I’m just back from a few days on the East Coast where I feel like I was posing as someone who knew what they were doing at a large committee meeting. I reassured myself in advance that I didn’t have to do very much besides listen intently, but even that can be really hard in a room full of people you don’t know, who all appear to know what their roles are. Because this was my second year representing my group in California, I was pushing myself to get in there and be more social, and by about the second day I was exhausted.
When I was in graduate school, I had to take a fairly large number of classes before I could get to my oral exam and then start the process of writing my dissertation, which I felt quite confident that I could do. I knew that I’d never been much for talking in my undergraduate courses, but those had generally been fairly large, and I’d always assumed that things would change when I got into smaller discussions. Instead, I wound up starting grad school twice, once in Comparative Literature, thinking that I would be able to learn to read Japanese novels pretty quickly and coming up against my talent for forgetting Japanese characters pretty much as quickly as I learned them, and then in English, already feeling like a failure.
Starting in Comp Lit was hard, because it was right at the height of deconstructionism’s popularity, and my first seminar was with an instructor who adored the dense text: Derrida, Nietzsche, Heidegger…We spent our semesters digging our way through. I couldn’t say a lot about them, but I could write my way through and around. It was the Japanese that felled me. The woman in the department office listed the requirements for the master’s exam, and I knew that I would not be passing it any time in the near future. So I decided to go to Japan and see whether studying there would speed things up.
Japanese is really hard to read. So after a couple of attempts, I was admitted again to study English. I had felt fairly comfortable in the department before, really liking the faculty and not paying all that much attention to my fellow students.
Grad school was different. The women around me were determined to show that they were the most brilliant, the most likely to go on to stunning faculty careers at big name schools. They sat draped over their chairs in expensive clothes and made biting comments about the other students before and during class. The one time I did try to say something, the words literally became stuck coming out of my mouth, and the professor seemed to mock me as I tried to stammer to closure. I never made another attempt after that unless the class was very small or my place was set by some assignment. I’d never heard then of selective mutism, a form of anxiety that makes people unable to speak in certain settings. I’d come into class determined that the gaze of those women wouldn’t keep me from saying what I wanted to say, but then I found myself delaying and delaying, paralyzed by the thought of the sorts of things I’d heard them say about other people.
In Comp Lit I’d felt that I was making myself ridiculous by wearing colors while so many of the others were wearing all black. Here though, the judgements felt even more personal so that all I wanted to do was curl into my chair and become invisible. I’m not sure why I didn’t leave, but somehow I was too stubborn for that, even though the experience felt awful.
Most of the people at my conference this week were much kinder than the women in grad school, and I could talk to them easily over lunch, even if it’s hard to stand up and voice an opinion in front of the whole group. If nothing else, perhaps I am better at choosing what sort of environment is better for me to be in.