“I Knew You Would Do This”: Performing Damage Control and the Shame/Blame Conundrum

Recently, I have been reading listening to Brené Brown’s Rising Strong (2015). In this book, Brown discusses the importance of bravery when faced with insurmountable challenges. Most significantly, she addresses how we can ‘rise strong’ when we fall on our face, including how we might challenge the feelings of shame that result when we fail at a task.

This text is coming at an important time in the semester when my students are knee-deep in assignments and are receiving feedback on a regular basis. So, for me, my attraction to Brown’s Rising Strong is how she discusses the feelings we attach to asking for help, especially how these feelings often emerge from the social stigma that views seeking help as weakness rather than strength. This book could not have come at a better time because this week, my sophomore literature students received feedback on their first major writing assignment. Although quite a number of students did well on the assignment (and a few scored exceptionally well on the assignment), a significant number of students did not simply by virtue of not fulfilling the requirements of the assignment.

For context, students were given the assignment three weeks before the due date. We discussed the assignment sheet, normed sample assignments as a class, and I facilitated a peer-review and self-assessment workshop for their first drafts of the assignment. I also held additional office hours for students to (hopefully) bring in drafts of their assignments in progress. Out of forty-two registered students, only one student appeared with a full-draft of the assignment. And three other students came to discuss their ideas about the assignment (but could not produce a full draft of it for me to review). After disseminating their feedback this week in class via a grading rubric, one student responded, “I knew you would do this.” This student received a grade s/he did not expect. My immediate response to the student was that the submitted assignment did not fulfill requirements (I did not even give this student a failing grade, which seems really generous to me). My philosophy is that when an assignment does not fulfill requirements, it should not receive a passing grade. I am sure most, if not all, teachers have a similar policy (polling my immediate colleagues tells me that this is true for most). Now, sticking to this boundary is rather difficult for me. I genuinely want to be well-liked by my students, and I am always attuned to the fact that I am a contingent faculty member whose evaluations at the end of the semester weigh heavily in my renewal opportunities. However, I am slowly coming to terms with the idea that boundary-setting and compassion can, in fact, co-exist (a point Brown makes in Rising Strong).

Needless to say, I always feel the urge to perform damage control whenever students do not do well on an assignment. This feeling of personal failure is largely self-imposed, but I also think it stems from a society that often shifts the failure of students from individual students to individual teachers. Although I am well aware of the research that exists on individual student disposition and how it plays a significant role in the student’s learning process (Dana Driscoll’s work, among others have shed light upon this), I feel the need to compensate for my lack of hetero-masculinity, as if my queerness disqualifies me from holding a position of authority. But, what I find most interesting about my student’s “I knew you would do this” comment is the sentiment that some type of trust or pact had been broken when it had not: “I turn in my assignments, so you should give me an excellent grade.”

In Brown’s book, she makes the claim that we do not prepare students for disappointment, as so many of our students believe that they are entitled to a high grade by virtue of showing up to class and turning in assignments (regardless of the proficiency those assignments exhibit). Brown frames this within a larger context of the ways in which entitled children are raised with the “every participant gets a trophy” attitude. For a long time, I thought this emerged from an unexamined ego. Instead, Brown’s insightful analysis has shifted my understanding that this sentiment comes from what she calls “stealth expectations” (139), which are unexamined attachments to expectations that we may unconsciously hold. What is more, while these “stealth expectations” manifest in the form of blame, students’ propensity for not seeking help on assignments largely evolves from a society that devalues and stigmatizes help-seeking behavior. Ironically enough, we do really well with valuing help-offering behavior (I do not need to count the number of commercials and advertisements seeking monetary aid to emphasize this point). Asking for help is deemed by society to be a sign of weakness or incompetence. Brown argues instead that “[o]ffering help is courageous and compassionate, but so is asking for help” (180).

When my student responds “I knew you would do this,” s/he is reaching to assign blame, which comes from a place of feeling shame: “…we think about blame as a form of anger used to discharge discomfort or pain. The shame-blame combo is so common because we’re desperate to get out from underneath the pain of shame and we see blame as a quick fix” (196). Perhaps rather than perform damage control, we might adopt a more holistic understanding of the ways in which blame functions in tandem with shame. “I knew you would do this” is thus a reaction against seeking help, a reaction that has been cultivated by a long tradition that stigmatizes help-seeking behavior. This raises the question: how do we create communities in our classrooms that value help-seeking and help-offering behavior? Answering this question might allow us to have a greater sense of self-compassion, compassion that we might extend to others in our teaching and, also, extend to ourselves as teachers doing the best we can.