Friday, June 16, 2006

 

The Three Kinds of 'A' Student

In talking with an old friend the other day, we got on the topic of the kinds of students who tend to get A’s. To generalize wildly (and yes, there are plenty of exceptions, and yes, every student is different, and yes, most people combine the categories to some degree, and yes, we’re all God’s children, blah blah blah), they pretty much fall into three camps.

The Three Kinds of ‘A’ Students:

1. The Dutiful
2. The Brilliant
3. The Maniacal

The dutiful ones usually have high overall GPA’s, because they get A’s in everything. They do their homework, make flashcards to study, use highlighters, participate constructively but carefully in class, pay lots of attention to presentation, and are usually, in my observation, female. In high school, they talk down their performance on any given graded assignment after it’s in but before it’s returned; when it’s returned, they make certain to learn the hierarchy of grades. In college, I didn’t see as much of that, though I’m told it existed in the premed majors.

As a professor, I gave these kids A’s because they did everything they were supposed to do, and did it well. These kids usually go on to more education, because they’re so good at it, and they wind up in the credentialed professions (medicine, law) or higher ed. They are perfectly good at doing what is supposed to be done. Innovating, not so much.

The brilliant ones are the ones the other students resent the most. They just seem to have a knack for whatever the subject is, often to such a degree that they don’t even break a sweat. They’re more common in the math/science areas, but they pop up elsewhere, too. I’ve known several of these, and can say that they don’t mean to be annoying; it just happens. These are the ones who go on to ridiculously prestigious research posts, where they make groundbreaking discoveries and don’t see what the big deal is. I strongly believe there’s a genetic basis for this. Either you have the gene or you don’t. If you don’t, you’ll never really compete on the same level with those who do. These people exist, I think, to prod the rest of us to reflect on the randomness of life, and the hubris of believing that anybody can do anything with enough effort. Luckily for the rest of us, these folk are relatively rare.

Then, there are the maniacs. The maniacs have the lowest GPA’s, since their energy is directed only where they want it to go. These are the people who look bored most of the time, then break out with cryptic statements that are alternately brilliant and insane. These are the ones who will blow off a third of the class meetings, and spend the other two thirds arguing with the professor at a surprisingly high level. (They’ve also been known to fume quietly for entire semesters, then produce the best papers.) These people can be deeply, intensely annoying, but I strongly believe they’re also the source of most innovation and most progress.

I’ve had plenty of these as students and as friends, and I have to say, I’m sympathetic. These are the ones who reject the “well-rounded” ideal, in favor of targeted excellence. Their overall GPA’s are often fairly modest, but that’s more a measurement error than anything else. (A ‘B’ average can reflect lots of B’s, or lots of A’s and lots of C’s. To my mind, that’s an important difference.) They’re prone to enthusiasms, and the oddly off-balance knowledge of autodidacts. But they also bring the most dedication to a single area, which is why they tend to produce the most interesting and risky work. I had a girlfriend in grad school who fit this category; her speciality was unbelievably sophisticated spontaneous narrative. (Aunt B., over at Tiny Cat Pants, has this same gift.) My brother definitely leans this way, which makes him incredibly fun to talk to. I lean this way, too, though I faked enough dutiful behaviors to make it less obvious.

Although I can't prove it, I suspect that the maniacal ones are the ones likeliest to start their own companies, develop work-arounds when conventional approaches get stuck, and martyr themselves to their work when it's the right work. That single-mindedness they (we?) have can actually be an asset.

I don’t worry about the ‘Brilliant’ group; they’ll survive anything, the lucky bastards. But I worry sometimes that academia is too geared towards the Dutiful, and too quick to punish or shame the Maniacal. The “overall” gpa as an indicator definitely favors the dutiful over the maniacal, even though the maniacs’ best work is almost always better. ‘Distribution requirements’ were written by and for the dutiful. The concept of ‘prerequisites’ has Dutiful written all over it.

To the extent that any of this is right, it matters to the extent that we staff incredibly important institutions with people who got good grades. If those people share a common blind spot, it will get written into the fabric of those institutions, amplified over time, and elevated to an informal theology. That’s not to say we want maniacs running everything – nooooooo, we do not – but the right maniac in the right role is a revelation. A slight maniacal tendency in an otherwise dutiful soul can bring creativity to routine, solutions to problems. To the extent that we tamp down those tendencies, we wind up with the kind of people to whom it wouldn’t occur to find groupthink objectionable. They think it’s natural. It’s what they do.

Anyway, those are my maniacal rantings, blissfully unaware of real scholarly literature on any of this stuff. The blogosphere lends itself to that, which is its appeal and its curse. Now I’ll go dutifully to work...



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