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I know that this question has been asked before but I assume circumstances differ in each case so didn't feel like I'd be stepping on toes by asking this once again.

Today, I received a note from one of my graduate seminar instructors, who to paraphrase said that my work was quite good and he could tell that I was carefully reading the books which he appreciated but wondered why I wasn't voicing my opinion very much in class. He voiced his concern and offered to meet with me during his office hours.

Part of this stems from me being nervous, which is obviously no ones fault but my own and something I need to get over. I'm not a very boisterous person by nature and often the adrenaline kicks into high gear when I do talk. (My heart apparently thinks it's on the last lap of the race and needs to move into 4th gear. ) I'm fine answering questions if someone directs them at me but just jumping headfirst into the discussion unnerves me for some stupid reason! The other part is that while this class is on American history, it's not in line with my research area which is fine, I like diversity. However, others in the class seem to be able to name drop all these other sources pertaining to this field while I cannot really add much other than what's been discussed in the books we have and are currently reading. I guess I feel as though what I'm going to say wont add to the discussion or will seem out of place. This is my first year in grad school and we've only been in class for three weeks so perhaps I'm being too cautious early on?

As for "concerned professor" should I take him up on the offer to meet with him? I don't want to seem like a whiney baby who needs someone to hold their hand. That's not his job nor do I expect it to be. It's not as if he can wave a wand and cure me of my nerves and I do not want to waste his time over trifling matters. 

Any advice is welcome! 

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I think you should take him up on it.  You're right, it's not required that he offer something like this- but he did it anyway, and he wouldn't have offered if he hadn't been willing to follow through.

I think there are a few reasons meeting with him would be a good idea:

1) It makes you look better.  You have a chance to explain that it's not that you're bored/uninterested or whatever, and obviously you're invested!  Look, you're willing to meet beyond class hours!  You're a good student,  really, and you can explain what your reasons for not participating are.  Don't be a whiny baby, that's a good call, but explain to him what you've said to us.  Those are perfectly reasonable factors.

2) You can get advice, reassurance, tips, or whatever from the prof which will probably help with your imposter syndrome (I'm assuming that's at play here, I may be wrong), and thus improve your grad school experience (or at least time in this class).  Obviously he's concerned with what is happening in his class, and wants it to change.  Speaking with the prof will let you know how to  concretely go about doing that.   

3) Forging good relationships with faculty is also important.  Perhaps this is too calculating, but it never hurts to get one on one time with faculty early one, because even if he doesn't work in your area, he knows the profs who do much better than you do at this point, and you never know how that will come in handy.  

I really don't think you have anything to lose, and you have at least some to gain.  But that's just my two cents.  Good luck!

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1) Are you in your first year?  Your thoughts are completely normal.  It can be intimidating to hear others who seem to know hard facts about American history and historiography.  But you are there to contribute diversity (and, honestly, humble them by asking questions).  It's one thing to not really talk much simply because you don't have opinions and it's another thing to not really talk much because you will speak up only when you have a strong point to make and not talking for talking's stake.  It sounds like you're more in the former category.  Work on being in the latter.

2) Take up on the professor's offer.  See what he has to say.  Professors who help out grad students are far and few and they are really much more invested (in general) in graduate training than undergraduate.  He may be able to give you concrete suggestions on how you can be more engaged despite not being an American historian.

3) You will need to start finding your place as a historian as this is exactly what taking comprehensive exams are about: being able to converse as a colleague.  Don't wait until your exam prep to do it; you'll only make it harder for your committee members to determine whether you're ready.


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I think we all go through a similar phase. In my case, nervousness and ignorance pushed me to mumble nonsense in the early weeks and make a fool of myself. But my advisors and professors knew that it was coming from a nervous place and they offered help during office hours too. Yes, do go to office hours. Talk about this. They will help you approach the material without thinking in how everyone else is dropping names but how you, as a non-specialist, are contributing to the seminar. 

In your meeting, ask your instructor some guiding questions. In general, they want you to 'react' to texts, and I was never sure what this meant. My first semester was tough in this regard because my advisor thought he was clear when he communicated expectations but he was not. So one day I told him that and he simply asked general questions that I could think about while reading. What is this author reacting to? Why is this important? How is related to other fields/sources/methods/etc? It helped a lot to begin to voice my concerns in class and, after two years, I could come up with my questions when preparing for exams. 

Finally, as a historian, you will always find yourself in an uncomfortable conversation because no one (or very few people) will be doing what you are doing. Seminars are the place to practice talking to a specialized but inexpert audience. Take advantage of this! Don't worry about dropping names but about absorbing them. Chew information, cross-reference data, question arguments, and voice all this. 

Good luck!

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  • 2 weeks later...

@rhiannonsdreams It's totally normal and fine to be a bit nervous at the start of your first term in a graduate seminar, especially if some of the seminar participants are more experienced than you. However, think of this as an opportunity to blossom and grow in both your historical and communication skills! Speaking from experience, it seems to be much easier for shy/intimidated folks to get their feet and start contributing aloud than for folks who like the sound of their own voice and make brash but meaningless contributions to get the message that they need to tone it down and yield the floor once in a while (someone in my cohort was called into office hours to discuss the latter - and that was an awkward conversation with a professor, let me tell you!). Think of it as a continuum where you're trying to find the sweet spot of talking just the right amount. 

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  • 1 month later...

If you feel like you can't add more than what's already been said about the book you've read, maybe try to make an effort to be the first to speak?  In most of my seminars breaking the ice is slow and sometimes there is an awkward pause between the professor opening the floor, as it were, and someone talking.  Try to jump in there and say something, then at least you've engaged a bit.  Also, speaking during seminar does get easier!  In my first semester I was in a class where I felt the others knew so much more about the whole topic that I'd just sound stupid if I opened my mouth.  It was unfair for me to think that though, they were not first year students.  It gets easier! 

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