Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module ENGL44530: Shame and Modern Writing

Department: English Studies

ENGL44530: Shame and Modern Writing

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Not available in 2020/21 Module Cap 20


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To explore the fundamental connection between shame and writing: how do the psychological demands of exposure, of overcoming inhibition and block, and coming to terms with one’s embodiment, translate into literary forms and styles (including, but not exclusively, ‘confessional poetry’ and the personal essay)? And how does the common shame of writing intersect with the particular determinations of sex, sexuality and race?
  • To position shame genealogically, specifically through its changing relation to guilt in the period c1880 to the present day. Theoretical texts considered will include those by Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud (on secular shame, guilt feelings and sexuality), Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict (on guilt and shame cultures) Emmanuel Lévinas and Jean-Paul Sartre (on the phenomenology of shame), Silvan Tomkins (on the shame affect), Frantz Fanon (on racial shame), Eve Sedgwick (on queer shame) and Giorgio Agamben (on Biopolitical shame).
  • To contruct a modern canon of shame literature to put into relation with the changing discursive landscape. Literary texts may include work by Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin, Primo Levi, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker, John Wieners, Audre Lorde and Dodie Bellamy. Recent electronic/internet literature may also be considered.


  • How do we understand shame today as a psychological and physiological reality with an inevitable relation to the act of writing literature? And how do we understand it historically: as a classical ethos, a Christian, then secular condition associated with confession, or as a universal moral feeling; is it an anthropological structure or a state of embodiment attached ideologically to different people in accordance with their sex, sexuality and race? In this module, we’ll consider shame’s shifting position in the history of emotions from c1880 to the present day, and explore its formal and ethical function through a range of modern literary texts. As well as thinking about affiliated terms, including modesty, embarrassment, awkwardness and humiliation, we’ll draw from theoretical works by Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ruth Benedict and Silvan Tomkins, and from literary works by writers including Virginia Woolf, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin and Chris Kraus, to consider how modern and contemporary writing leads us back to the scene of writing and to the exposed body of the writer.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • On completion of this module, students will possess:
  • Key theories of shame and guilt (philosophical, psychoanalytic, anthropological and technological) as they developed throughout the period from 1880 to the present.
  • Developed notions of embodiment, relating to theories of sex, gender, sexuality and race; specifically those connecting the ethical concerns of biography to the formal and stylistic concerns of literature.
  • Awareness of discursive shifts in critical race theory and feminist thought.
  • Awareness of literary traditions, especially confessional writing and the essay.
  • Awareness of a range of modern and contemporary works which treat the theme of shame.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • Advanced critical skills in the close reading and analysis of literary and historical texts;
  • An ability to offer advanced analysis of formal and aesthetic dimensions of literature;
  • An ability to articulate and substantiate at a high level an imaginative response to literature;
  • An ability to demonstrate an advanced understanding of the cultural, intellectual, socio-political contexts of literature;
  • An ability to articulate an advanced knowledge and understanding of conceptual or theoretical literary material;
  • An advanced command of a broad range of vocabulary and critical literary terminology.
Key Skills:
  • Students studying this module will develop:
  • an advanced ability to analyze critically;
  • an advanced ability to acquire complex information of diverse kinds in structured and systematic ways;
  • an advanced ability to interpret complex information of diverse kinds through the distinctive skills derived from the subject;
  • expertise in conventions of scholarly presentation and bibliographical skills;
  • an independence of thought and judgement, and ability to assess acutely the critical ideas of others;
  • sophisticated skills in critical reasoning;
  • an advanced ability to handle information and argument critically;
  • a competence in information-technology skills such as word-processing and electronic data access;
  • professional organization and time-management skills.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Students are encouraged to develop advanced conceptual abilities and analytical skills as well as the ability to communicate an advanced knowledge and conceptual understanding within seminars; the capacity for advanced independent study is demonstrated through the completion of two assessed pieces of work.
  • Typically, directed learning may include assigning student(s) an issue, theme or topic that can be independently or collectively explored within a framework and/or with additional materials provided by the tutor. This may function as preparatory work for presenting their ideas or findings (sometimes electronically) to their peers and tutor in the context of a seminar.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 9 Fortnightly 2 hours 18
Independent student research supervised by the Module Convenor 10
Preparation and Reading 272
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 1 3000 words 40%
Essay 2 3000 words 60%

Formative Assessment:

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University