A Study of Shame

The good news is that I have the antidote to shame.

When I started this blog almost a year and a half ago, it was in the midst of some dust-up or other over my work or something I said or the way I said it, a too-high standard or a too-direct comment. I don't remember anymore; it all blurs together after a while.

What I do remember is why I wanted to call it "Shameless Spelling." Here's what I wrote at the time, in the inaugural post: "This kind of stuff makes me feel awful, and it happens all too often. I am not a big fan of feelings to begin with, and I certainly didn’t launch a new project just to write about them, but spelling certainly seems to inspire some strong ones. Shame is just one."

I did write about spelling and shame in my graduate work as part of an ongoing study of the intersection of orthography (spelling) and affect (feelings). Affect is a hot topic in rhetorical studies, and I like that, because it's examined logically and analytically instead of just approached as emotional quicksand, which is what tends to repel me in most conversations about feelings. Most of my doctoral research about affect did not make it into my dissertation, though some did. That's because much of that writing involved anecdotes that would not be publishable in a dissertation, as they would not meet the consent standards of the Institutional Review Board. But a lot of that writing is incisive and revealing, and I want to share some of it here, because it's about shame.

When I started back to graduate school in 2009, my main objective was to develop a disciplined writing practice, under the guidance of widely-published linguists and rhetoricians and literary critics. I chose an English department in a college of humanities instead of a pedagogy or curriculum department in a college of education for exactly this reason, and it did not disappoint. My thinking and my discipline and my clarity as a writer were constantly challenged and expanded, and still are, by my ISU professors and peers.

In my third year of this round of graduate coursework, I took a required doctoral seminar in composition and rhetoric with Amy Robillard (you can google her, if you'd like. She's a little famous, and she is on my committee). In addition to writing academic essays about storytelling and plagiarism, Amy has also written boldly pesonal accounts of sibling abuse, abortion, her mother's dementia, her dental veneers, and her own gag reflex. I admire the shamelessness in her storytelling. She even inspired me to write and publish one personal essay in an online magazine; it's called "RePair" and you can find it if you want to. It was in her comp/rhet seminar, which I was taking concurrently to teaching my internship course on English orthography to 25 undergrads, that I began to write extensively about spelling stories, whereas my first two years were largely spent writing about spelling science. At the end of my midterm essay for that class, Amy wrote the following at the end of a long comment at the bottom of my paper:

"It seems to me that there are two levels at which your work takes place: one is the investigation of histories of spelling that explain rules and irregularities and the other is the rhetoric of spelling--how it's talked about (or not), how commonplaces are perpetuated, what happens when a commonplace is challenged and becomes an issue. And you mentioned in class that there is, of course, quite a bit of anxiety that accompanies discourses of spelling--how have we been emotionally schooled to respond to the very word itself?

"And why is a spelling bee called a spelling bee?

"Your essay earns an A." (OK, that part of the quotation is gratuitous. So sue me.)

That comment really opened my eyes and my spirit to new possibilities in writing aout spelling going forward. It was my final essay for that class, entitled "The 
Spelling," that I sent to Gail Venable and Melvyn Ramsden in which I claimed that Melvyn had a doctorate and neither of them corrected the record. In that final essay, I articulated my thesis as something that had already "
of  orthography: 

I wrote in that final about three events that all took place at the 2011 International Dyslexia Association annual conference, all of which had English spelling as a central consideration. I won't rewrite the essay here, but I am happy to share it by email upon request, for any subscribers who'd like to read it. I do want to capture one part of it here, the part in which I write about an exchange with Malt Joshi, whom I call a Great Big Spelling Expert (GBSE), which I also wrote about on my archival blog shortly after it happened. The event was that I approached Joshi after his presentation at an IDA symposium and offered him my corrections of his etymological errors in a 2008 article he had published with three other GSBEs, Louisa Moats, Rebecca Treiman, and Suzalle Carreker. I detail that conversation elsewhere, but here's part of what I wrote in my comp/rhet final:

In her exploration of “Writing Shame” (2010), Elspeth Probyn draws a connection between the senses of shame and sham, a connection verified, as she points out, by their shared etymology (which, by the way, I verified independently on Etymonline). She cites journalist Lynn Barber's characterization of writerly shame as a "sense of imposture" (72), a name which Probyn argues implies making it up, hiding behind a mask of competence:

"There is no shame in being a sham if you don't care what others think or if you don't care what you think. But if you do, shame threatens. To care intensely about what you are writing places the body within the ambit of the shameful: sheer disappointment in the self amplifies to a painful level." (72-73)

Reading that passage about shame for the first time resonated deeply with me, because I recognized that the hot-cheeked, sweaty-palmed feeling I had as I approached Joshi was not just nervousness, but a kind of shame. I really wanted what I had to say to change his mind, to show him he was wrong, but shame threatened, because his credentials, experience, and professional profile were so much more prestigious than mine. That little voice said, You're a sham. I felt shame even though I wasn't being shamed; no one was shaming me. Again, you can read the account for yourself in the essay and/or my archival blog. I didn't feel like an imposter, and I knew that my understanding was supported by orthographic evidence and his was not. Nonetheless, to confront him, to take that risk, required me to scare up the appearance of confidence I wasn't actually feeling viscerally. It is Probyn who argues that that is a kind of shame, and not necessarily a nefarious or destructive one, if it propels us to speak or act, to attempt to change something.

It was especially compelling to me to run across Amy's comments and my own writing about shame today, because just yesterday, someone expressed a compelling and passionate mix of eagerness and reluctance to study with me, the reluctance propelled by what they referred to as me engaging in the "public shaming" of others.

I certainly do make noise when I find that people are wrong, not about everything, but about spelling stuff and intellectual property and ethics, for sure. I know I'm a bit of a firehose much of the time, so rather than just offering a quick defense, I decided to consider the accusation very carefully. I already knew about the etymology of shame from my earlier coursework and writing, but I decided to go to the dictionary to see what I could learn from a formal definition.

This is what I noticed:

Here the dictionary gives three definitions for shame, the verb: "make someone feel ashamed," "bring shame to," and "cause someone to feel ashamed or inadequate by outdoing or surpassing them."

When I am accused of "publicly shaming" people because, for example, I call out ethical breaches like posting public photos of juvenile students on Facebook (stupid and unsafe, even with permission), or because I offer a more rigorous orthographic understanding than other people who really, really covet my ability to do that, my "shame" detractors mean to admonish me for doing the first definition: "make someone feel ashamed." But I maintain that adults are responsible for regulating their own emotional responses, and I cannot make anyone else do or feel anything. If I could actually control what other people feel around me, I would never have any conflict with anyone, because I could just make them accepting and easygoing and emotionally even-tempered.

But I can't.

I get that one person can say something that evokes a certain emotional response in another person, like "you're a failure" or "I don't find you the least bit attractive" or "shut up, stupid." But me saying "actually, you feel bad, not badly, because feel is a linking verb, and bad, an adjective, is a subject complement, but badly is an adverb indicating that you are not skilled at feeling" – to someone who has studied grammar with me – is not an example of me "making someone feel ashamed." The wording of that definition sucks to begin with. Likewise, if I tell someone their question is phonicky, it's because their question is phonicky, not because I hate them or wish they would die or can't stand their hairdo. My  observation is not making them feel anything. The fact that their question is phonicky may make them feel embarrased or ashamed, though. See, if I kept that a secret, if I didn't point out that phonicky thinking is wrong-headed, they would've felt fine, but their understanding would not have budged.    

Others may claim that I'm operating under definition #2: bringing shame to the "community," by publicly revealing that the Real Spelling Emperor has no clothes, and by association, now the "SWI community" is looking a little threadbare. But my factual observations about spelling, about rhetoric, and about humanity are not what is bringing shame to the "SWI community;" with all due respect to James Carville, it's the fraud, stupid. I didn't bring any shame to this community. Fake credentials? False identities? Facebook fallacies? That's shameful. All I did was make it known.

What I do, I think, is definition #3: I pretty much relentlessly outdo and surpass the orthographic guessers and hobbyists and even the pretender they're determined to keep on his pedestal, and they cannot stand it. They resent me for it, and so they respond by saying that I'm shaming them, rather than the truer statement that they are ashamed, and I didn't cause it. They certainly may feel shame – they "care what others think," so "shame threatens." When I articulate an accurate understanding that shines a light on their errors, they may feel like a sham.

I do understand this because I have felt ashamed this year as I have uncovered the Frenchman's fraud and witnessed adult professionals around me offer obfuscations, lame excuses, and defenses. I feel ashamed that I didn't look into his credentials before, that I was fooled, that I loved him so fucking much. All of those things can leave me feeling the opprobrium of ever having been closely associated with him.

The good news is that I have the antidote to shame:

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