“I am not, by nature, a ‘D’ student”

A former student apologized for failing two classes he took with me in the same semester. That he apologized is itself cause for a blog post, but not this one. I am struck, instead, by the grounds of his apology. He apologized because failing is not in his “nature.” It is puzzling this sense that academic success is inherent. That being a “good” student has something to do with nature. Now, he could simply be using “nature” to describe his habits, as in, “I work very hard to perform well in all my classes.” But what a curious way to frame it: “nature.”

Even curiouser: the student had taken a previous class with me in which he earned a C for D work (inflation happens). In conversations about his work, he explained that he “reads all the books” and “attends most of the classes” and could not seem to grasp that both were preliminary stages in moving toward analysis.

The consistent problem: he does not distinguish between summary and analysis, fine though it might be. Every single paper is an extended summary of the text. Every exam question is answered with fact, not interpretation. Thus, “please explain this character’s motivation” receives “the character is bad” or “the character is old” or “the character is married.” These are possible guides to answers, but beginnings, only beginnings. They are opening sentences, partially ajar doors, no more.

How, then, I wonder, does “nature” come into it”? Is it an imprecise way of talking about labor? Or might it suggest something more interesting about how today’s students think about themselves, about the effects of testing cultures?

Perhaps what strikes me about the student’s claim is its familiarity. Having grown up and excelled in a test culture, I was, by 13, if not earlier, very aware of myself as a lazy potentially top 5 student. Able to be top 3, but really just not motivated enough. There were other things to consume my time: big, gorgeous bodice ripper novels, baking, He-Man, and She-Ra. And when I moved to high school, I simply got worse. Hovering somewhere close to failing in my second year, I casually mentioned to my student mentor that I could “easily be in the top 10 of my class” and didn’t “understand why I needed to try.” A promise, I should note, that I fulfilled.

The statement itself, much like my student’s, emerged from a test culture. A world that, granted, allowed me to measure myself against my peers and to predict (more or less accurately) my particular and peculiar skills.

What it could not account for and what I took for granted, often with deflating consequences, was labor.

While my friends studied I read novels and played piano. While they mastered the intricacies of Physics and Chemistry, I was falling in love with Puccini and Wagner. While they completed homework assignments, I was reading the latest Jackie Collins. I did put in *some* effort, that of the last minute crammer, but I preferred distractions. Knowing, like my student, that I was “by nature” a good student.

I may have been a “good” student “by nature,” but I had lousy work habits. (To be somewhat easier on myself, I was also mostly bored by the Kenyan curriculum and discovered the connection between passion and learning on becoming an English major.)

Now, we teachers can certainly try to train students about work habits. We can assign draft essays to provide feedback; direct students toward sources; offer writing advice through short(er) writing assignments. We can also note and praise promising lines of thought and suggest strategies that will help students develop those lines of thought. We can be excited about students’ work—I use much exclamania™. We can try, in other words, to deepen the relationship between nature and labor.

Of course, the story is not that simple.

Many students work very hard. They write multiple drafts, consult with writing coaches, attend office hours, write and revise. And, granted, their work will generally improve from an F to a C. One hesitates to write about aptitudes, but we do have different passions and talents. The student who cannot grasp queer theory might well become a fabulous reader of Tarzan or an incredible critic of Buffy. We teachers need to remember our own moments of weakness—I am, as a good friend keeps reminding me, not at all qualified to teach medieval literature, lacking the requisite 5 or 6 languages.

And perhaps the point is even simpler: that we can teach students to be impersonal about their scholarship. To understand the strange blend of labor and intuition and pure luck—the moment when a text sings to us—that often helps us create strong arguments. That, less simply, we can push and nudge students toward excellence without invoking that dreaded word, “potential,” that reinforces students’ sense that their natures live on a +/- scale.

Needless to say, teaching students to be impersonal will also help manage the kinds of affective intensities attached to evaluation. Performing badly on a paper or in a class does not reflect something inherent about one’s nature.

I am not offering a too-easy prescription. Teaching students to be impersonal takes labor. It requires untraining habits inculcated by a test culture. And this, as I know too well, is a Herculean task. I fall victim to my test culture upbringing all the time. But I have also learned the value of consistent habits: writing daily, reading daily, drafting and revising, soliciting feedback, revising some more.

I do not claim that I do all of these consistently or necessarily with any degree of success. Essays still remain stubborn, arguments gnarled, thoughts emergent rather than realized, and my knotty prose requires many un-knottings. But I am less willing to believe in the power of inherent ability or intuition, and much more willing to cultivate healthy habits.

Can we inculcate similar values in our students?