Image credits - Terdsak L

An unbalanced seminar room

How the social imbalances in our society find their way to our seminar rooms

I think everyone has experienced imposter syndrome at some point at university. That feeling of sitting down in a lecture or seminar and thinking, “why am I here?”, is familiar to most.
Seminars can be particularly nerve-racking because they involve smaller groups and more
direct participation than lectures. However, insecurities are not evenly distributed, social
imbalances underlying race, gender, and class manifest themselves in countless ways across
society, and it should be no surprise that our seminar rooms reflect these imbalances too.

Members of privileged demographics are far less likely to doubt themselves and more likely to speak up in seminar rooms than less privileged groups. But it doesn’t have to be this way – through active feedback, diversity quotas, and efforts on behalf of tutors, there is possibility for
improvement.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 80.9% of white students,
but only 60.7% of BAME students, were awarded a good degree in 2018. Being from a racial
minority clearly impacts the outcome of these students’ studies, but their experiences while
studying must not be overlooked as well. While BAME experiences in seminar rooms should, and could only ever be, expressed by BAME students, objectively the majority of students in most seminar groups at Glasgow University are white. This can lead to a fear of self-expression and lack of empowerment among BAME students.

As well as race, gender plays a big part in how empowered people feel to speak up in
seminar rooms. As a History and Sociology student, I have noticed that, although most of my seminar groups have had a majority of female members, the few male participants are often the ones who contribute the most. I think it is telling how difficult it is to imagine the opposite being true. It’s more than likely that men feel empowered to speak up in spaces such as seminar rooms, because they don’t expect themselves to be spoken over, unlike women. Furthermore, in male-dominated subjects, this issue is likely to compound itself as women are in the minority and will be even less likely to speak up.

Of course, a lot of how empowered students feel to be vocal in seminar rooms is dependent on the tutor and how much effort they put into creating a safe and tolerant space. As a gender nonconforming person, I appreciate it when the tutor sets an example to the group by sharing their pronouns, as this indicates that they are supportive of LGBT+ people and our struggles. If the tutor doesn’t initiate this, students are unlikely to initiate it themselves, and this can make me uncomfortable as I don’t want my peers in the group to see me as a gender I don’t identify with.

Additionally, I have had varying experiences of tutors asking for feedback on how students feel the classes are going – sometimes they actively asked for feedback throughout the semester and adjusted accordingly, whereas other tutors only sought this out until the end of semester. To level the playing field and empower everyone in the group to actively participate in seminars, tutors should be encouraged to make creating a tolerant atmosphere a priority.

It is also important to note that tutors themselves experience marginalisation within the University as they are often underpaid and unsupported – despite the huge role they play in shaping the academic experience of students. The ongoing UCU strikes highlight these issues and I feel it is clear that improving working conditions for staff will in turn improve the experiences of students

Other top-down changes may help students to feel empowered in seminar rooms.
Diversity quotas and opportunity levelling initiatives, such as bursaries, play an important
role in making higher education accessible and therefore creating more diverse seminar
rooms. Bursaries and scholarships are particularly important for students from low
socioeconomic backgrounds as they help them to afford the costs associated with higher
education.

As class can be a major barrier to university, those from low socioeconomic
backgrounds may experience greater feelings of imposter syndrome than their wealthier
peers and therefore feel less empowered to contribute to seminars. Making universities
more diverse will empower students to have their voices heard in these spaces.

Although the experience of imposter syndrome should in theory be one felt universally, there are several things that can be done to ensure that it is not unevenly distributed along the lines of class, race, and gender. Through making changes from the top down, everyone should be able to speak their mind in seminar rooms.

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