Shame is the product of many forces (Probyn 2005, p. 148)
Initially when considering the concept of shame for my research study, I shied away from it. Like others, there is a tendency to avoid shame especially when it is connected to ourselves and our own teaching. Despite my attempts at distancing, shame has emerged in several ways through my research project and in students’ reflective commentaries related to their clinical encounters. At the start of my study I conducted a small online survey for final year medical students to reflect on their Obstetrics learning. Shame was mentioned by several students in terms of their personal feelings of helplessness, in being in a space at a time that exposed them to the realities of practice. It was also noted in relation to students questioning how a health’care’ worker could shamelessly behave in a disrespectful manner to others, as well as shame regarding the medical profession for allowing these behaviours to persist. Others like Dwyer (1994) have found that medical students feel ashamed about their powerlessness. As indicated above, shame is generally associated with negativity and guilt.
In her book, Blush, Faces of Shame, Elspeth Probyn (2005) asserts that the English term shame originates from the Gothic word ‘Scham’ related to "being covered" (p. 168). An example of this ‘covering up’ was expressed by a midwife who explained to me in an interview how she avoided others feeling shame around her circumstances, by putting on ‘an emotional mask’. In many respects health professional education encourages such responses, providing few opportunities for the expression of emotions or vulnerability.
Yet shame is in us and around us permeating our becoming-with others both human and non-human. Educational theorist Michalinos Zembylas (2008) asserts that “shame is crucial in identifying the political and ideological processes” into which we are socialized and that we experience (p. 266). Shame can be used as an emotional channel for interrogating our practices. He encourages us to work with and through emotions such as shame, demonstrating the usefulness as a productive opening for re-evaluating what has been and is to come. Probyn (2005) also suggests that shame provides a channel through which we can question our value systems. It can be “a switching point rerouting the dynamics of knowing and ignorance” (p. 105).
In considering shame through a feminist new materialism lens, there is an interplay of forces. These forces intra-act through dynamic inter-relationships that influence our affective capacities and sensibilities impacting on what we do and how we do it.
Shame provides an avenue that registers interest and awareness of others (Probyn 2005). It seems to offer new opportunities for change that need further exploration. By taking up an affirmative focus on shame we can stay with the trouble (Haraway 2016) engaging with these affective capacities to foster deeper learning about our relationships.
In the image above I have copied a photo (CC BY-SA 2.0) of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture titled, Eve after the Fall then used the iPastels App on my iPad to add an umbrella. This image attempts to symbolize how we try and hold shame away, protecting ourselves from possible negativities.
Dwyer, J. 1994. Primum non Tacere: An ethics of speaking up. Hastings Centre Report. 24(1), 13-18. DOI 10.2307/3562380
Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Probyn, E. 2005. Blush: Faces of Shame. Minneapolis: Universityof Minnesota Press.
Zembylas, M. 2008. The politics of shame in intercultural education. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice. 3(3), 263–280. DOI 10.1177/1746197908095135