus all your time on your work life and your work colleagues.  Do.  Not.  Do.  This.  Allot some time to go do things you love which are not the academy, with people who are not in it.  Doesn’t matter what it is.  Sky diving.  Doll collecting. Bicycling.  Volunteering in the jail.  The list is infinite. 

5) Practice a method of regaining perspective. This list is infinite, too.  Here are some methods I know of: Mindfulness meditationTonglen meditationPrayerThe Four AgreementsThe 12 Steps. But here’s the deal:  you need to practice your chosen method, so that it’s strong and easily accessible when you’re floundering, and in the middle of a shame attack, and need a way out.  If the method isn’t second nature, it will still be helpful to an extent.  But the more you practice, the better you’ll be at using it.  That’s why we call it practice.  Even just giving a few minutes once a day to your practice will help.

6) Remember that your worth as a person is not measured by your grades, the clarity of your arguments, or whether or not your papers are getting published.  I know it seems like it is, but it’s not.  Really.

7) Also remember that somebody out there, or maybe even in the same room, is going to be a bigger gun than you.  Unless you are somebody like Oliver Sacks or Noam Chomsky.  In which case, ignore this one.

8)  Most importantly, don’t participate.  If you love the shame aspect of academia, or if you are convinced of its importance, then by all means continue to pass the shame along.  But if you are not convinced that you and your students are made stronger intellectuals, stronger humans, stronger citizens, by the shame, then you are honor bound to stop it when it gets to you.  So when you disagree with a colleague, do it with respect.  When rumors and backbiting come to your desk, don’t pass them on.  If you’ve been using a tone of contempt in your discourse, either written or oral, stop it.  Just stop.  If you need to fail a student or correct them, do it cheerfully and respectfully.  We are all, as academics, charged with judging each other’s arguments and rhetoric.  But there’s another human on the other side of those words.  And that human is deserving of respect. 

As are you. 

 My hope for you is that your work feeds you, recharges you, invigorates you, makes you happy, gives you a way to be useful in the world, uses your strengths, and allows you the path to live out your deepest values.