• Shameless public humiliation isn’t so bad

    One of the strangest, most distressing parts of the Russian schooling style (from the viewpoint of a lifelong participant in the American school system) is the way instructors return assignments. The moment is already stressful enough for most students in American schools (personally, I’ve always taken an optimistic “Schrodinger’s cat” approach to assignments — as long as I don’t know the grade, it might be an A), but in Russia there can be a whole new level of humiliation on getting a bad grade: the public kind.

    Back in the states, I can’t recall an instructor from grade school to university that didn’t honor the ceremonial secrecy of each student’s grades by folding papers, assigning code numbers or simply placing it on the desk face down. Expect no such delicacy in Russia.

    From elementary school, teachers read out each grade as they hand papers back to their students. In university, a professor won’t hand a paper back to a student without first discussing the merits and faults of that student’s work. Comments such as, “I don’t understand what you are trying to say here” or “You have atrocious handwriting,” or worst of all, “You did a lot worse this time,” are common, and even expected. Kinder professors might mention that, on the whole it was a good paper, but they don’t feel the need to harp on the positive.

    Of all the things that worried me most about attending school in Russia, the idea of a professor announcing his or her opinion of my work to my classmates topped the list. The director of the program here assured us that she’d warned the professors not to do this to their American students, as sharing grades so publicly is seen as not only rude, but almost cruel to us. Ominously, she closed the discussion with, “But, they have been Russian professors for their entire careers. We can’t expect them to turn into Americans.”

    Nothing turns me into a blubbering 5-year-old faster than the idea of being academically shamed in front of my teachers and peers. While trying to figure out why that was, I realized that it’s around kindergarten or first grade that the American schooling style starts to teach students that their grades are something to hide. Shame really is what you make of it, and if every teacher acts as if your grade might be something you’ll be ashamed of, then you will start to learn it.

    I will admit that the first time an instructor here started handing back papers while discussing them freely, I felt a mounting anxiety and tears pricking at my eyes. What if she said it was terrible? What if I’m upset and embarrassed in front of the whole class? If I leave now, will she notice? But the moment passed. She handed my paper back, pointed out a few grammatical errors, said it was well thought-out, and then continued.

    The next week, the same ritual happened in another class, with a professor who wasn’t so kind. While she was pointing out my mistakes to the entire class, all I could think about was how calm I felt. There was no maliciousness in her words, and there was no judgment for the mistakes that I had made.

    This calm acceptance of my mistakes continued throughout the day. When I tried to use the word for “dapper” to describe a handsome Russian peer, he gave me a look that I knew meant I’d said something odd. Instead of feeling flustered, extricating myself from the conversation, or a least turning the color of a fire engine, I just asked him what I’d said wrong (it turns out that instead of asking why he looked so dapper, I’d asked why he looked so cocky).

    Somehow, being openly called out for making mistakes has taken away the bulk of the shame it’s so easy to feel about being wrong. And that feeling is beyond liberating.



    • Yes, I found out the hard way that sometimes it can be tricky when you deal with other cultures.


      • Maya North

      • May 2, 2013 at 11:54 pm
      • Reply

      I grew up excoriated by my professor father when I did not learn everything perfectly and immediately, which engendered a near-phobia of failure. And then, well into my adulthood, I failed utterly, miserably and publicly at something that was at least nonlethal. Not only did it not kill me, nobody hated me, freeing me not to hate myself. In retrospect, it was one of the best things ever to happen to me. Hugs 😀



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