Friday, 4 January 2019

on hating english students (or, only i'm allowed to be pretentious)


I really really despise other people who do English. To phrase it in its most brutal sense: I have absolutely no interest in what other people studying my degree have to say about books. I only really care about the thoughts about books floating around in my own brain. After that, I care about what academics have to say about books. And what the media has to say about books. But students with oversized glasses, never seen in seminars without an iced coffee (firstly, it's winter, where does the impulse to buy an iced latte every day come from? Secondly, the coffee is bad. When I say bad, I mean, the coffee is shit. Like, seriously shit. The baristas are all skint students, and ergo, not 'baristas',  so don't tell me you're enjoying that milky concoction) and a Macbook on the desk in front of them, mostly intent on keeping up false appearances of pretentiousness? Not so much.

 The allure of the university environment as being a mystical place of burgeoning ideas, excitement and discussion was revealed to be rather more mythical than mystical when I first attended university. This was not a world where I felt at home, surrounded by motivated peers, but a space where everyone seemed to be in silent competition to beat one another at doing as little as humanly possible whilst still doing well in the bi-weekly essays. After I left, I began to see English students as a breed I did not belong to, despite coming under the label. I'd been exposed to the reality and no longer clung to any illusions about ever feeling embraced by the term and the culture surrounding it. Being a state school student in a world where it was perfectly normal to discuss how much money your parents made and where it was not asked where you went to school, but the name of the school you went to, as your partner in conversation awaited a recognisable name as an answer, I felt irretrievably lost. Sally Rooney captures it so well in 'Normal People' through Connell that reading it made me want to throw up: it was so painfully true of my own experiences.

'All Connell's classmates have identical accents and carry the same size Macbook under their arms. In seminars they express their opinions passionately and conduct impromptu debates. Unable to form such straightforward views or express them with any force, Connell initially felt a sense of crushing inferiority to his fellow students, as if he had upgraded himself to an intellectual level far above his own, where he had to strain to make sense of the most basic premises. He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading. They were coming into college every day to have heated debates about books they had not read. He understands now that his classmates are not like him...They just move through the world in a different way, and he'll probably never really understand them, and he knows they will never understand him, or even try.' [p.67-8, Normal People by Sally Rooney.]

In short, directly addressing my quibbles about English students: I don't think it's cool that you turn up to seminars having only skimmed the blurb of the book we are paying money to discuss. I don't think it's clever that you treat essays as last-minute affairs written hours before the deadline, lumped together with choice sentences nabbed from criticism only glanced at on JSTOR whilst still steaming drunk from what can only have been a sub-par Thursday night out. Please refrain from bragging aloud to your friends before the lecture begins about your formatives as exercises in elaborate bullshit about books you haven't read, having substituted relying on the Shmoop article (sure, we all love Shmoop, that's not the point here) in place of actual reading (god forbid!). I think it's immensely sad that you spend your degree crafting an outer image which feels so artificial, performing this idea of being an English student, making jokes about being an English student, dressing like 'an English student', all whilst doing, frankly, absolutely fuck all in terms of academic labour.

 Perhaps this is a little harsh. But it's true that I really struggle to get along with, or even just click with, people doing the same degree as me. I don't mean (I do) to sound so disparaging about large collectives with this next sentence, but English students often fall into the same category of annoyingly performative and self-satisfied personality types as Drama students. I wish I was sorry about that sentence, but it's the only way I can capture the culture of the English student; a culture of perpetual loud, brash, irreverent look-at-me-ness. The English student is a breed of student who inhabits a bubble of their own self-importance. Their laziness is something to celebrate, for they're too clever to stoop so low as to put effort and care into their work. Their appearance is a careful, constructed craft. Literary culture is a part of this appearance. The irony of carrying a Penguin Classics tote bag to lectures as part of this branding despite the fact they haven't even glanced at that term's reading list two months in is entirely lost on them.

On occasions where I have tried to infiltrate this culture (attempting to partake in it in the feverish belief that I too am an English student and therefore these are surely 'my people'?! If they are not my people who the hell are my people and where are they?!) I have come away from conversation overcome with a cast of world-weariness. Everything of them reeks with the stench of artificiality. It's everywhere: you'll sniff it out in conversations that often run along the lines of 'I spent the summer in Russia reading only Russian literature' (this translates as 'I own Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment but gave up after the first page, and went to Poland, not Russia, for a History A Level field-trip'), or 'I haven't read anything but Virginia Woolf for months!' (in this case, the translation is something like 'I read one Virginia Woolf book and was so traumatised by the struggle that I had to re-read all of 'The Hunger Games' trilogy, my real favourite books, as soon as I had finished').

I too, have glanced at Dostoevsky but never risen to the challenge. I too have only read one work by Woolf and a few years ago would have happily praised the first two books in the Hunger Games series. I like some classics, but I find most pleasure in clever, skilful but often simple prose. The kind of prose that you begin reading in the morning with breakfast and the next thing you know you're three quarters through the book and you're still on the sofa, still in the same pyjamas, now with added dried toast crumbs: these are your Patricia Highsmiths, your Daphne du Mauriers, your Monica Dickens. There is nothing wrong with these tastes. And there is nothing wrong with only liking classics either. Or only reading YA literature. Or never having read Pride and Prejudice. I'm not at all bothered about people's reading tastes. What bothers me is when true likes and dislikes, true passions, true thoughts about what moves you, what has touched you, what you really like to read/watch/listen to and that properly makes you happy is shoved aside in place of a performance of wanting to seem like a picture of pretentiousness. What gets on my tits, as such, is 'pretentiousness' as an essence becoming a hot commodity, something to be grasped at, embodied and performed in the drama of being an English student.

Perhaps I am being unkind. University is a space of independence where identity is toyed with and selfhood explored - in a city away from the town you grew up in, there is this delicious stretch of possibility floating before you and within that stretch is the potential to explore who you are and the stuff you're made of. With this awkwardness comes a degree of artificiality in the clumsiness of finding your feet and presenting this new and developing self to the the world. But encounters with such students are never coloured with this genuine hue. Perhaps my personality which in the last few years has leaned more and grown towards trying to be genuine, accepting who I am and not trying to be anything will never fit in in this world and this degree with its students with a tendency towards falsehood. Or perhaps I just need to give it time, and I'm being harsh on this mass of 18 year olds just taking advantage of a space where for the first time in their lives, they really can explore who they are.

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Maira Gall