Smarter Than the Average Bear?
When I enter a room, especially a room full of strangers, I generally assume that the other people are going to be at least as smart as, if not much smarter than, me. In fact, I seldom think of myself as being particularly smart. I really don’t think of myself as scary smart. This last, however, is how many of my colleagues and students claim to see me. It has me in a bit of a quandary, not least because when someone says this, part of me is tempted to say, “If you really think that, you are just not all that bright.” Part of me is also a bit distressed, when it’s students saying this, because I think I can hear a subtext of, “You are totally clueless about how hard this is, and we are never going to be as smart as you are, and so why should we even bother?” If students don’t bother, then what the hell is the point?
Before anyone decides to argue with me on this, let me make something clear: I know I’m not stupid. I know I’m fairly intelligent, and am very good at seeing things in ways that can show some insight that others might not have. I admit that I connect things intuitively, and can be very good at sorting and categorizing information. On a scale of “huh?” on one end to The Doctor’s “Very Clever” on the other, I would put myself between “Smarter than the average bear” and “Very Clever.” Why not higher? because I know a lot of people who I find scary smart. They aren’t all academics, either. For me, scary smart means being able to put things together (and take them apart), and having a lot of knowledge to draw upon. I know a lot, but I could give you the names of dozens of colleagues who know more than I do, and can draw upon their knowledge more easily than I can. Now, some of them may know a lot and not be able to put it together very well: to me, that’s not smart, that’s knowing a lot. I also know people who are brilliant as academics, but idiots when it comes to dealing with other people. That reduces the scariness of the smarts in my book. But anyway, yes, I am relatively smart, and I know a lot of stuff, and my breadth of knowledge is perhaps a bit broader than a lot of other people’s.
I tell you this because I would rather not have people think I’m looking for gratuitous ego-boosts, because this is a post about something that concerns me and is currently making my life a bit difficult. Part of being thought of as scary smart is that people often find me scary, full stop. I don’t really understand this, because I am often pretty scared myself, and have been on the receiving end of bullying, harassment, and other sorts of abuse regularly throughout my life; in fact, I’ve seldom been in a position to fight back in those cases. And yet, I know that I can come across as abrupt, dismissive, and impatient, especially midway through the semester when students I’ve known for a couple of years cannot answer my questions. I don’t like these characteristics in myself, and try to keep them in check. What I like less, though, is that none of those things result from my thinking someone is not as smart as I am. Certainly, there are people I think are as thick as a very thick thing indeed. Moreover, sometimes when such people choose to argue with me, I become impatient at their refusal to allow facts to interfere with their thought processes. In other words, it’s not that they are thick, per se, that bothers me; it is their dogged determination to defend ideas that cannot be defended AND the belief they can somehow win me over that bothers me. This is not much of an issue with students. Unless they are particularly thick. There are few of those at SLAC, and they tend to be people who don’t really value education or knowledge — which is pretty much what make them thick! So when students assume that my impatience with them stems from unrealistic expectations based on my own brilliance as a standard… I sigh. Heavily. Yea, verily, yea, how I sigh.
Today was a day that something clicked for me, though. Many of us whinge about students and how they aren’t well-prepared for university, how they don’t know what we did, and generally, how we really, really, really aren’t teaching us. To me, those things signal the necessity to come up with new approaches. Students don’t necessarily acquire knowledge as we did, and that can be fine. But. Today, what clicked is that yes, dammit, I’m smart. I have a fairly good memory about many things, but not everything. I pretty effortlessly retain a lot of superficial knowledge that’s great for pub trivia, for example. I am fairly good at remembering conference papers I’ve heard, especially if I’ve taken notes — or at least I can remember where to look for the notes! I have to work much harder to remember things I’ve read, though. I have to take notes (and it’s best by hand — since I’ve started taking notes on the computer, I remember less), and I have to review the notes over and over again. It’s hard work, and much of it does not come naturally to me. I need to do it in the quiet, I need to be able to focus, and I have to take time and pay attention. In fact, I think this is why I remember more from conferences: I am better at focusing on people than printed words. I’ve been aware of this since I began at university and realized I couldn’t just blag my way through things. I wanted to do well, and I wanted approval, so I worked harder.
My doctor mentioned the other day that she’d noticed that her female ADHD patients tended to drive themselves hard, and that they also tended to be overachievers. We were talking primarily about people like me, who never had been diagnosed, but simply knew that they had to change their behavior to keep up. I think there’s a gendered element to it as well. After all, women my age often assume that they will have to work harder, so if we do, it isn’t a surprise. Women now seem less likely to assume that, especially in an educational setting where there’s often gender parity (and at SLAC, it’s 60%-40% women to men). In any case, there seems to be a different expectation of the work required, and perhaps even a different understanding of what hard work means in an academic setting, than there was for me and my peers. I don’t at all mean that the students are lazy or don’t know how to put in effort in general. Most of them work, some are raising kids, they commute, they take heavy loads and do extracurricular things… in many ways, their lives are much busier than were the lives of students in my time. And yet… today, on several occasions, I noticed that my students were neither asking questions when given the opportunity, even on things I thought they’d want clarified, nor were they writing (or typing) anything down. This was true for discussion, and for the lectures that gave information not in the readings, although there had been moments in each class where students could not answer questions on subjects we’d covered in the previous class and in the readings. Finally, after mentioning several times that something was important, and crucial to understanding things we’d be covering over the next week or so, I worked in a question about how I was going to react when I asked them to explain it the next class, and they looked at me blankly. Perhaps, I suggested, by the third or fourth year at the university, they might consider writing down at least those things a professor said were important and repeated? A couple of students had done so, but not many. It was then that I realized that there was a much greater gap between their expectations about what was required for academic success and my own. Now that I recognize it more clearly, I hope I can figure out how to explain effectively that a lot of what they see as scary smart is to a large extent the result of my paying attention and writing things down, of being engaged in my own educational process, as the mission statements so often say. And I hope I can figure out how to do it in a way that is constructive and doesn’t come across as accusing them of being lazy, because they aren’t. I really am beginning to think that they just don’t know better.
Before you argue with that (and yes, some students are lazy — and some are thick), and I know you may, please think about your own experiences. If you’re an academic, you were probably a decent student. When I was at university, there were plenty of students who didn’t do the reading or take notes or study much. If you’re a medievalist, you’ll have read accounts from the universities that tell us that students in the Middle Ages weren’t always good students. What I’m talking about is not the students who don’t care, or who are just crappy students. There are always some of those. The thing is, I seem to remember that such students in my day, and even ten years ago or so, knew that they were crappy students. They’d say they blew things off. They might feel guilty about it, or not. Whatever the case, though, there seemed to be a general expectation that doing well required reading, revising,turning in assignments, taking notes, etc. What struck me today (and not for the first time, but in a new way), is that my students think of themselves as good students. They think that what they are doing when they skim a book or article is studying, and that glancing over the same reading, or some meagre notes in the margins, is revising. There are a lot of good candidates for why, and I’m not looking to lay the blame on any one group. I’m also fairly sure that this is something my colleagues in the UK and Ireland are starting to see, and I would not be surprised at all if it were largely linked to the testing/accountability/league table culture: in fact, I’m sure that’s a big part of it. But that’s not really the point of my rambling on for the first time in ages. Neither, for that matter, is the fact that I desperately wanted to try to write something coherent, because it’s been so long. The point is — or rather, the question is — what are we going to do about it?
Or is it, as Miranda Hart might ask, just me?