Academic environments are (theoretically) places where students come to be educated – they arrive on campuses after (typically) being cocooned for 16+ years – universities are where students emerge from their cocoons fundamentally transformed.
Plato and Shame
I’ve had the distinct privilege of working with students for more than two years now; the past year and a half as a teaching assistant and the time before that as a tutor. When you work with students, you realize that most of them have incredible potential, potential that you can see pent-up inside of them, but potential that they’re either unable to, or afraid to, release and realize. To address the latter concern in the first day of my tutorials this session I talked briefly about Plato and the straight-from-the-text reading of how absurd men appeared when laughing at the women who trained to become philosopher kings alongside men. The point was this: laughter in the classroom threatens to injure your comrades and, more importantly, marks that the person laughing can’t comprehend the purpose/form of laughter – their mirth demonstrates just how little they themselves understand.
I haven’t had a single person (that I’m aware of) be shamed by having other students laugh at them.
The Micro-politics of Shame
The former issue, that of releasing inner potential, I haven’t ‘solved’ (if that’s even possible). Recently what I did find, however, was a particularly insightful blog post by halfanacre. She writes,
Today was my second lecture of the semester. I decided I needed to tell my students that if they were to do good work in my classroom, they would have to be brave. I put a slide up that read: “Read History. Be Fearless.” And then I told them that it was more important to be right than to look right, more important to reach for a full, astounding understanding of a text than to settle for mediocrity. I think I trembled a little. I wanted them to know. I wanted to remind myself. What we do takes courage. It’s not a take bullets kind of courage. It’s personal, private, intellectual. It’s courage all the same.(Source)
I’m uncertain that sharing similar thoughts would necessarily cause my students to realize that they were in a safe environment to realize their potential, but perhaps what it would do would be to acknowledge the challenges in being right, rather than looking it – it is hard to release your potential when in releasing it you appear out-of-step with one’s peers. It recognizes that shame typically emerges as a micro-politic of power that derides the individual from within; external declarations of a person’s shame are far less effective in blocking their communications or reflections. Maybe some kind of combination of my Platonic diatribe in tandem with something resembling that halfanacre did might make educational environments just a bit safer for students to realize their potential in.
Something that I myself have found in the past 18 months is that in the process of learning history, it becomes possible to see linkages and commonalities in texts that I had thought I was reasonably familiar with. As a result of my readings, I’ve sometimes been able to express myself and add to conversations in ways that (I think) improve the discussion. That said, it’s terrifying when introducing ideas or interpretations that you know are different, that you know deviate from those of your classmates and even the seminar leader. I admit that, in a few cases, a petrifying fear overtakes me, as I question whether what I’m about to suggest is even historically accurate, let alone right. What if it isn’t? What if I’m not right? What if, what if, what if? I try to capture those moments, and save them for later reflection.
Then I jump – I say what I believe to be right, and experience the frenzy of learning that ensues.