Totally Tongue Tied

Published by Qmunicate Magazine, 25 February 2008

There are many things to write about in Glasgow – the International Film Festival has just drawn to its end, with the Comedy Festival on the city's damp horizons (the 5-day forecast is still bleak, sorry folks); but there is scarcely a topic so universal in our academic lives that it is any observer's crime not to pay it some sort of attention. So it's within my great taboo -breaking pleasure to introduce a subject which is hardly ever on everyone's lips – the mobile-clicking, room-gazing, paper-rufflingly awkward seminar silences, probably taking place right at this moment just down the road.

I'm reminded of my 'first time' on every occasion I set foot in the first seminars of a new semester. I'd just worked out when the traffic lights would change on the Byres Road crossing, and I was still wiping away the crumbs from the free cake stall when I found the right room, which turned out to be the venue for a scene Harold Pinter never wrote. I think we were actually studying Pinter at the time, but the irony of the situation was lost on us all – the silence stretched out until the tutor arrived, unhindered, for what seemed like an ocean of time.

Week followed week, and the silences were given a bit more depth with the notable creation of inventive silence-slaying tactics. Our class began gazing around the room, aimlessly tapping buttons on our mobiles, ruffling sheets of paper, or prolonging the experience of opening our bags in order to replace conversation with movement and noise, and to appear otherwise occupied – too busy to talk. The ten seconds we were given to introduce ourselves were quickly forgotten, and over the weeks, attendances began to suffer, and people began to arrive late to soften the blow. But by this time, the hanging, visible awkwardness seemed annoying and unnatural.

Despite the fact my seminars were for arts subjects, I felt like I'd walked out of the building with a master's degree in human psychology. Seminars do grow more relaxed from term to term, but they're a clear microcosm of the vast and ugly obstacles that divide one stranger from the next – a cornerstone of any advanced society; one in which work and leisure are rarely mixed, and one in which we're fed individualism to the extent that it becomes blurred with isolation.

Now, if you'll excuse me – I'm running purposefully late for my history tutorial.