by James Burford, Doctoral Writing: http://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/emotions-and-doctoral-writing-shame/
I’m staring at the screen. It’s a mess of open windows, and words
that have grown fuzzier by the hour, as though they turned mouldy from
sitting too long. I open the document I’m working on. The brightness of
the page makes me feel a little nauseous.
I adjust the screen, move my
seat back, and stretch my neck - noticing each disconcerting crack, and
the tightness that threads across my shoulders. I could do with a walk,
but I had lunch only half an hour ago. I scan through.
I‘ve got a full
page, but it’s mostly junky stuff: knick knacks, nostalgic sentences,
words du jour, and a paragraph my friend gave me. It’s not good, but I
need to turn it in soon. I feel something akin to dread. Is this really
how I want to burst into print?
I start again, but can only muster a
couple of ugly weaselly words. I sit a few minutes more, feeling
wretched. I’m better than this, aren’t I? I notice the hotness of my
face, my hands are clammy too, and a rashy feeling spreads down my neck.
Balancing my elbows on the desk I lean over, and take my head into my
hands. I have only one more writing day, but I don’t want to be here. I
want to be anywhere else but here.
My colleague enters our office, she
stops to ask if everything’s all right, triggering an even deeper blush.
‘I have plenty to say’, I tell her, ‘but just can’t seem to find the
right words …'.
Given you are reading this now, it should be clear that I did manage
to write this blog post! It originates from some emails I was exchanging
with Susan Carter about my doctoral research, which is examining the
emotional scene of doctoral writing.
In one of my emails I explained to
Susan that I was increasingly interested in ‘bad feelings’, like shame,
envy, paranoia and anxiety.
I added that I was interested in these
feelings, not because I am keen to diagnose, fix or transform doctoral
writers who experience them - but because I believe they can be
critically productive to think through/with.
My curiosity about bad
feelings has also arisen out of my observations about the moral value
attached to expressing so-called positive ones.
As a critical scholar,
and queer advocate, I am well used to being positioned as (using Sara
Ahmed’s term) the ‘kill-joy’, a person who tramples on the happiness of
others, by insisting that the happiness of particular scenes is not
shared equally by all.
For this post, I thought I might simply unpack one feeling that I
have noticed in my own doctoral writing practice, a mild version of
which is also evident in the introductory paragraph: shame. This ‘bad
feeling’ is often one that is assumed to have little productive value.
Shame makes us feel bad about what we do, and who we are. It often
paralyses us just as we desire to be hidden from sight. It can
effloresce in a moment, as we recall some shameful thing or other, or
linger in the background for months, years or a lifetime.
this, why might I think shame has something productive, or at least
interesting, to offer doctoral writers?
My answer is significantly drawn from my reading of Elspeth Probyn
and other queer and feminist thinkers on the topic. Probyn has written a
helpful and also hauntingly beautiful paper titled Writing Shame.
She argues that the practice of writing carries a particular kind of
risk - the shame of being caught “highly interested in something and
unable to convey it to others” (Probyn 2005: 130).
Rather than seeking
to evade or transform shame (as many social movements have done - think
Gay Pride), Probyn is more interested in being with it, to try and
understand how we might put shame itself to use.
According to Probyn, shame teaches us about our level of interest,
and moments where that interest is broken. She notes that we are
unlikely to feel ashamed if we don’t care about something or someone.
For example, if I notice myself feeling ashamed as I recall a
mean-spirited peer review I have written, I might read my shame as
betraying the fact that I have not lived up to my ethical aspiration of
being a compassionate academic citizen.
And it is the very
self-consciousness of my shame that might enable reexamination,
potentially guiding me toward future action that is in greater alignment
with my principles.
There are other ways we might make connections between shame and
doctoral writing. For example, we can write by strategically taking up
the verb to shame.
This is something I have done myself in the past, as if to say ‘Shame on you!’ and call out questionable practices that were commonplace in my previous field.
I wanted to leave you with Probyn’s words, which seem to offer something important about shame’s possibilities for writers:
The specter of not interesting readers and the constant worry about
adequately conveying the interest of our chosen topics should send a
shiver down the spines of all writers. The blush of having failed to
connect with readers should compel any writer to return to the page with
a renewed desire to do better (Probyn 2010: 89).
What do you feel as you write, and about your writing? How have you
made sense of any bad feelings you have had about writing in the past?
What potential might these bad feelings have to teach you about
yourself, or your place in higher education?
Probyn, E., 2005. Blush faces of shame. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Probyn, E., 2010. “Writing shame” in M. Gregg & G. Seigworth (eds) The affect theory reader. Duke University Press.
James Burford is a doctoral student in the School of Critical Studies
in Education, University of Auckland, New Zealand. James is active in a
range of research areas including doctoral writing, affect and
embodiment, queer theory and LGBT studies in education and development.