While obtaining my MA degree in International Development, I recall many moments when I felt jealous of my classmates who were able to articulate their words so well during discussions. The majority of my classes were discussion based and there were always a handful of students who dominated the space. When they spoke, words flew out of their lips effortlessly, spitting intellect into the air with confidence. I would sit in awe of these students who so confidently engaged with the classroom. It didn’t matter if they were right or wrong, they remained confident. And they were just so smart.
But are they actually that much smarter than me?
Now, as a PhD student, the feeling is very much the same. While listening to a podcast episode from PhDivas, there was a brief discussion of how sometimes the classroom turns into a stage. Students engage in a performance of showcasing their intelligence that transforms the classroom to that of a theatrical stage. Perhaps what’s actually happening in the classroom is a theatrical performance on intelligence rather than a true reflection of intellect itself. This made me pause the episode as I reflected on how true this felt to me.
What if, instead of looking outwardly at all the “smartness” flying around in the air, I looked inward at the classroom dynamics. Who are the people that are speaking? What are the words that they are actually saying? Do they actually mean anything or are they just fluffy fancy words? Where does this confidence come from? How are they able to engage so effortlessly? When is it my turn to speak?
One of the most obvious dynamics that affect engagement is gender. Studies show that overall, male students have the most interaction with the instructor. Whether it is via discussions, attention, or receiving warnings, male students tend to receive more overall attention than their female classmates. In co-ed undergraduate and graduate level classrooms, there is more male participation. Does this mean that female students have less to offer? NO. There are many dimensions to this issue. First, academia was not created for women. Historically, women were expected to be wives and mothers. Men were to earn money and be educated. Second, women on average face more cases of sex discrimination in academia than men; thus, reinforcing the notion that the academic environment is not conducive for women to thrive in. Third, men are more willing to engage boldly in classrooms and women can become complacent in their silence.
(Let me pause and clarify that I am talking about general trends. This does not mean that every classroom and situation reflect in such ways!)
Beyond gender, there are more layers that contribute to classroom engagement. There are little to no studies on LGBTQ folks and academia. Additional layers include socioeconomic status and race. Are students who are more economically affluent more likely to engage? Are students of color more or less likely to speak up compared to their White classmates? In all these contexts, the overarching concept is power. Who holds the power in the classroom and who are the ones controlling the shifts in dynamic? Who is being given the space to perform? Who is being empowered?
Looking inward to our individual selves, we must affirm that we truly belong. That we deserve a spot in the program. That we are intelligent, brilliant, and valuable. It’s a conscious effort for me to realize that the only difference between me and the people who are more vocal in the classroom is self-confidence. It has nothing to do with me being less intelligent and articulate than them. It has more to do with being confident in myself to speak what I know and being okay with saying something incorrect. There is a level of excitement and vulnerability that comes with engaging in academic “banter” with your peers and instructors. To do so gracefully takes practice. To take up space where you feel powerless takes courage. To feel empowered takes claiming your right to speak.
To my academics out there who are more vocal, I urge you to give space to those who seem less “engaged” in your classrooms. Perhaps they have something incredible to offer to the rich discussion. Rather than sharing the spotlight, consider also being an observer on some days. When someone does speak up, elevate them and build on their point.
As a scholar who tends to be more of an observer in the classroom, I urge my fellow observers to find confidence in your brilliance. Your brain is unique and your best asset. Your mouth is simply a tool to show off how awesome you are. I’m often scared of sounding stupid or being wrong, but wait…being wrong is literally what it means to be an academic!! We can’t learn unless we know what we can improve. Your intelligence is not a reflection on your ability to be articulate and always be right, but on your ability to recognize growth.
So, how can you start to feel smart? Believe that you are.
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