The Vagenda

University Challenges

I’m pretty sure everyone’s meant to be at least a little bit clever at university, somewhere on a healthy range between the more discerning pen-smellers and University Challenge contestants. I fervently believed this when I skipped off to an institution where people watched Question Time for fun. It’s the height of my intellectual journey, yeah? A place where I could mingle with the emerging intelligentsia of the 21st century, radically changing the world, one Nestlé KitKat boycott at a time. But then something strange began to happen.
When I first arrived, fresh-faced, at the students’ union, my new friends were like, ‘Yo, slut!’ – not because I had more sex than they deemed acceptable (although who knows?) but because BANTER. Down at our student halls, we had a ‘Lad of the Month’ chart, just for the guys, pinned to the wall opposite a nightclub poster. The poster depicted a woman (well…her ass) on her knees, with what looked like jizz flying at frankly dangerous propulsion over her head. The tagline read ‘Tequila: Come and Swallow’. (What does that even mean in relation to tequila anyway?)
Then came the ‘Spotted: Generic Uni Library’ Facebook pages, predictably levelling disproportionate interest on the girls. Fuelled by revision-period boredom, these pages gave way to a whole creepy voyeuristic level of sexism. Want to tell the girl next to you she’s got great tits but don’t want to appear weird? Have an inkling that the lady behind you would really enjoy a ‘seeing to’ because her brow is just so furrowed as she peers at that awfully difficult French philosophy book? Then ‘Spotted’ is for you! Just the idea that a person could be judging my appearance whilst I desperately scribble ‘PROBABLY SYMBOLIC OF SOMETHING’ on my books was enough to make me feel shiftier than Prince Harry on a comedown when peering at my surroundings. 
And then there was what I actually saw inside the lecture theatre: I study English Literature, and even though the subject is certainly female-dominated at undergraduate level, the number of female lecturers is poor. Over the last year, I have had a total of two female lecturers out of a possible sixteen. Obviously, men can be feminists, and in particular one of my male English lecturers is 100% femtastic – but the male-dominated academic circle perpetuates awkward assumptions about female intelligence amongst my classmates. I was once told by an academic that when a seminar has ‘two guys or more’, they ‘always dominate’ the conversation.  As a result, I often feel my older tutors make presumptions about my ability to contribute to a discussion (even before I’ve made my BRILLIANT point about how ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a metaphor for the Holocaust) precisely because of my lady-bits, just because a handful of blokes have been bursting out of their gilets to shout over The Ladies in the past and thus earned the admiration of their professor.
With the Glasgow University debating shit-storm, York University’s refusal to ratify a feminist group, and Cambridge trying to host an event that staged girls in their bikinis wrestling in jelly to celebrate the end of exams (no, really), university seems to have hit a new low in the last couple of years. Meanwhile, attitudes towards sexism within the institutions seem to steer dangerously close to the reductive ‘well, men and women have the vote – go enjoy your egalitarian haven bbz.’ Unfortch, it’s actually a whole non-gendered-item-of-clothing-twist of objectification, subjugation and mischaracterisations. 
It’s not all woe and jelly, though. In fact, I’m pretty confident to say all of my (4.5) university friends would call themselves feminists. So, as long as everyone keeps their jiggly desserts to their appropriate use, we might just end up fine.
We can but hope.

12 thoughts on “University Challenges

  1. I’m at Cambridge and just so we aren’t all tarred with the same brush, it was just one group of ‘lads’ in one particular drinking society (a club based around groups of lads coming together to outlad each other – although there are exceptions) and more than a thousand undergraduates signed a petition to prevent the jelly wrestling from happening. Although I think this article makes some good points, in my experience it entirely depends on the group of people you end up hanging out with. In my circle of friends feminists are certainly in the majority (and the rest would at least describe themselves as “gender egalitarians”) but then again, this is possibly because my social life is based around the theatre.

    I agree that it is completely appalling that so many apparently intelligent people accept and perpetuate misogyny, but I don’t think there is anything special about university in this regard.

  2. Just to say that York’s refusal to ratify FemSoc is because an identical society exists within the Students’ Union that already has a strong political platform – the student union believe funding would be better spent on one ultra-feminist group than 2 split groups as this would provide stronger support in the long run. (I’m not in the student union although aware it sounds I’m plugging)…

    I just don’t want York getting slammed for being anti-feminist, they have a strong feminist voice on campus which is contributed to through different channels (for instance, their production of The Vagina Monologues ran for 3 nights, sold out every night, had people queuing for hours beforehand to get in, got 5* reviews from campus press and loads of university backing).

    Similar to archiebobex – agree with the points about casual misogyny (Spotted etc, which I campaigned against at York), but I don’t think it’s fair to blame the specific university itself for perpetuating this.

  3. ‘I was once told by an academic that when a seminar has “two guys or more”, they “always dominate” the conversation. As a result, I often feel my older tutors make presumptions about my ability to contribute to a discussion (even before I’ve made my BRILLIANT point about how “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a metaphor for the Holocaust) precisely because of my lady-bits, just because a handful of blokes have been bursting out of their gilets to shout over The Ladies in the past and thus earned the admiration of their professor.’

    I’m a PhD student and some of my PhD friends who teach and members of staff have mentioned the way in which in some groups the male members of the class tend to do all the talking. They don’t assume that the women in the class aren’t up to the discussion, but that in those classes the guys are pushier. The staff/PhD students I know that have mentioned this have done so in the context of a discussion on how encourage quieter members of the group to talk more and make the seminar groups a more egalitarian place. There are, of course, some academics who are still sexist, but please don’t think that because you are quiet the every tutor thinks you are less intelligent than the louder people in the class.

  4. Beat me to it, fifiefofum. I was enjoying this piece & nodding along until this bit. Can only repeat what you’ve pointed out – we know that boys in the group are more likely to make their presence known but please don’t assume that academics think you’re thick if you’re quiet. You can credit us with a bit more intelligence than that. Anyway, this ‘older’ tutor has used that point as a starter for discussion in a seminar before.
    And to the writer of this piece, it seems that you had a more positive experience as a student of self-identifying feminists than I do as a lecturer. I recently asked a group of about 15 young women on a module studying women’s writing who would call themselves a feminist: just two tentatively raised a hand. *sigh*

  5. Hi, RLL here – You guys are right, the point I was trying to make was not my teachers think girls who say less are stupid, but that some academics presume (sexist-ly) than guys will do all the talking because of that good od’ sterotype that guys are more confident than boys. I also have a lot of female Post-grad teachers who are younger, more feminists and I feel more open to having equal voices in their discussions.

    And Catherine – that depresses me so much to hear so few people in your class would self-identify as a feminist. I hope you’ll ask them at the end of your course and change their minds!

  6. Hi RLL – fair play! Though, speaking generally, sometimes having ANYONE speak up is a blessing. Young men do seem to feel more privileged about speaking their mind – this is more noticeable at the one uni where I teach and which has a high intake from boarding schools.
    Unfortunately, the question about feminism was asked at the end of the course. It seems that many young women have absorbed those discourses about fun-sucking feminists, despite my drawing attention to such sites as Vagenda…

  7. “York University’s refusal to ratify a feminist group” the University of York already have a Women’s committee, so probably just didn’t want two societies for THE SAME THING.

  8. Yes, know what you mean: in my first year engineering materials lecture at Imperial College the lecturer talked about “girlie” metals, which apparently are no good for construction purposes … luckily I am both intelligent and a feminist so I called him out at the time and for good mesure, graduated top of my year 4 years later (90% men on the course). Boom!

  9. I agree! Also while it’s awful that this stuff is still going on, it’s clear that change can be made with a little effort! It’s just about getting word out there and encouraging discussion – requires a lot of energy and can be exhausting at times but hopefully we can be the change we want to see.

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  11. Hey. So I do the same course as you at the same university and I COMPLETELY agree with your comments about the gender dynamic in seminars. My experience has been, particularly in first year, that the few boys present often dominate the discussion. I think this is because they seem to have arrived at uni with an apparently more inherent confidence and a high level of self-assurance. This confidence and self assurance I personally used to find quite intimidating. But their confidence in itself isn’t the problem, they’re allowed to be confident, it’s great that they’re confident… it is that several of the (I think more sexist) professors actually CATERED to this self assurance, letting those members of the class fuel all the discussion instead of trying to steer the conversation to new angles and therefore other people! Oh and coincidentally, the seminar I’ve been in that had the most egalitarian and vigorous discussion (none of us ever shut up!) was an all-girl seminar.

    p.s I really enjoyed your article and I’m guessing the lovely femtastic lecturer is Richard? He is my absolute fave.