The Ever-Present Bullshit in Reflective Writing

Angelina Nguyen promises she isn't bullshitting this reflection.

Photo credit: Griffith University

If my life’s writing portfolio were to be exhibited in a gallery, I would find myself gravitating to one particular work. It is not large in scale, intricate in its detail and seems, at first glance, to not belong at all. Although tucked away, displayed in a slightly less lit section of the space and ignored by any other, it shares an unlikely origin story for an equally unlikely skill that I have come to acquire.

This artefact is a memory from 2013, etched right after I had just finished a mentoring session with the senior students in my high school. I could not for the life of me remember what the session was about but I do recall more vividly how excited I was to dive into a new act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. When I headed into the classroom, notebook in one hand and a post-it-noted play in the other, I was instead handed a survey by my English teacher and asked to review how I found the mentoring session I had just come from. After mindlessly circling some multiple choice bubbles, I wrote with absolute confidence for the final question “Today’s peer support lesson was very beneficial because I was able to reflect on why time management is important to having good study habits.”

The plot twist in my reflection is that there was next to no truth in what I had handed in to my teacher that day. I already knew what time management was, how to study effectively, and all of its advantages. What was intended to be a meaningful, thought-provoking task ended up being met with an internalised groan that I had masked by a determination to simply get it done. Although most students would have shrugged their shoulders at it, I was left with this overwhelming sense of guilt. I was ashamed of myself – was it not my duty to write what I believed? Vowing to myself that I would strive to write with truth and critical judgement from then on, I nestled my head back into the comforts of printed Shakespeare.

In hindsight, I cite this as the first of many instances where an always-cleverly-concealed, but nonetheless ever-present, amount of bullshit has been embedded in my writing practice. Whenever I am asked to write reflectively, I am always struggling to understand a range of experiences I had not consciously been engaging with. My thoughts are always isolated, scattered and disassembled, never a whole entity, let alone one with an exact meaning. Bullshit is what organises my subjectivity – noisy, angsty and unclear – into comprehensive units and patterns of speech. The bullshit is always there, lurking behind those sophisticated phrases and decorated expressions. Despite this, my reflective writing does not mock, condescend or offend. More than any other aspect of my writing, it seeks to appease, charm and enlighten instead. 

This deceptive tendency in my writing has become far more apparent in my university experience than at any other stage in my academic career. In my first year, I had reflective writing tasks set as assessments, ranging from weekly journal entries imploring me to contemplate on the usefulness of my lessons, to critical evaluations of research literature. When reflecting on classroom discussions, I once isolated a certain remark made by my lecturer and glorified it as an “inspiring perspective, worthy of adoption” when I had not even given it a second thought after hearing it. I also bullshitted to downplay my criticisms out of politeness, writing about the “excessive and bewildering nature of the author’s metalanguage”, as opposed to saying that reading it was essentially a waste of time: both because of how long I spent on Thesaurus.com trying to make sense of it and how little relevance it ended up having to anything within the course. When I had not been paying attention, listening in and gathering my thoughts actively, these fabricated idioms were reliable substitutes. For a long time, it almost made me feel like a fraud in my own craft. However, I have come to accept that it was in the nonsense, lies and total bullshit I conjured up that I grappled with some kind of meaning from my studies.

Whether it is an art of the highest order, to be mastered and manipulated, or really nothing more than a whole load of crap, the bullshit does instigate the very thing it ends up colouring, residing and thriving in: reflection. It is only when I bullshit my way through the burden of an assignment in the late hours of the night, or through a simple survey back in Year 7, do I reach a closer understanding to who I am. That, before all else, has legitimacy to me.  

As you step back from that artwork, I encourage you to continue thinking. I hope you register it, to reimagine a value for your own, perhaps see what sort of bullshit you found yourself coming up with to find it and to reflect truthfully.

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