What I Learned about Shame through Asynchronous Learning

It is week one of Trimester 1 and I feel … uneasy. I stare at the welcome message from one of my instructors, drawn to a phrase, innocently penned. It instructed students that should they be unable to access live tutorials, to ‘please access them asynchronously.’ 

Context alone allows one to deduce the meaning of this word, and a quick google search confirms what I suspected. Granted, they could have said ‘at your leisure’ but why use three words when one would suffice? Surely an economical use of language is preferable? Why then, did the use of this word make me feel so uncomfortable? Is it the years of anti-intellectualism conditioning from my working-class Australian background rearing its uneducated head? I check my (lack of) privilege. Perhaps. But that answer alone doesn’t satisfy me. I still feel … uneasy.

I decide to unpack the choice of this word further.

The fundamental purpose of language is to communicate concisely, and that is precisely what this word is doing. There is no word that more accurately defines what this person intended. And yet the choice to use this word, rather than a more accessible phrase like ‘in your own time’, also communicates something, doesn’t it? Perhaps it is what the choice communicates that makes me feel unnerved. 

I conclude this choice indicates one of two possibilities. 

It could be that the speaker assumes the listener to know what the word means. A relatively harmless, unreflexive indication of privilege. An example of academic perspective, streamlining from a luxurious echo-chamber of linguistic precision. A kind of literary ‘Let them eat cake’ if you will. This would go some way to explaining my feeling of unease. If the person tasked with helping me navigate my way through indecipherable textbooks isn’t even aware that they’re indecipherable, then I’m in trouble. 

The other possibility is that the person is aware of the choice but is using every opportunity possible to expand their reader’s vocabulary. Putting in extra effort to create teachable moments, including innocuous situations like class timetable announcements. After all, this person can be described in the most basic vocabulary as a ‘teacher’ and the reader likewise a ‘student’. Why feel confronted by someone who is merely doing their job? And yet if that were true, then why not just teach students the word? Even with a simple definition in parenthesis next to it. Naturally, I hear you say, ‘it’s because students are much more likely to retain information if they go to some lengths to source it themselves’ (e.g. open a new tab and Google the word like I did). So here we have a teacher, who is going above and beyond to do their job, crafting lessons from all situations using proven pedagogical methods. I have uncovered a noble reason behind the choice to use an obscure word without providing any definition. 

And yet I still feel … uneasy.

Is it, perhaps, because the choice not to explain the term forces me to conclude that I must be alone in my ignorance? Is the feeling of ignorance in isolation compounded when you study online? Perhaps the choice not to provide a definition tells me that I will be taught by someone that is fearful of condescending those with a wide vocabulary but has no fear of alienating or intimidating those without. The class has not yet begun, yet I cannot help but feel as if a micro dose of shame was administered from the very person whose role is to inspire and provoke curiosity. In my experience, the path that connects these two states is paved with many things: humour, misunderstandings, empathy, and a truckload of metaphors, but not shame.

I’m reminded of when I found myself explaining to my partner what the beep test was—a state sanctioned fitness test where bookish teens with asthma and low self-esteem were forced to choose between the sensation of a sulphuric fire burning in their lungs or public humiliation and the subsequent twelve months of bullying that followed. Some, despite their best efforts to choose the prior, got both. When my partner shook his head asking what the purpose of such a test would possibly be, I answered that I assumed it was a standardised test to measure children’s cardio. When he pointedly noted that there wasn’t an academic equivalent to the compulsory, public indignity of the beep test, I flippantly replied ‘Of course not, because academics, unlike PE teachers, know that shame is counter-productive to learning outcomes.’ 

But do they? Do any of us? 

If shame played any productive role in self-improvement, we would not have an obesity epidemic. Yet from Kitchen Nightmares to backhanded compliments, we all persist with mistaking shame for motivation-fuel rather than seeing it for the wet blanket that it is. 

I do it. In regular conversations with friends I attempt micro-aggressions, trying to shame them into better behaviour. ‘Say Tina, what’s your favourite meal that Dave cooks for you?’ ‘It must be nice to have someone clean up afterwards’ (he does neither and I know this). Of course, these exchanges achieve nothing other than humiliating both parties, yet I can’t help myself. Somehow, I was taught shame is a useful way to motivate and affect change. It isn’t. Tina does everything in that household including work fulltime and drive the kids around on weekends, while Dave has a nap. By calling Dave out, I thought I was being a good friend. Being helpful. ‘Educating’ Dave and Tina on the inequality of their relationship and how unreflective they were in adhering to antiquated gender roles. In retrospect, I’m beginning to think it was more of a self-congratulatory exercise in my own privilege. Of course, at the time I didn’t see this. I may have been aware of the disparity between Tina’s domestic workload and mine (I mean, Dave sets a pretty low bar) but I saw it as my duty, from my position of privilege, to educate the couple on where they were going wrong. And yet it was obvious, even at the time, that all I was doing was making everyone feel … uneasy.

Which brings me back to that sentence. And the person who wrote it. I wonder if they will ever read this, and if they do, how would they feel? I admit that when my fingers typed control ‘+N’ on the Word document, the goal may have been for them to read it, for them to feel … uneasy. But one thousand words on, and I’ve changed my mind.

Because shame is shit, and sometimes shit might make good fertilizer, but the only thing that seems to grow from shame is inertia (a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged).

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