Marinating in Bile: A Document of Social Anxiety and Student Frustration

 * This post was originally written in February ’14. See postscript for rationale.

Early last year, I made a joking self-comparison with the misanthropic protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. It was during one of those exhaustive around-the-room introduction exchanges that tend to fill first weeks at uni. I was nervous, and hoped my quip would come across in its intended context. What I said, unintentionally, and to a roomful of people, was ‘I hate people’; what I’d meant was that I begrudgingly own social awkwardness as a defining characteristic and generally disdain small talk. You know: haha, self-deprecation!

Needless to say, the joke landed with a thud. Why am I (paraphrastically) retelling it now? Because bitterness colours this post. I hope to come across charmingly cynical, like Bernard from Black Books, or Dr House from House, but, as in the earlier example, will probably come across as more of a miserable git, ala Morrissey or Robert Smith. But, look, it does say ‘rants’ up there in my blog banner, and to be honest that’s a quota I don’t feel I’ve adequately filled. I originally wrote most of this back in February 2014, but chose to sit on it for fear of reproach. Consequently, this one’s been marinating in bile all year. I’m no chef, but feel it’s probably ready now. (No one wants their rants overcooked. Or their introductions overlong …)

We’ll start big. I generally hate everything about modern Western culture. I hate most everything on TV; I hate inconsiderate people (i.e. most of Melbourne’s population); I hate the inane things people say to fill a quiet; I hate asinine internet slang (‘Cool story, bro’, ‘Still a better love story than Twilight’, etc); I hate the wide misuse of ‘literally’; I hate the liberal overuse of ‘hate’; I hate people who contradict themselves (geddit?); I hate my multitude of shortcomings. I could probably rewrite ‘My Favourite Things’, with the sources of my ire replacing the objects of Julie Andrews’ affection. Incidentally, I also hate The Sound of Music.

I don’t hate everything, though. Miserable Brit-Pop’s all right.

Anyway, here’s a vitriolic, overdue post about my disillusioning final years of study.

 * * *

What’s bothering me lately (or at least at the time I originally wrote this) is the sense of apathy pervading my higher ed writing course. Very few students seem to give a fuck about their work, which lowers the bar and standard of education. Most, it seems, are there purely for something to do, or to satisfy abstract, romanticised notions about what it means to be a writer. They groan when appointed trivial 2,000-word essays (less than a day’s work, according to King!), despite having upwards of four weeks to compose them, and resent the ambitious semester-long creative projects, even though the curriculum writers have made every effort to accommodate our vastly different interests. There’s a lot of narrow-mindedness in my course. How can a writer meet the conceptualisation and design of a magazine (on which we’re given complete creative freedom) with anything but celebration? How can a writer find studying works by the world’s most influential short story writers a chore? What could be more valuable than listening to the personalised advice of professional guest speakers? I just don’t get it.

Before I get too carried away, I must clarify that I’m speaking generally; there are certainly some good eggs in class who make thoughtful, enthusiastic contributions and show engagement with the material. Even the apathetic students deserve some credit, for they will intermittently switch on whenever snippets of lecture personally engage them. I must also stress that the apathy I’ve perceived is no fault of the teachers or institution, as I generally believe the quality of my education is of a high standard. Frankly, this ennui is something that has infiltrated at a cultural level. It could even be a generational thing. My course is an interesting microcosm, but I shan’t go down that rabbit hole.

Since I’m talking in annoying abstracts (another pet hate), I should, for illustrative purposes, give an example of this apathy. At the start of the year, one of our teachers asked for a show of hands from those who’d gotten writing done over the ridiculous three-month break. Only six in a class of over twenty self-identified ‘writers’ raised their hands. Their excuses were thin – family, holidays, ‘it was a hot summer’. Unacceptable. If you’ve the will to write, it’ll happen. All it takes is self-sacrifice. Anyone can substitute fifteen minutes of daily television time to write. Three months at that pace and progress is inevitable. My classmates simply lost direction, which isn’t good enough. What kind of writer needs course-imposed deadlines to work? At our level, we should be writing for the inherent joy of it.

Another common attitude I hear is: ‘I’m not interested in the publishing side of things; I just want to write!’ This irks me because these students enrolled – at fair expense – to do a degree in Writing and Publishing. If creative writing’s their sole vocational interest, why not join a writers’ group, or enrol in one of Melbourne’s innumerable creative writing short courses? The publishing aspect is what makes this degree so progressive. Even if we don’t want a career in publishing, it’s beneficial to learn as much as possible about the larger book-making process.

We’ve had a few new teachers this year, many of whom weren’t accustomed to our group’s sarcastic disposition, or our collective indifference. It amused and disappointed me seeing the change in these teachers’ manners; they understood they’d have to prise answers from us, that it would take a tap dance and firework display to hold our interest. Some of these teachers are sessional and it embarrasses me that we’ve negatively informed their perceptions of students from this institution. ‘Writing class of ’14? Yeah, yeah, I remember: the ones who didn’t give a fuck.’

In case it sounds like I have some unchecked (and, believe me, unjustified) superiority complex, I’ll confess that I’m not entirely innocent of this behaviour. My mind readily wanders when I feel unstimulated. I’m perpetually sleep-deprived and having internet-enabled laptops at our disposal is a terrible temptation. I don’t fault the teachers or coursework; eight hours is just a long time to have to sit with sustained focus – especially for me, as an introvert, since socialising tends to drain rather than energise me.

Another triviality: static class environments don’t help. My last campus was multi-levelled, and attending classes meant ping-ponging around it, forever changing environments. Different rooms gave the lectures different flavours (perhaps why Myths and Symbols felt as oppressive as high school history class). In our current situation, we’re entombed in the same room for all four classes. Granted, it’s a lavish, open room with natural lighting and great acoustics, but being rooted to any one spot inspires stir-craziness.

I don’t mean to throw my fellow students under the bus but, for many of them, their problems come down to ill-defined goals. (Another reason I champion list writing.) They have no idea what they want out of the course. They’ve not thought about where they’ll fit within the industry post-qualification and therefore can’t visualise applying the taught knowledge in a real-world setting. Many want to be professional writers, but have no interest in the practical implications of this. They don’t care about establishing a professional writing schedule, keeping abreast of industry developments, playing the networking game or engaging with the literary community. They don’t submit to journals, or read widely, and they drag their heels if appointed tasks that don’t align with their narrow personal interests.

To make matters worse, many students make shallow, obvious contributions to class discussions. We discuss things that third or fourth-year publishing students should know. I must be an anarchist for publishing this, but most of the time, during class discussions, I feel unstimulated, deflated.

I’ve technically studied writing at three different campuses, with three different batches of people, so feel qualified to speak on the differences in attitudes, as least as I’ve perceived them. The first campus experience was a false start: I was young, green, and not at all ready for the Real World. Despite this, I recall spirited, stimulating discussion between students. I was somewhat spoiled at the second campus, for my time was spent alongside generally kind, enthusiastic, switched-on writers. Since then, however, I’ve been stuck with know-it-alls, antagonistic liberals and serial complainers. (Generally speaking, of course – I can’t, in good conscience, lump everyone in these categories.)

I don’t mean to sound pigheaded. I appreciate that people approach study for different reasons. I understand we’re at different levels and have different goals. But this is supposed to be adult education and I’m getting too old for high school theatrics. Case in point: earlier this year there was an ongoing feud between parties with different ideologies. One, boisterous and unyielding, was clearly at fault, but the actions of the so-called innocent party blurred this line. At every intermission, the class degenerated into gossip-mongering. Being privy to their private nastiness, I shuddered to think how the offending party (however unworthy of sympathy) must have felt entering a classroom that charged with vitriol. It makes me wonder what some of them think of me. I rarely engage socially, so it’s amusing to wonder what conclusions might’ve been drawn about my manner or competencies.

I’m digressing. But you see what a circus life on campus can be. I want to join a writers’ group in the future, and am hoping (praying!) to find one that’s a good fit. I’d love to find people with whom I could have a laugh, but more importantly I want to be around likeminded writers who are serious about their craft and who conduct themselves with professionalism. Is that too much to ask?

* This post was originally written in February, and does not reflect my current feelings about my former peers, or my overall study experience. I’m posting it despite the attitude change because I feel it’s an honest documentation of my frustrations at the time. This was a generally difficult year for me, and I’ve often turned to writing to process some of these challenges. I want my blog to be honest and truthful, and feel it’s important to share posts like these, even if they embarrass me and even if I’m afraid of the consequences.

For fans of happy endings, it’s worth noting that the year got better as it went along. A lot of students – notably the more difficult personalities – dropped out or stopped attending classes. Those that remained demonstrated ample commitment to their craft, and throughout the year I made more of an effort to get to know them. Overall, despite numerous unmentioned challenges native to the institution, this was an enjoyable and productive year. I think it’s important to own and process our uglier emotions (lest they fester). Perhaps that’s why I find boxing and writing so cathartic. But, hey, so now you know I’m a massive jerk. Where to from here?

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