Shame and Academic Darwinism

An angry group of white figures standing in a circle, pointing finger at a dotted figure in the middle.

The relation between shame and mental health is an obvious one, and it manifests in so many different ways. Less obvious—or, as I shall suggest, less explicit—is the role shame has to play in the world of academia. I’m certainly not the first to observe the culture of shame in academia—a quick google search pulls up articles at Pittsburg PhD, Legally Sociable, Anne Brannen (who’s written a how-to guide on coping with this culture), The Chronicle, and JAC (articles from 2005 and 2006). Nevertheless, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the role of shame in academia, and more specifically, on its impact on our attitude towards mental health in the academy.

What is shame?

No self-respecting academic (and certainly not a philosopher!) could proceed much further without defining her terms, so let’s sort out what we mean by ‘shame’. I found a number of different definitions in my search, but all shared a common theme: shame involves a judgement of the person we are. In this way, shame is often defined in contrast to guilt; according to Fossum and Mason (1986) where “guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person” (my emphasis). Similarly, according to Brene Brown, Ph.D., LSMW, “the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad’ [respectively]” (2012). In other words, shame concerns a judgement about our identity, whereas guilt concerns a judgement about our actions.

Identity and Darwinism in the Academic Jungle

Unsurprisingly, this action-identity distinction figures in academic life as well. In my experience, there are broadly two kinds of people who attend university: (1) those who regard themselves as persons engaged in academic activities, and (2) those who regard themselves as academics. People belonging to the second category wed their identities to their academic achievement. (Indeed, we seem to romanticise such individuals—the tortured intellectuals who live for their work.) What is more, among academics, there is a tendency to judge peers in just the same way, i.e. to identify the person with their academic contributions. Add to this the highly adversarial approach to our practice, and you have the recipe for a severely destructive environment.

Listen and watch carefully the next time you’re at a conference, or in a seminar. Listen to the chatter after the official goings-on have finished. The discourse can be ruthless. Indeed, I’ve attended some seminars that have been Darwinian in their atmosphere. One is tempted to remind everyone, “We’re all on the same side here!” From the rhetoric and the posturing, one often gets the impression that there is a battle being waged, rather than a mutual pursuit of knowledge. As Professor Linda Hutcheon writes in her excellent article on the topic, “[t]he academy rightly values critical thinking, but increasingly we seem to define that quality in terms of the wolfish belittling and even demolishing of opposing positions” (2003: 43). And is it any wonder, when we take our performance to be reflective of our worth as an academic? And, for too many of us, our worth as a person? The more threatened we feel, the more threatening we often become, in defence. It’s the academic equivalent of a porcupine’s quills.

(Of course, I don’t believe for a second that this is a problem unique to academia; after all, it is a basic capitalist assumption that competition encourages productivity… but that’s a topic for a different blog.)

Define ‘Fittest’…

If academia is, as I’ve been suggesting, a community that behaves according to the principle of “survival of the fittest,” how does that community define ‘fitness’? Who are the fittest among us? Naturally, we take those demonstrating excellence in critical thinking, analysis, and so on, to be among the best of us. Indeed, these traits are part of the everyday discourse. But there are unspoken measures, too. The fittest, it’s assumed, are the ones who can “handle it”, who can “hold it together”, who can tolerate the stress without “falling apart.” These are all expressions I’ve heard students and peers alike use in conversation. And, if I’m quite honest, they’re expressions I’ve used in my own internal dialogue, too.

To be sure, it’s not explicit discussion that leads to this attitude; I’ve not heard anyone say that, to succeed in academia, you have to “hold it together.” No, it’s a sin of omission that is to blame. How many professors can you think of that made it a point to mention university counselling services at some point in a class? I’ve had two such professors. Two. In the six years I’ve spent at university. And that’s still more than many of the people I’ve asked can think of.

So now, we have an environment in which,

     (a) many individuals wed their identity to their academic achievements and mental prowess;
     (b) antagonism among its members is all but encouraged; and
     (c) mental health is seldom, if ever, discussed.

We’ve created an institution in which we are spurred on by shame, but are unwilling to acknowledge shame’s consequences on our wellbeing. And this, predictably, inspires yet further shame in all who suffer those consequences. It’s nothing short of poisonous.

Towards a Solution: Inspiring Collaboration

As members of this grand institution, it is incumbent on us to change this poisonous atmosphere. So, what can we do, as individuals within the system, to move things forward?

1. Start the conversation.

Teachers, talk to your students about mental health. Start a dialogue about the prevalence of mental health issues and the resources available for coping with them. It’s been written that it can alleviate feelings of shame “if the person can admit them openly to others, and feels respected instead of judged by [those people]” (Dr. Thomas Scheff, cited in a 1987 New York Times article). Take steps to create that safe space.

2. Be aware of your approach.

Antagonism escalates by feeding into itself, so don’t be part of the problem. Pay attention to how you phrase your questions in discussion. Be aware of your tone. Try to change your own attitude toward the purpose of critique. We don’t have control over the way others act; the best we can do is to change ourselves. If we each make a conscious effort to approach academic discourse with a collaborative attitude, we can start to change the tenor of that discourse as a whole.

3. Separate the person from the work.

Try to maintain this separation with respect to yourself and with respect to others. We can still identify as academics without reducing our identity to that part of ourselves. And similarly for our peers. Compare the difference between the following two comments: (1) “What you’re doing there is _______”, versus (2) “The issue with that argument is _________”. One makes a remark about a person while the other remarks on an argument or position. Be aware that in discussion, we aren’t fighting a person, we’re considering an idea. And, with respect to your own work, recognise that very clever people can have very bad ideas. Remember the difference between action and identity. Try to think, “I made a bad argument,” instead of “I am bad at argumentation.”



What are your experiences with shame in academia? Do you have any strategies for shifting away from our present atmosphere of academic darwinism? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!




Academic conformity or what I learned from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer21 January. Pittsburg PhD. Available from: <> [12 April 2013]

Brannen, A., 2013. Surviving (and thriving) in the academic shame culture, 18 March 2013. Anne Brannen: Life Coaching. Available from: <> [12 April 2013]

Brooks Bouson, J., 2005. True confessions: uncovering the hidden culture of shame in english studies. JAC, 25(4), pp. 625-650.

Brown, B., 2012. Daring greatly. New York: Penguin.

Di Leo, J. R., 2006. Shame in academe: on the politics of emotion in academic culture. JAC, 26(1/2), pp. 221-234.

Fossum, M. A.. and Mason, M. J., 1986. Facing shame: families in recovery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Goleman, D., 1987. Shame steps out of hiding and into sharper focus. New York Times. 15 September 1987. Available from: <> [12 April 2013]

Hutcheon, L., 2003. Rhetoric and competition: academic agonistics. Common Knowledge, 9(1), pp. 42-49

Miller, B., 2012. Argument: “Academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture”, 17 May 2012. Legally Sociable. Available from: <> [12 April 2013]

Wherefore a blog: Tackling mental health in academia

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.

I’ve lived with mental illness for the better part of a decade now. And as for academia? I, without exaggeration, eat, sleep and breathe it. (Well, maybe not eat it… though, I did once chew some notes out of frustration! But I digress…) So why now, all of a sudden, have I been moved to launch a blog concerning the collision of these worlds? As with many of our grander ideas, it began with a faint inkling: a firefly against the grey backdrop of the day’s doldrums………

…….Time to mark papers. Dammit! Still haven’t prepared for that class tomorrow. Maybe I should start a mental health blog… Heavens to Murgatroyd! Does Billy know what a comma is?!……….

Or, something like that, anyway… At any rate, vague ideas gathered as dust on a tumbleweed, but even still, nary a blog was…blogged.

Now, because I am a philosopher and so do nothing simply, my inciting incidences were two in number:

(1) teaching undergraduates for the first time

(2) a particularly nasty week of my own.

I’ll take each of these in turn.

1. Teaching Undergraduates

As a graduate student, I’ve experienced my fair share of clashes between my mental illness and my academic career. I’ve also witnessed friends and close peers experience similar such misadventures. Then, upon commencing my doctoral studies, I took on some all-important undergraduate teaching responsibilities. As an instructor—or “tutor”—at Cambridge, I see students in numbers of 1-10. To any teacher, this is nothing short of a blessing. And, while they may not always think so, it is also a blessing for those 1-10 students: no one can hide.

I was—naively—prepared to open eyes and minds to the scintillating annuls of philosophy. Instead, it was my eyes that were opened. Or, more appropriately, re-opened. Standing at the front of the classroom, fresh chalk at the ready, what I saw saddened me: my students were terrified. Terrified of failure.

Now, it is the exception to the rule when a student is forthcoming about the challenges they’re experiencing. Nevertheless, one of my students eventually, and shame-facedly, admitted to having difficulty keeping up.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I told them. “Your work is excellent!”

That was the wrong answer. Or, at least, only half of the right one.

“I understand,” I should have said. “I know how you feel,” I eventually did say.

What I see from the front of the classroom saddens me because I watch as too many of my students—my students—suffer silently, convinced that they are somehow to blame for their situation. Convinced that they are weak for facing a challenge beyond their control. Convinced that there is shame in revealing their troubles.

This blog is my attempt to reach out to more of those students—or, at least, more than I could from the front of a classroom alone.

“Have you heard of University Counselling Services?” I ask one of them.

“No.” I see it in their face: the hackles are already up. I don’t need help!

“They’re terrific,” I continue anyway. “They’ve helped me out a lot.”

2. My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 

I said before there were two events that motivated the inauguration of this blog. This second of these is decidedly more personal. The week of April 1st was a week most trying. And if you were to have asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Our minds can be spectacularly opaque to us at times… But, one way or another, the week of April 1st was a no good, very bad week. And because I made the very biggest of mistakes, April 5th was a terrible day indeed.

My mistake?

I didn’t make a phone call.

You might be asking yourself what could possibly be so bad about that? Well, pace Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that when we’re at our worst, we feel the most alone. And it is also a truth—though, regrettably, one less well acknowledged—that our worst decisions can often be avoided if only we would dare to see that we aren’t alone at all.

Thankfully, my decision was rather benign in its consequences. Still, it was one best avoided. And avoid it I did not.

But that’s not the worst of it.

The worst of it is I chose not to make that phone call. I was too ashamed to tell someone.

So, at last, we arrive at the second motivation for this project: this blog represents my promise never again to succumb to shame where shame is not due.

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.