Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2006

Shame on You

By Paul A. Trout
The threat of embarrassment and inadequacy pervades every nook and cranny of education. From preschool to grad school, students are subjected to assaults on their self-confidence as their limitations of mind and character are repeatedly and publicly exposed. What could be more shameful, many feel, than being told what to think, or being constantly corrected, edited, graded and ranked?

When a student fails to measure up, his (or her) resulting anger can be quite stunning.

The most intense expression of shame I’ve ever read was written — on an otherwise blank exam sheet — by a student humiliated because he couldn’t identify the mythological figures the professor was projecting on the screen. He unleashed a stream of invective that began “You just aren’t worth shit!” and, several obscenity-laced sentences later, ended with “(these words go to you for the rest of your living life from me). No, respect is something that should be stripped away from you.” The only way for that student to alleviate his frustration, fear, and sense of inadequacy was to try to shame his shamer.

Such anguished embarrassment is hardly unique. By its very nature, education poses a constant threat to students’ self-esteem; it would be psychologically intolerable for some were there not ways to relieve it. Perhaps this is why higher education evolved, or at least preserved, ceremonies that seem to help salve the wounds of education. Take commencement, a compensatory ritual of integration that releases students — gowned like their erstwhile judges — from the threat of further judgment. Or take the trappings of religion (including black graduation robes, a “canon” of texts, diplomas in Latin, ceremonies of installation) that swathe higher education. The message is that higher education is a deeply serious enterprise whose attendant humiliations are not meaningless affronts, but rather expiatory penalties along the path to secular salvation.

The classroom can indeed be a harrowing place. It is here that students take (and sometimes flunk) exams, find out their (sometimes poor) grades on papers, flub answers to questions, struggle to express their ideas, try to understand advanced ideas in lectures and endure being outshown by smarter peers.

The potential sting of shame lurks in everything a professor says and does, as well. A wisecrack, a snicker, a glance, a smirk, a critical comment, a mispronounced name, even a well-intentioned compliment can make a student redden with embarrassment. Last semester I earnestly promised my students in an introductory course that they would be better writers by the end of the semester; the next day one of them explained to me, in class, that I had insulted her and her peers by assuming that their writing needed improvement.

Forty-odd years ago, a famous law professor was notorious for telling his students on the first day of class that he wouldn’t keep them long, “because I haven’t much to say to you. I haven’t much to say to you because you are too ignorant to talk to.” This acerbic remark was intended, I suspect, to incite students to apply themselves, but it is now beyond the pale (and probably for the better). Today belittling students, intentionally or not, is no longer seen as an effective device to prod them to greater effort, or even as a necessary evil. Instead, any shaming of students is seen as a hindrance to learning and a blow to a comfortable classroom atmosphere.

This pronounced change has been driven, I believe, by demographic and social realities. Each year several million high-school graduates take a shot at college. Some find this fact a reason for high-fives. But four decades of testing and studies have shown that a growing number of those degree seekers and tuition payers are not ready or determined enough to attain academic success. This means that over the decades the likelihood that students might feel inadequate and unprepared has increased and intensified.

What is an instructor to do? Students can suffer embarrassment and unpreparedness only so many times before they become hostile and sullen and stop participating in class. Who but a sadist wants to watch his students hide their faces, wipe their eyes, or sulk for 50 minutes? Over the decades, each of the roughly one million instructors in higher education has had to make his or her concessions to this situation. The obvious trend has been to institute all kinds of strategies to avoid upsetting students.

Some examples: Graded material is handed back with the telltale grade hidden from view; rankings are not made public; “feedback” is couched in oleaginous tones; criticism, when it occurs, is unctuous in its indulgence and forbearance; the Socratic method is avoided as being too inquisitorial; questions are no longer directed at a specific student but posed to anyone listening; even the most wrongheaded observation is given a tender reception (a nod or two, a wrinkled brow, and a “very interesting” suffice). The shame inherent in the mentor-mentored relationship — which assumes that the instructor actually knows more than the student — is tempered by “equalizing” strategies in which the intellectual authority of the pedagogue is obfuscated. Professors increasingly dress like students, talk like them, and even act like them: “Hey, it’s cool to call me ‘Paul.’” Therapeutic egalitarianism thrives in the college classroom. Another “strategy” to avoid shaming students is for professors to give up being the “sage on the stage” and become a “guide on the side.” No more “professing” like some arrogant know-it-all; rather, professors now tend to listen compassionately and respectfully.

Of course, the most effective way to reduce the occasions for classroom humiliation is by reducing both course requirements and grading standards. The fewer the demands placed on students, the fewer their failures and instances of shame. What makes that approach so seductive is that it can be enacted with nobody the wiser and everybody the happier. Who will notice, or care, if the course contains fewer reading assignments, exams, and papers? Who is tracking the leniency or stringency of grading standards?

Given that the deployment of those strategies can never be perfect, there will always be students who resent having their shortcomings exposed. But those disgruntled students have means to give vent to their frustration and anger: I refer to the instructor evaluation form, the centerpiece of yet another compensatory and therapeutic ritual. The following quotations have been lifted from evaluation forms in my department; notice the theme of injured self-esteem (assume “sics” throughout):
• “For being a 100 level class she used a lot of words that I didn’t know the definition of, she took for granite that we knew the definition of a lot of words & didn’t tell us what they meant.”
• “I think the teacher should not try to impose his viewpoints on us.”
• “I feel that the instructor pushed her views on the class and this was somewhat offensive.”
• “Try not to dwell on (your Ph.D.) — it is indirectly condescending.”
• “He needs to recognize everyone’s opinion is valid, and not to look so highly upon himself.”
The message seems clear: Don’t shame me, or I’ll shame you.

Instructors have a professional obligation to honestly and decently test, grade, monitor, correct, challenge and criticize students. The fulfillment of that obligation will necessarily embarrass many of them. Acknowledging anew the presence and power of shame in the classroom is an important stage in accepting its proper role in higher education. The goal should not be to banish all shame from the classroom, but to help students deal with it and learn how to surmount it. Fraudulent educational practices do not really avoid shame, but instead deepen it, by conceding that students are unable to rise to the challenge, and insinuating that higher education is not important enough to warrant discomfort.

The only lasting remedy for the shame arising from ignorance and inadequacy is the self-respect earned through knowledge and mastery. The shame is on us — not our students — if we fail to provide them with the tools to earn their own respect.

Paul A. Trout is an associate professor of English at Montana State University.

This article first appeared in the 3 November 2006 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Les opinions exprimées sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position officielle de l’ACPPU.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à l’adresse