By James Burford
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. Given all 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., 2020. “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.