Coming straight to university from A-Levels, where every essay and test feels like an exercise in hoop-jumping and producing an original idea in my work was unthinkable, the demands of undergraduate study were a bit of a shock to my system. My first essay for university terrified me: “What do you mean I can’t give you drafts and drafts to mark and reassure me that it’s all ok and on message before I submit it? And there isn’t a step-by-step guide detailing what points I should make in my coursework? And you want me to write my own thoughts about the text, rather than just regurgitating the opinions of the three critics that the examiners like? WHAT IS THIS MADNESS?!”
I think this might have its roots in gender. As someone who has internalised a lot of misogyny in her time, I often find that my actions are governed by my fear of being in the way, of taking up too much space, of occupying a space in which I do not belong.Then, one day, I had the realisation – boys don’t give a damn about that. A guy will sit with their legs spread into your personal space and wax lyrical for twenty minutes about a topic he knows nothing about. These are young men who are told over and over again that they’re bright and intelligent, and that what they have to say is valid and interesting. (I can only assume that what they hear is “It’s ok to have a long ‘conversation’ with a woman in which you only talk about yourself”). Recently, I sat next to a guy in a seminar who blustered confidently on for about 10 minutes about the film we were discussing, only to confess to me later that he hadn’t actually watched it. In the words of Sarah Hagi “God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude.”
Slowly but surely, however, I’ve come to realise that, y’know, I’m a person who has things to contribute. This came from just lots of little things: a seminar tutor saying “Oh, that’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that”, disagreeing with a critical viewpoint and finding the words to express why, saying something pretty basic in a discussion group and having the professor develop into an eloquent point about an obscure 19th century poet.
Obviously there are situations where the people with whom you’re talking know much more than you about a topic and it’s best to just be quiet, listen and learn but I’m trying not to make the mistake of thinking this is the default position. I am an educated adult with a brain and original thoughts and I’m not going to shut up.