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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

On Embarrassment

A great book gets me thinking about a moment that lingers.

August 15, 2018
 
 

I have an indelible memory from first semester of graduate school.

I’m at my apartment shared with a fellow first year student when the director of our program calls. My roommate answers and says it’s the director, our professor, and I am instantly nervous.

I’d spoken in class that day at length for the first time – about what specifically I can’t recall – but it seemed to go okay as a classmate picked up on whatever thread I’d presented. I remember after I’d finished my heart was pounding and it took me awhile to fully return to my senses.

I’d never been a been talker in class as an undergraduate. I was shy by nature, and often, either unprepared or indifferent to what was being discussed to boot. This hesitance to participate in class carried over to graduate school, though now it wasn’t indifference that kept me silent, but fear of being exposed as a fraud.

I feared embarrassment.

I’ve been thinking about this moment a lot in the context of Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning by Thomas Newkirk. I’m actually a little embarrassed that I didn’t know this book when I was writing my own books about writing last year because I could’ve and would’ve quoted from it extensively.[1] 

A combination of narrative, critical analysis, meditation, and treatise, Newkirk explores the role of embarrassment throughout his life as a student and accomplished career as a professor of writing at the University of New Hampshire, where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes.

Embarrassment is a problem central to learning to write as writing in school often involves an extensive cataloguing of our errors. In fact, the primary communication between instructors and students focuses on the deficits detected in the piece of writing. The risk of embarrassment is apparent.

The consequences of this orientation around errors is evident in students who perform what Newkirk calls “bleeding” as they write. The same students who are highly “fluent” at expressing ideas orally are suddenly tied up as they confront the challenge of expressing themselves in writing, a medium in which they are significantly less experienced and profoundly less confident.

Students wind up laboring over each sentence concerned less with articulating an idea, and more with avoiding censure at the hands of the teacher’s pen when making an error. The avoidance of embarrassment prevents students from doing the kind of thinking which will ultimately allow them to become more fluent as writers.

I’ve never intended to embarrass any students, but reading Embarrassment, I knew that I had done so despite these intentions. For too long, in my marking, I’d focused on correctness in student writing, even as I was imploring them in class to explore and be free.

I was simultaneously celebrating and de-incentivizing risk.

Reading Newkirk also caused me to re-appreciate how lucky I’d been to have teachers in my earliest school years who allowed me to write without experiencing embarrassment. We were taught that writing was indeed a way to explore our world and our selves and that failure was inherent to writing and not something to be feared.

I’ve written in the past about my third grade teacher, Mrs. Goldman, who had the class write instructions for making a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, and then had us try to make our sandwiches following our own instructions to the letter, a tremendous and tremendously fun bit of failure. I learned more about writing – by being introduced to the rhetorical situation - through that lesson than any experience since. 

By making our failure fun, and allowing us to see how we were capable of correcting our own errors, Mrs. Goldman demystified writing. Writing wasn’t about pleasing a teacher, but solving a problem. Even when I was later required to write formulaic, five-paragraph, essays as for an AP exam, I’d been trained to see through the formula and understood the problem I was solving inside that particular rhetorical occasion.

But over time, as I matriculated through school, while I remained confident in my writing almost to a fault, when it came to participating in class, I was sphinx-like. Even when I was engaged, my silence was so established, the risk of chiming in became even higher. Whatever urge I had to join in was squelched by my fear of exposure.

Entering graduate school, I was determined to be more active in class. I would be prepared and engaged, even if I wasn’t going to speak, and I held true to the vow. That part was easy because it was all so interesting. I found myself feeling like I had things to contribute, and so finally my desire to be heard overrode my fear of embarrassment.

When I picked up the phone, my professor was friendly, as usual, and expressed appreciation for my contribution in class, but he also wanted to let me know that I’d misused the word “penultimate” in my comment.

I know now and knew then the meaning of penultimate – the second to last item – but I also knew instantly what he was referring to. During my comment, I remember wanting to say that I thought something was the best example of whatever we were talking about and in the moment, I couldn’t decide between “pinnacle” and “ultimate” to describe it and got them scrambled into a single word, which wasn’t actually “penultimate,” but more like “pinnacultimate” when coming out of my mouth.

It would’ve been more embarrassing to try to convince my professor that I’d misspoken and I did know the definition of the word than to simply thank him for the call, so that’s what I did.

In a way, not singling me out during class was a kindness, a way to spare me public embarrassment, but I nonetheless carried the shame of that call with me for quite some time, worried that he thought me not so bright. It’s still there today, every time I see the word as a matter of fact.

As Newkirk observes, we cannot hope to avoid embarrassment, and overcoming these feelings, moving forward despite them is a necessary ability. As an instructor, I’ve even been quite intentional about allowing my own mistakes to exist in the classroom without excuse or cover up. 

As long as we’re trying our best, and extending our most charitable selves to others, hopefully there’s nothing to be truly embarrassed about.

 

[1] In my defense, it came out last September, when I was in the thick of my own writing, and not reading very much. Still, I’ve got regrets. 

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