On Classroom Confidence and Academic Men

This might seem like a weird flex, but, academically, I was killing it in the second grade. I always had the answers to the teachers’ questions and was reading far above my grade level. My teacher that year, Mrs. Jones, once referred to me as the “Hermione Granger” of our class because I was always raising my hand and turning in my test first. That teacher recommended that I be moved into our district’s Talented and Gifted program (not sure how much I love that term now, but the class had a more advanced curriculum and an accelerated pace of learning). I spent the next six years in an environment where all 60 students in the program were encouraged to excel: we tested two years above our grade level in mathematics and often led class. After that program ended, I moved on to the much bigger pool of my 6,400-student high school, and then onto Kenyon. But when I left that program and left middle school, I noticed a change in my female classmates. I continue to be surrounded by incredibly smart, academically-focused women, but as we’ve moved into our teenage years, and now onto adulthood, I’ve noticed much more shyness when it comes to sharing academic opinions.   

Studies have shown that women’s confidence decreases significantly during puberty. Women are taught to not be assertive when we share our opinions and that our strong stances need to come with caveats in order to be polite. Even though I have always been lucky to have supportive teachers and professors, I still catch myself starting my questions in class with “sorry” and my analyses with “this might be stupid but...”. I lack absolute confidence in my ideas (because the topics I study in college are complex and ambiguous, so it makes sense to doubt that I have the definitive right answer), but I’ve also been trained to believe that too much confidence is a negative thing and that I won’t be taken seriously if I debate too assertively. I see other women in my classes second-guess themselves too, but being careful to present opinions in a gentle and palatable way is not a concern I’ve seen a lot of male classmates share. Men are not taught to water down their opinions, far from it.  

When I pitched this article idea to my fellow writers at Her Campus Kenyon, I described it as an article about being confident in challenging “that one guy in your Philosophy class,” and immediately was met by laughter from the other writers. One of them jokingly chimed in, “Ummmmm can I play Devil’s Advocate for a second?”, and the room erupted in laughter because we all have known this guy: the guy who brags about all the books he’s read and name-drops famous academics (usually old white guys) in order to sound prolific in a classroom. Men are taught from a young age to be in charge, to be confident and assertive. In a classroom debate, this type of guy is not at all concerned with politeness and collaboration; he’s concerned with being right. This often leads to overconfident men shutting down women in academic discussions by talking over them, taking credit for their ideas, or asking barely related questions until they fold. This is almost never a personal attack on the woman in question, it’s these men needing to gas themselves up and assert their power. It’s hard to fight back against this kind of treatment because maybe the woman in question didn’t walk into class knowing dozens of quotations from writers that weren’t on the syllabus, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for these men to weaponize their extraneous knowledge in order to assert dominance in classroom discussions. In a classroom discussion, students should focus on using their ideas to bring something valuable to the table, not to make sure they sit at the head of it, and that advice goes for both steamrolling men and apologetic women.    

It’s incredibly frustrating to be patronized in the classroom, especially by someone whose qualifications don’t exceed ours in any way. But it’s not enough to simply complain to our friends about how this guy is being a patronizing jerk, it’s up to us to do as much as we can to make sure that we’re sharing our valuable opinions anyway. When a peer talks down to us, it may feel as though some of our power is being taken away, and one way to get it back is to work on unlearning society’s expectation of women that we should water down our ideas so as not to be “bossy” or “bitchy”. We need to be raising our hands, asking the tough questions, and letting go of the fear that no one will take us seriously if we occasionally get things wrong. If we take back the confidence that women are taught not to have in our opinions, then we can succeed academically whether or not a male classmate is condescending, because it’s time that our valuable education stops being affected by patronizing men.    

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