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Smarter Than the Average Bear?

11 October, 2012

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?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 October, 2012 12:48 am

    I think you’re right on the money here. I’ve been paying closer attention to my students in tutorials (discussion classes) recently. Those whom I think of as the smart ones (as proved by grades) are those who take notes, even when we’re just throwing ideas around. They are the ones the ask the questions, and not always difficult ones. They’re the ones who have done the readings before class, and have questions from the beginning. Of the couple in my current class, I think that they might have come through different schooling systems (one’s a British lass, and the other appears [yes, this is me jumping to conclusions] to have been home-schooled). They are taking active part in their learning, while many of the rest are waiting to be handed the answers. My advice for their study for exams is going to be based on reading and re-reading the texts, and their notes…

    As for appearing scary smart oneself, I’m not sure how to deal with that…

  2. 11 October, 2012 7:57 am

    As I was feading through your post, I immediately started thinking about the kind of thinking processes that test-oriented teaching fosters (or not, as the case may be), so I suspect your last comments on testing/ league tables is on the money. There is so much more focus on ‘teaching to the test’ and on standardising every possible aspect of getting educated (to make the ‘product’ easier to deliver) that I don’t think many students today have the opportunity to figure out how they personally learn and what strategies work best for them (whether that is note-taking, making outlines, drawing mindmaps, participating in discussion groups or whatever). As someone who absolutely hates group-based learning activities (and always got very little from them as a student)’ I also personally think there is way too much emphasis on that these days as opposed to individual thinking/ reading.

  3. 11 October, 2012 7:58 am

    Oops, that would be ‘reading’ not ‘feading’! Stupid iPad keypad.

  4. 11 October, 2012 2:11 pm

    I try to imbue a “growth mindset” (a la Carol Dweck) philosophy on my students. I explain to them how my class will make them smarter (especially the more difficult parts) and how good study habits grow their brains. My classes are about hard work.

    I’ve accepted I’m scary smart, but I do my best to make the world around me a little bit smarter. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, “I am smart and so can you.” Maybe not scary smart, but everybody can become smarter through effort.

  5. 11 October, 2012 4:07 pm

    Disclaimer: I’m coming to this as someone trained solely in the UK system and who didn’t study the humanities for many years after the age of 16 (my first degree was in maths). Taking notes in a humanities lecture is a pretty strange and unnatural thing to do. In maths lectures, if a lecturer wanted people to follow a theorem, they’d write it up on the board and give the students time to write it down and follow the steps. In a history lecture, the student is being expected to listen to something they don’t know about, and write down a rapid summary of their own about it while the lecturer is going on to talk about something else. Even today, while I can make copious notes in a seminar, it is hard work to do so and to keep up with the discussion of an unfamiliar subject.

    And lecturing/classes are very odd because nowadays they’re almost the only form of content people are exposed to that isn’t easily repeatable. If you wanted to watch a TV programme once when I was a teenager, you had one or two chances at most to see it. Even with VHS and cassettes, it wasn’t easy to replay a particular scene repeatedly. Now, almost anything you want is accessible long-term and can be reviewed & rechecked multiple times. One of the biggest incentives to make detailed notes about a book was if you knew you wouldn’t have access to it again; if you’ve got the full text online forever, there’s much less pressure to do so. There is a lot more incentive to develop memorisation and note-taking skills when they are also necessary for content access, than when they’re purely intended as study methods.

    • 11 October, 2012 10:48 pm

      Magistra, that deserves a post of its own!

      • Farah permalink
        27 October, 2012 4:22 pm

        And sums up my own disastrous first year. I spent the year taking down notes verbatim. Not sure it passed the cortext at all.

  6. 12 October, 2012 12:08 am

    Why not try this? Next time your students underperform, tell them in a friendly fashion that your own detailed knowledge of the subject is the product of hard work, which you briefly descriibe (as “what works for me”). Then tell them that just passively listening will not get them either the knowledge or the grades they want. “Good students” are active and systematic.

    • J Liedl permalink
      12 October, 2012 1:06 am

      I like Steve’s approach. One of the reasons I start class with a discussion question on that days’ topic is that it shows them WHY they want to do the readings before class. Then, having done at least some reading and thinking on the topic, we can move into the next hour and a half at a bit more leisure to draw things out (like spending time sketching out the Tudor family tree to show exactly why Mary, Queen of Scots, was involved).

      It’s hard because a lot of students take the excuse of “She is scary smart and super good at history and I’m not so why even try?” So then they have an excuse for not doing the work and not feeling bad that they don’t get it because they can’t ever, no matter what. Showing them that these are hard at first but yield to persistence? That can help.

      My engineering dad gave me a great tip the other week. Don’t bemoan a ‘steep learning curve’. It means that if you apply yourself a lot at the beginning, you’ll make progress quickly! If a student thinks that something’s hard at first, agree, but show them that for every time they apply themselves to the task of reading, note-taking or analyzing, the task in general becomes easier for them to master!

      • 12 October, 2012 1:13 am

        I think where I stumble is that I often do ask a question like that, and then watch them fumbling around as they realize they have not really mastered anything … and then they do it again the next time! I also have a series of questions they are supposed to answer for primary sources, and we go over those in class a couple of times, and then, a week later, I’ll start off with one of the questions (like, “what do we know about the author?”), and half the time, no one can answer beyond the name. Even when they know, they don’t see the value in reviewing a little for warm-up…


  1. Note-taking and the Myth of Accessible Content « Blogenspiel

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