The idea that university is a place where you can ‘find yourself’ is a truism; but the thing about truisms is that they are generally true. One of the great pleasures of a university environment is its diversity: it really is a place where people of all nationalities, backgrounds and genders can mingle on equal terms.
Although now rather obscured by the emerging ethos of ‘employability’ and ‘transferable skills’ – the inevitable effect of making students pay high fees – when all’s said and done a university is (or should be) still based upon the generation and exchange of knowledge, and an inevitable part of this is appreciating the changes that this process brings about.
This idea that a university is all about transformation through intellectual inquiry is more, I think, than a kind of idealistic over-arching principle, but also applies to each individual person who works or studies in one. While it may not always be obvious when we’re badgering you about coursework deadlines and class attendance, lecturers generally regard teaching and interacting with students as one of the pleasures of the job. And without sounding too Big Brother about it, we watch you more than you probably realise.
The students we see coming in as timid freshers often graduate three years later having undergone a complete transformation, both inside and out. If we’ve done our job properly, they leave with more knowledge than they had when they arrived – but more than that, their conception of self has often changed profoundly. It can be extremely interesting, and often rewarding, to witness that transformation.
Gender and sexuality are inevitably bound up in this process of development. After all, where else but in institutions of higher education will you find a community of young, consenting, and generally unattached adults, who can mingle freely and without any kind of supervision? And from my point of view, it’s fascinating to see how students express that freedom in their gender performance: how they dress, and how they act in accordance with their views regarding appropriate masculinity and femininity. (Questions of sexuality I leave up to you: it’s certainly not my business.)
I’ve learnt never to judge a book by its cover: some of the most ‘girlie’ girls I’ve ever seen in a classroom have been the most interested in questioning gender norms – they’re choosing to dress in an overtly feminine way because that’s their preference, not because they think that’s the only way to social acceptance. Tattoos, piercings and pink hair don’t necessarily signify radicalism; although it’s always a pleasure to see individuals who dare to be different.
As a teacher of gender theory, my job is to explicitly ask my students to consider issues of gender, by getting them to debate questions about whether masculinity and femininity is learnt or whether it’s inborn, and to imagine the possibility of genders other than just ‘male’ and ‘female’. But to be honest, I think it’s a shame if all students don’t think about such issues during their time in an environment in which inquiry and experimentation are actively encouraged.
It’s a long time since I was a university student, but I think there’s probably more open discussion and acceptance of sexuality and gender in all their variety among students now than there was in my day. Feminism may still have been a force on university campuses in the 1980s, but ‘queerness’ was still a developing concept, and one very much on the margins.
Britain today is a country in which a transsexual can win Big Brother, gender-ambiguous models are applauded on the catwalk, and openly gay people are allowed to serve in the armed forces. It’s up to you to decide whether you think any of this counts as progress, but it shows, surely, an acceptance of diversity that is worth embracing.
Dr Sarah Gamble is a lecturer at Swansea University, and specialises in the work of Angela Carter and Gothic and contemporary women’s writing. Know someone who wants to write a guest blog? Email firstname.lastname@example.org