I don’t remember precisely what we were talking about, but I do remember that I was in a seminar on eighteenth-century British literature during my first year of graduate school. This was the same seminar in which I called this gentleman ben-juh-min rather than ben-yah-meen, because of course I did. I mean, Walter Benjamin had been living in my head with all the other Benjamins — Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Moore, Puff Daddy’s “All About Those Benjamins.” I had never uttered Walter’s full name aloud. How in hell was I supposed to know?
Because it always feels like you’re just supposed to know, you know?
We were probably talking about Defoe, because whenever I’m in any situation that requires reading Defoe it takes five million years and yet somehow I’m only halfway through the preface. (Why is Captain Singleton so long? WHY?) Maybe we were commenting on Crusoe’s jaunty umbrella or his tame goats or his unabashed racism and violent imperial project. Something about this conversation convinced me that I had Something to Say. I should say this thing!, I thought.
These moments usually start off benignly — maybe even auspiciously. I start to speak, perhaps make a critical hand gesture, use the word “epistemologies” without even looking sideways at that theory person sitting to my left to see if I used it right. But then it happens. Being a redheaded person, the first sign that things are going awry — and this usually occurs before my brain has wised up — is an undeniable blush, despite the fact that it feels like the room has just grown twenty degrees cooler, Sixth Sense style. For a moment I fool myself into thinking I can just power through, so I look up at the corner of the room, as if my sage insights are written, ephemeral, in the air. But even though my mouth is moving, I know all is lost, so I try to let things trail off casually.
The last words sound like Mad Libs. There is no sticking this landing. I belly flop into the awkward silence of my classmates.
I’d tossed plenty of embarrassing word salad in professional situations before. This was not new. What was new (and man, do I remember it clearly) was the moment that followed my crash landing, in which — fervently wishing that I could set myself on fire — I vowed to just keep my mouth shut for the remaining two hours of the seminar. If I could just manage to not speak, I might be able to sneak out of the room before anyone demanded my GRE scores, because certainly that admissions letter had been a mistake.
An aside: I feel compelled to note that this seminar was led by Betty Joseph, who is amazing. This complete embarrassment was an internal drama that, despite the very collegial and curious atmosphere of Dr. Joseph’s seminar, somehow managed to thrive. My ability to feel humiliated is kind of like a tardigrade, which I prefer to call by its more adorable nickname: the water bear. It can survive in the most inhospitable — or the most hospitable — conditions. Also, you think it’s cute at first, but then you look a little closer and it’s just unsettling and kind of gross.
BUT! Dr. Joseph, in that seminar, introduced me to a research question that I turn to all the time: what conditions existed that made this text possible? Seriously. It’s a magical question.
Anyway. I promised myself to zip it. I practically signed a contract in my mind.
I didn’t keep that promise. I have since made and broken that promise in a host of environments: pretty much every seminar ever, conference presentations, cocktail party small talk, committee meetings, hallway run-ins, even (illogically) my own classroom, a place that really kind of requires me to speak. Sometimes I convince myself to talk again because I am certain I can redeem myself. But usually I land on another Something to Say, and (as this blog evidences) I’m an oversharer and want you to hear my idea — or I want to ask about yours. I want you to know about water bears. I want to hear more about your theory that Crusoe’s umbrella anticipates Mary Poppins. I want you to understand that Robert Louis Stevenson is sexy in a tubercular sort of way. Or I want you to hear me out, at the very least.
Now and then this persistence pays off, and I manage to contribute something that feels evocative and meaningful. Sometimes I never take off, and I stubbornly skid-bump through the conversation like a flightless bird. And I’ve learned by now that this isn’t some sort of hobbledehoy stage in my career. I will not grow out of this. I say this with the confidence of someone who has written and ripped up too many “Shut Your Face” contracts to count. Someone whose self-doubt has the resilience of a water bear.
And honestly? None of us will grow out of this. I’ve been around you people. We all have moments when (we think) we’ve launched a lead balloon. (A balloon that doesn’t know how to pronounce Walter Benjamin’s name.) So I’ve developed a few strategies to recover.
First, I spend a few moments pretending to take thoughtful notes but really doodling an anthropomorphic carrot with tape over its mouth. This is the academic equivalent of a tennis player adjusting the strings on her racket. This strategy is largely useless, but somehow unavoidable. I need to regroup.
Next, I scan the room for an ally. I make casual eye contact and smile. This person often smiles back. Or doesn’t. But that encounter usually assures me that what felt apocalyptic was really not so bad and that conversation has continued apace. It has not, as I feared, abruptly transformed into a referendum on my incompetence. Sometimes the room has even taken up my point in an unexpected way. These disasters are rarely true disasters, and even when they are kind of weird and awkward, they are soon forgotten.
And then I ask a question. If I’m feeling a little raw, I’ll make it pithy. “Can you say more about that?” But hearing my voice in the room again is both terrible and reassuring. So really maybe this entire post boils down to “get back on the horse,” which is kind of embarrassing.
Maybe I should keep my mouth shut.