I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m not a shy person. I tend to speak my mind, probably too often. While this can serve me well in graduate seminars by breaking the ice and getting the conversation going, I haven’t always been so quick to contribute in class. Growing up, I rarely spoke in class because I wanted to have a perfectly formed, impressive thought to share, and by the time I was ready to speak, the class had moved on to other topics. My silence was due to pressure and perfectionism not shyness, but it probably came across that way to my teachers and peers. Quietness in conversations can often be read as hesitancy. Regardless of whether shyness is something you struggle with, all of us have grappled with imposter syndrome in some manner during graduate school, and this can manifest as shyness in the seminar room, even if you don’t think of yourself as a shy person. As graduate students, quietness is seminars is something we do have to work through; building a discourse community is essential to your academic success, so it’s important to figure out how to contribute meaningfully in your classes.
I came graduate school after several years of teaching high school literature. Even though this opportunity had allowed me to develop as an adult “in the real world” and think for myself, it meant that I felt really out of it when it came to academic and scholarly discussions. I was worried that I wouldn’t cut it in the graduate classroom and that everyone would see a big, old “irrelevant” sticker on my forehead whenever I tried to contribute to conversations. I felt like a poser, trying to come across as confident in a conversation that I didn’t have the vocabulary to engage in. From speaking with younger grads, I know they can have similar feelings, but for the opposite reasons. A friend of mine who came to grad school straight out of undergrad told me she was terrified of the students in class who had worked “real jobs” and had more life experience. She felt like she hadn’t earned the “right” to speak or that people would find her contributions “immature.” In other words, no matter who you are, we all have insecurities that we bring into the classroom that hold us back from boldly sharing our minds with our peers.
So how to do we make progress and learn to speak up? It’s important to remember that contributing to seminar discussions is a learned skill. No one does it well right off the bat. You’ve got to be willing to risk a few mediocre comments or “dumb” questions to develop this skill. In fact, you’ll always make the odd mediocre or “dumb” remark for the rest of your career. None of us are brilliant all the time – not even most of the time, so release yourself from that expectation! But there are some tricks you can employ to build up your confidence as you wade into graduate seminar contributions.
1. Write down things you want to say. I know this sounds simple and obvious, but having a “script” for what you can say, even if you don’t end up using it, can build confidence in the classroom. When I first began teaching, I would create lengthy, over-detailed lesson plans. I rarely relied on all of the things I typed up, but I had them there as a back-up if I needed them. And the act of creating the written script also gave me enough words that stuck in my head and provided some “mental scaffolding” to structure the content for my students. The same can work in a grad seminar. As you read and prepare for class, take notes on things you noticed, questions you thought of, and observations you could make. Keep these notes in front of you during class and throw out some of your thoughts and observations to the group.
2. Do some extra digging to prepare for class so that you feel like you have some unique knowledge to share. Take a look at some secondary scholarship or some recent articles on the topic of your next seminar. Sometimes the fear of redundancy or lack of originality can hold us back from contributing. If you do some extra research ahead of class time, this can help you feel like you have some insights that your classmates don’t. This can also be a real benefit to your group discussion, as it can provide insights into current research and scholarly conversations.
3. Do a bit of mental role-playing in the classroom. A great pedagogical tactic in a classroom full of quiet students is to assign roles to individuals: one student becomes the skeptic, another the questioner, another demands that terms be defined. You get the gist. So mentally assign yourself a role in the class discussion. There are a number of roles you can play, including questioner, skeptic, devil’s advocate (don’t overdo this one though – it can get annoying fast!), elaborator, definer, etc. Try one or two across the course of one meeting. Creating cognitive distance through a persona can allow for greater comfort in discussion contribution: it allows you to think, “This isn’t me, this is skeptic me, and skeptic me has things to say.” Eventually, the cognitive distance will decrease, and it will just be confident, lovely you sharing all kinds of great insights and deep questions with the class – no persona needed.
4. Ask an older classmate to set you up for success. When I say “older,” I don’t mean in age, but in years in the program. As someone who has been in course work for a good while at this point, I love talking to younger members of my program and hearing how things are going for them. Building relationship and discourse circles with more advanced members of my program was key to my own comfort and confidence in my degree. Reach out to students in your seminar who have been in the program longer. Get lunch together and talk about the class material. It’s okay to ask the older student to tee you up in class by saying something like, “Anna and I were actually just talking about this yesterday morning – we were bothered by the same thing. Anna, do you want to explain it?” I know that might feel a little canned and planned, but if it helps to build your confidence, then it’s worth it.
5. Reward yourself. Set a goal to contribute one or twice in class and reward yourself when you do. Make it a good reward, like takeout from your favorite restaurant or a phone call with your best friend. Go get a massage or take a long nap. You deserve it! You put yourself out there and took the first step in cultivating a skill you will rely on for the rest of your academic career. Continue to set goals and rewards until contributing comes more naturally and the satisfaction that comes from making the contribution is itself the reward.
Here’s the bottomline. Start small – focus on making simple observations or ask clarifying questions. You’re not going to drop dissertation-grade insights immediately, and I’d argue that contributions like that might not even be helpful to fostering discussion all of the time. Also, recognize that you will have days where the contributions come more naturally and days where they don’t. Just the other week, I barely said anything in class because I was tired and I wasn’t feeling Nathaniel Hawthorne that day. But the next week, I was more rested and had a million questions about Faulkner, so I contributed more. Have grace with yourself on the tough days and remember that you deserve to be here. Your ideas matter and help others learn and grow – those thoughts are worth sharing.
Anna E. Beaudry is a second-year English PhD student studying 19th-century American literature. Her primary area of research focuses on female writers in the New England regionalist movement and material feminisms. She earned her Master’s at Baylor University in May 2020. Anna is Baylor’s Graduate Writing Center coordinator and president of the English Graduate Student Association. She is also BearTracks blog editor for the Graduate School.