By Sam BeanThe Department of English Language and Literature Student Blogger for 2022/2023
Dear reader, one of my academic nightmares finally came true. A few weeks ago, one of my classes had an assignment that required us to come up with pitches for an upcoming presentation in groups of four and present them in front of a small group of professors. My group had for some reason been under the impression that we were only submitting a written document and not presenting, but half way through that week’s class we were informed of our mistake. When we found out that we would be giving our half-baked presentation pitch to the class, my team and I nervously looked at one another, trying and failing to come up with a plan telepathically. We had no powerpoint, and after a brief stint of trying to pick a single representative from our group to go up and give a spiel by themselves, we ended up each staking out our separate spots around the front of the lecture hall and one by one sharing our visions of what our contribution to the project would be, framed by an improvised introduction and a conclusion that was more of a sputtering out than a complete stop.
Our pitch was a complete disaster. Our relatively small class was silent; a pin dropping would have been a welcome addition to the sonic landscape. When the feedback started, the professors present each took turns gently pointing out research challenges that we hadn’t considered and recommending that we switch topics. I alternated between unbreaking direct eye contact with who was speaking and staring at the yellowing leaves outside the lecture hall’s window. Once the feedback was done, I sat down in my seat and buried my face in my laptop for the final group’s pitch presentation. I wasted no time in leaving the class the second it was over. I speed-walked right out of the room and across the campus to the bus stop. My thoughts didn’t catch up with my body until I was stuck staring out the bus window, forced into stillness by the necessity of getting home. I felt thoroughly academically humiliated.
Academic embarrassment can come in a variety of different forms. Maybe you’ve been given assignment feedback in which the professor states that they haven’t given you a mark because it would be too low. Maybe you’ve shared an opinion in class that was met with a long silence and someone changing the topic. Maybe a professor has forgotten your name more than half way into a semester. If you’re the kind of person who (like me) is prone to feeling self-conscious, then embarrassment can be lurking around every corner of the academy. Judgment starts at the application process, as universities “accept,” “conditionally accept” and “reject” you. The existence of participation marks can make every moment in class feel like an evaluation, that you could be discovered a fraud, that your place at university could be revoked at any moment. Even praise at times can feel like a burden being heaped on your future self: doing something right once can feel like you’re setting yourself up for unrealistic expectations of greatness that will be followed by a plummet back to earth.
Reading these few paragraphs, it may come as no surprise to you that for my first few years in higher education, I took academic embarrassment really hard. I would always start the semester with so much energy, always contribute to classroom discussions, but then say something really dumb or submit an assignment that I hadn’t done very well, and feel too embarrassed to attend class the next week. These absences would make the shame grow larger in my head, and a week would turn into a month, until I would either drop the course or submit as much as my professors would allow at the end of the semester and slide through with a low grade. I would talk in therapy about how ashamed I felt all the time until I would miss a therapy appointment and feel too ashamed to go back. I took a break from university when this shame became too much to stomach, and spent two years working at retail and childcare jobs until I could work up the nerve to come back and try again in earnest.
I share all this not to imply that university must feel this high stakes, but instead to communicate that if you feel even a little bit this way, that you are not alone. Over the course of my stint in academia, my thoughts about academic anxiety have evolved from me thinking that it’s something that only I experience, to thinking that it was something that some other people deal with, to thinking that it’s a common feeling, to realizing that it’s nearly universal. Anxiety is not just the dominion of the student, either. In the introduction to Teaching Literature, Elaine Showalter writes about professors’ nightmares about teaching: some dream about starting a lecture but not being able to form words, some about having their students turn against them in the middle of a class, others about finding out that they’ve been supposed to teach a course but forgot about it and now need to give the last lecture of the semester, et cetera. She says that some professors are just as nervous for the first day of class as their students. These realizations don’t make the moments of humiliation feel any less painful, but they do somewhat help me try to embrace the old cliche that “this too shall pass” (I tell myself “jusqu’ici tout va bien” instead of “this too shall pass” because it’s from La Haine, a French movie where tout is not ‘va’ing bien at all, and I can only engage with such an earnest idea if I present it to myself ironically).
While I was looking out the window on the bus ride home from the class of my disaster presentation, I told myself that I was going to drop out of the Major Research Project (MRP) portion of my Master’s program, that I was going to cancel a party I was throwing that weekend and that I was going to quit my job. When I got home, I cooked myself pasta with tomato, onion and hot pepper sauce. I told myself that I would send out the emails announcing my retreat from my life the next morning, only if I still felt like it. Those emails never got sent.
Dear reader, I am still in the MRP program, and I did not quit my job. I still threw the party that weekend, and everyone had a great time. I had an office hours meeting with the professor that I was most worried that I embarrassed myself in front of (on a topic unrelated to the presentation), and she remembered only that our group had changed focus.
I don’t even regret the presentation that much anymore. Our team used the feedback to come up with a better proposal. I’m grateful to myself that I handled it without letting it turn into a backslide and giant problem. I’m still putting one foot in front of the other, and I hope that you are too.
About Sam:Sam Bean is a first-year Master's Student in English Literature with a Climate Change Specialization. He is a free-floating writer who has worked for the Charlatan, a dubious tech startup and the Ottawa Art Gallery Communications team. He also writes poetry in his spare time. He is from Mississauga but insists that everyone back home calls it 'M-Town.'
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