Tuesday, June 20, 2006


(No, not the religious kind.)

I’m increasingly convinced that one of the secrets to success (except for those lucky blankety-blanks who are naturally brilliant) is the steadfast belief that, no matter how absurdly convoluted and hopeless the current situation seems to be, you’ll find a solution. You don’t know yet what it will be, how you’ll find it, or when you’ll find it, but you believe that you will.

On any given day, I usually don’t know what my next blog post will be. But I have faith that I’m come up with something, and a related faith that, over time, enough of them will be good enough to make the weak ones forgivable. (“Ask the Administrator” queries are always welcome, since they’re freebies, as far as topics go. Bring ‘em on!)

Some people have faith in their ability to solve hard math problems. Some have faith in their ability to build stuff, or fix things, or walk into a room and socialize breezily and winningly with whomever they happen to meet. That faith isn’t always accurate, and it’s certainly not always rationally defensible, but it’s functional. (I once heard a major league baseball player comment that no matter how much he respects or fears a given pitcher, every time he steps to the plate, he thinks “I can hit this guy.” The day he stops thinking that, he’ll stop hitting.)

As a new professor, I remember being shocked at a student behavior that never even would have occurred to me: kids just throwing up their hands and walking out of an exam in the first five minutes, saying defeatedly “I can’t do this.” There were exams that kicked my butt – especially in geometry, which I still think is an elaborate prank – but it never even crossed my mind to just walk out in the first five minutes. There have been subjects that tested my faith, and times when pretty serious faith was required. If you don’t have that faith, and the subject doesn’t come naturally, you’re bound to fail.

How do you teach faith?

I’ll grant upfront that there’s a component of arrogance to this kind of faith. When I pick up a book in an area I find interesting, it’s usually with the thought that I’ll be able to understand it, pick it apart, argue with it, and learn from it. That thought is a necessary (but not sufficient) precondition for its own fulfillment. I consider that an okay kind of arrogance, as long as it’s kept in reasonable check.

Too many kids either never develop this kind of faith in their academic abilities, or get it beaten out of them. They compensate by loudly demanding that courses be easy and entertaining. Since they don’t think they can meet challenges, they avoid challenges, and try to de-fang those they can’t avoid. Backed into a corner, they crumble, or cheat, or walk out, or complain to the dean; the one thing they don’t do is suck it up. Then, when they crash and burn, they take it as confirmation that challenges are bad.

The real tragedy of it is that some of the lack-of-faith is actually misplaced. I’ve seen students blossom when they get that first taste of unexpected success; usually, after that, they’re the most motivated in the class. I wonder how many more could have done that, but just never got that first break.

How do you teach faith?