Open Thread Wednesday: Do You Use Shame in Your Work?

An illustration of a pig with staring eyesRecently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about shame. Some of this comes from the Freakonomics podcast, which I’ve become enamored of. (If you’re looking for something to listen to, ProfHacker readers have previously chimed in about their favorite podcasts.) An episode from January 2012 discussed the problem of hand-washing among doctors who—contrary to what one might guess—tend to have the worst hand hygiene practices at hospitals. The solution to the problem: shame. Public announcements of those who have not been following hand sanitation procedures at staff meetings led to a dramatic increase of hand-washing at L.A.’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Shame, as the Freakonomics team likes to point out, is a tremendous incentive to change behavior.

Changing behavior is also something that my wife and I have been thinking about: specifically that of our children during dinner time. When placed at a table and served food, each of our three kids has one or more tendencies that we would like to eradicate before they be seen too often in public. We have tried numerous approaches, but we recently came up with something that works: the Shame Pig.

The Shame Pig (SP)—which you can see in my lead image—is a little cardboard stand-up that we made with some cardboard, construction paper, and a Google image search. If you misbehave during dinner, the Shame Pig comes and sits in front of you. The Pig will move if someone else commits an act of brazen rudery. Not only does he look at you with those baleful eyes (and as Bethany Nowviskie tweeted, the eyes make a difference) but whoever ends the meal with the SP in front of him or her has the responsibility of clearing and washing the table and loading the dishwasher. We have found that the Shame Pig has resulted in immediate shifts in behaviors of our kids (and ourselves, I must confess). We all have a visual reminder of the standards of manners and there is immediate feedback when an infraction has occurred. The kids actually kind of love the schadenfreude of the SP and are on the lookout to catch others—especially their parents.

When I shared the idea of the Shame Pig a few weeks ago with Jason, Kathleen, Bethany and some other friends of ProfHacker, Jason immediately suggested that there might be some pedagogical applications of the Shame Pig. [NB: Jason remembers this conversation differently, and is pretty sure he thought that this would get a phone call from a crabby dean or provost.--The Editors.] In particular, Jason opined that  a “Participation Pig” could be put in front of the student who enthusiastically talks so much in class that his peers don’t have a chance to get a word in edgewise. (Confession: I was / am this student.) [That really *was* Jason's idea.--ibid.] I really like this idea, and if I was teaching this semester, I would put it to use. I’d also work to encourage my students to place the Pig in front of me if I talked for more than 3 minutes at a time. (I’ve thought about using a chess clock for this too.)

Now. There are clearly some important reasons to think carefully about how to use shame productively in our careers. But I also think it’s an idea with some merit to it. Jason has more or less made this argument when he wrote about how “bad meetings are your fault.” And Dan Cohen’s terrific post yesterday about open access and the tragic death of Aaron Swartz suggests that we should employ shame as one incentive for academics who do not make their work publicly accessible.

So I’d like to turn the question to you, ProfHackers: what role can you see for shame in your work? Could you use it to improve your teaching? Your meetings? Your commitment to write those next three pages? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: shame pig2 / Brian Croxall /

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