Every now and then, someone in one of my classes will raise their hand and start saying, “This might be a stupid question but…” And then they proceed to ask a question about iambic pentameter, which wouldn’t be stupid, except that they said it was.
Same thing happens when someone raises their hand and says, “I just thought it was interesting…” And then they read a quote or describe something about Hamlet, but fail to say exactly what was so “interesting” about it. What does interesting even mean anymore? Hamlet may be just as interesting as your neighbor’s cat or a flash mob, but that’s not really saying much now, is it?
You’ve probably heard all this before. You’ve probably seen all this before. You’ve probably said these exact same things before. Yours truly is definitely guilty as charged, on many and multiple occasions.
So I’m here to tell you, rather bluntly, that we need to stop. (Tough love.) Stop with the qualifiers the apologies, the disclaimers. Stop with the meekness and the weakness. It’s all an addiction or a bad relationship; it’s only hurting us and we don’t need any of it! We don’t need to diminish our confidence, to give up our power, to lessen our argument. (We Writing and Speaking Fellows are all about confidence, power, and a good argument.)
These behaviors expose a disconnect between expectations and reality. The student that qualifies her question, her argument, her opinion, by saying it might be stupid expects that the qualifier will remove any judgment. The student that brings up a point but resolves not to elaborate hopes that someone else will take charge in explaining it. After all, if someone does think her question is a little remedial, it’s not like she didn’t say, “it might be stupid.” If she brings up a quote but doesn’t want to explain it, the professor or another classmate will be more than happy to carry it further. When we disown our words, we protect ourselves just a little bit from all the backlash of our peers.
Here’s the reality: disowning opinions only reinforces the idea that we should be doing just that. We’re really saying that our statements are trivial, our questions are not important, our opinions are negligible. We’re saying that our words require those apologies—because they’re just that bad. But is that really what you want others to think about you? Is that really what you want to think about yourself? Instead of protecting ourselves from peers’ criticism, we’re inviting them to attack us.
The reality is that there will always be people rolling their eyes or laughing at us. It’s just a matter of whose opinion is more valid—theirs or ours? We have to ask ourselves, “Is it more important to keep my classmates from laughing or myself from learning?” When did being curious become a crime? When did asking clarification questions become “stupid?” When did getting so excited about a connection become a bad thing? Why not just say, “Hamlet’s soliloquies really strike me as a coping mechanism for trauma?” Why do you need to apologize, disown or back down from your analysis? Shouldn’t you save your apologies for when you actually do something wrong?
So I give you, dear reader, a challenge: catch yourself. Catch yourself from falling into a trap of insecurity and submission. You don’t need to apologize when you want to know exactly what wave-particle duality is. You don’t need to tell people that your opinions are silly or stupid or seemingly unimportant. Take yourself back. You know exactly why that poem evokes fear, why that equation is baffling, why you’re talking in the first place. Own it.