Your heart races and you feel a sudden sense of sinking. You sit there silently, despite the whirlwind raging inside you as you start to feel the burning sensation on your face. A dread creeps up your spine as you imagine others paying attention to nothing but it. You want to disappear somewhere, out of others’ reach, but you can’t. You get stuck in the experience. You relive it afterwards, in moments when you know you definitely should not be digging a deeper hole beneath your feet. You go through various loops to shrug it off again, in order to function once more. You push forward and either try and ignore it, prove it wrong or just try to be better than what caused this all to occur.

Shame is often a debilitating emotion. It can be seen to come into being as a reflection of yourself from surfaces we share with others (Ahmed 2014, 106). It acts as a feedback of how we are fulfilling our responsibilities towards others and includes intense inner scrutiny when an object or an event places threats towards the self (Murphy & Kiffin-Petersen 2016). It is something we repeatedly need to deal with and learn to live with especially within academia, where our work in constantly under evaluation and where we often have to face failure (Gill 2016; Holdsworth 2020 on failure in funding calls).

One thing that can cause shame is when we have to face how we don’t know something or know how little we know (e.g. Filipovic 2017). This is especially the case in an institution focused on knowledge formation, where not knowing something can easily be experienced as a failure or a sign of not being deserving the positive sides of one’s position. Ignorance can be harmful in many ways and there is a need for prevention and damage control of its consequences both in academia and more broadly in society (see e.g. Milazzo 2016; Murphy & Kiffin-Petersen 2016). At the same time, however, facing the limits of one’s knowledge is also an integral part of research (Bloch 2012, 17).

Facing the shame over experienced failure is part of being educated to become a professional (e.g. Turner & Husman 2008). Expert knowledge, especially in uncertain circumstances, is also accompanied by dealing with that, which is not yet known of (Parviainen, Koski & Torkkola 2021). Despite this, the fact that not knowing something is strongly entangled with shame, can be seen to be indicative of how it is not as normalized and easily admitted as one could think.

In many ways, the act of learning in itself is very much based upon facing that, which is not yet known by oneself. This path of becoming to know more can be a very painful one to follow. It has also been stressed that teaching students how to deal with difficult emotions when learning would be an important part of education (Turner & Husman 2008). I would think that this kind of an approach can mitigate how incapacitating and painful shame can be to a person, but the matter could be addressed better on a broader scale.

To minimize the risk of over-inidividualization and making academic shame another form of fragmented personal projects, we can also ask, how is this a collective issue and how is it addressed accordingly on this level? It is, after all, a bit absurd that a system that is based upon most people failing often also builds walls between the possibilities to openly share this issue, feeding the fires of internal shame within each of us.

Written by: Elisa Kurtti


Ahmed, S. (2014). The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

Bloch, C. (2012). Passion and paranoia: Emotions and the culture of emotion in academia. Routledge.

Filipovic, Z. (2017). Towards an ethics of shame. Angelaki 22(4), 99–114.

Gill, R. (2016). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. Feministische Studien 34(1), 39–55.

Holdsworth, C. (2020). A manifesto for failure: Depersonalising, collectivising and embracing failure in research funding. Emotion, Space and Society 37, 100744.

Milazzo, M. (2016). On white ignorance, white shame, and other pitfalls in critical philosophy of race. Journal of Applied Philosophy 34(4), 557–572.

Murphy, S.A., & Kittin-Petersen, S. (2017). The exposed self: A multilevel model of shame and ethical behavior. Journal of Business Ethics 141, 657–675.

Parviainen, J., Koski, A., & Torkkola, S. (2021). ‘Building a ship while sailing It.’ Epistemic humility and the temporality of non-knowledge in political decision-making on COVID-19. Social Epistemology 35(3), 232–244.

Turner, J.E., & Husman, J. (2008). Emotional and cognitive self regulation following academic shame. Journal of Advanced Academics 20(1), 138–173.

Image: Horacio Olavarria / Unsplash