Not much of a guide, but rather an encouragement to people who are at university or people thinking about going to university. What I want to talk about is talking itself, which isn’t particularly articulate, but bear with me. (On a side note, it definitely is ‘bear with me’ and not ‘bare with me’, as one is asking for patience whilst the other is an invitation to undress. You’re welcome)
One of the things I loved about school, in terms of learning, were the moments in class where we had those huge discussions and debates. Now I’m not talking about a classroom of 15 year olds shouting over each other whilst the teacher lets out a sigh of defeat that the ‘friendly debate’ has descended into an all out war. No, I’m talking about those moments in class – usually they were in my later years, when I was doing A levels at 17/18 years old – where a topic would begin and we would all throw in our own ideas. As a humanities student especially, there’s nothing better than having a group of people explaining their own interpretations (because we all know that ‘the curtains were blue’ can mean several different things, not all of which we think of ourselves). Even having a group of people to help your own idea, as you throw it into the middle and watch as they all add bits to it, helping it grow – it’s literally like the metaphor of planting a seed in someone’s mind, only here it’s your other classmates that water it and add different fertilisers and whatever else you like.
When I first started university, my lectures tried to bring in this element of discussion but, more often than not, it would fizzle out. Seminars were better, but again to start with I didn’t really throw myself into them. The thing I found really difficult about it was the fact that I no longer felt like an equal. In school I had been with the same group of people for seven years, besides the occasional people who joined the school later on. I knew them, felt comfortable around them and, most importantly, felt equal to them. Yes we were all from different backgrounds with varied privileges and different stories to tell, but we all took the same class, were all at the same level in our education. University was a completely different ball game. Here were people who had studied different things in school, some who went to private school or were several years older with another degree, having a head start that I couldn’t even process. It’s far easier to sit back and let those who knew, or thought they knew, better battle out their ideas.
I’m in my final year now, and it feels like I’ve only just rediscovered the joy of discussion. There are moments where I feel brilliant, having long discussions with my dissertation supervisor as we build up ideas, each of us throwing in new thoughts and material to use. Despite the vast gap in our knowledge (I do not have a PHD or a masters or even a degree yet, nor have I written countless papers and am a professor of my subject), it doesn’t feel like I am inferior. There are ideas and thoughts that I have, interpretations and links that I’ve made that they have not. And that is what I love about humanities – the creativity, the perspectives, the idea that it is unlikely to have the exact same conclusion as someone else.
Equally, there are moments where I feel pretty inferior but just push that aside and jump in regardless. In my English classes especially, I’m at the point where I specialise more in Classical Studies and the knowledge and skill set that goes with it. This term I’m taking a class on sonnets, picked because I’ve never studied poetry at university and I wanted to. Everyone else knows the fancy language and the special ways in which to write about poetry in a formal, intelligent way. My first seminar, I joked about a point which in my Classics class would have been laughed at and accepted, whereas in English everyone just looked at me with a sort of blankness. Still, once I can get past the people who use a thesaurus for every word they use, I can contribute in a way they cannot. When we hit that sweet spot and are having a discussion of what certain words mean or how a certain sonnet can be interpreted a certain way, I’m reminded why I’m there.
At university, you’re there for the people as much as the learning. Yes, the lecturers are brilliant and learning new things from them is fantastic, but you need those classmates, those other people from different backgrounds who have different outlooks and perspectives to help you grow, and you just try to do the same for them. At the end of the day, it isn’t about who knows the most or can write the best essay in the world; it’s about those moments where everyone comes together, swap ideas, and just simply talk.