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...

Comments:
First, my confession: I feel "manaiacal" in some small sense (some parts of what I have done has been quite easy, though a few things in which I had no interest [like biological science] marred my GPA) but was generally very dutiful in college, though less so in grad school. I think what you're saying has some merit, but it sounds a little like patting yourself on the back.

I think that higher ed. is guided by the duitiful (though not completely--if you're at a four-year institution and have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter on campus, check out who's a member as faculty), that's because you pretty much have to be duitiful in most fields to complete the terminal degree. Throw administration and accreditation into the mix and suddenly the dutiful quickly rise to the top because they understand the notion of jumping through hoops well. Do we need some manaiacal people? Absolutely. Should everybody involved in higher ed. have a manaiacal streak? Absolutely. But you need to recognize that the dutiful keep the institution going for everybody, including the manaiacal ones.

And on a personal note, it's great to have truly manaiacal people on campus, but less so when they're in your department!
 
In the fine arts, you run into the brilliant and maniacal more commonly, although I do have a score of the hardworkers who do everything they are supposed to do but still aren't "artist's". Frustratingly, some of my most talented and gifted students have failed my class because they just don't work well within the structure that is required of our administration and the class curriculum. I also wonder how many maniacs are currently having their creative muses burned alive, metaphorically speaking, by drugging them for ADHD. I have one of these kids in my family, and although his grades don't reflect it, he is consistenly the most creative, the best at problem-solving and the best at divergent thinking. If he just didn't hate school so much, he might end up famous or a millionaire. As it is, I think he will wind up selling used cars and making a killing while my other two kid-3.6 and 3.9 gpas-end up teaching school in genteel proverty.
 
Larry Summers was fired for saying substantially what you have written here. So I guess that it's good you write anonymously.

I agree with your analysis, thanks for a thought-provoking post.
 
They called me mad in Zurich. But I'll show them! I'll show them all!
 
"Then, there are the maniacs."

My stepson is one of these; when he cares, he's brilliant (he's a computer engineer, and incredible at that); when he doesn't care...well, he reads no fiction, nonly watches movies on his computer--and I swear he only watches them because he can watch them on his computer, he's plotically clueless. But he just might do something that radically changes computing.
 
this is similiar to my theory that many grad students are *either* good at coursework, or good at research (some, of course, are good at both, though in my experience this is less common). Being good at research seems much more important as a PhD, yet those who are good at coursework win all the accolades and opportunities early on.

I'm all for changing the importance of things like GPA, but I do think many of the requirements are good. They expose students to different areas/ideas/skills, even if they aren't good at everything. It's absurd to think that anyone should excel in every subject area, but being exposed to is still beneficial, I think. As long as everyone understands it's absurd that everyone would excel everywhere.
 
What andrea said.

Most of the grad students in my graduate program (bioengineering) are either dutiful (85%) or brilliant (10%).

My own grad students, who somehow think I know everything (in reality, I just have many more years of papers stuck in my head), are shocked when I refer to certain faculty (or peers in our research field) as "too smart for the rest of us" and "operating on another plane." There really are a subset of these brilliant people, and I feel humbled by them. They often seem to be oblivious to how brillian they are.

Unfortunately, I think the inherent structure of graduate school in both science and engineering often filters out the "maniacal" students, especially if the research has a serious experimental component. Unlike some European systems, the American PhD system has a variety of "hurdles" to jump prior to the PhD proposal/defense, and the very nature of maniacal students often allows one of these hurdles to "get them."

I also have a few anecdotal cases of maniacal grad students who dropped out, spent a few years "finding themself", and wound up returning to graduate or professional school with a solid sense of purpose. In a sense, I think some of those "older" grad students are basically formerly maniacal, but when experience and wisdom was added, they transformed themselves into one of the other 2 categories.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
What category do the brilliant, yet hostile and disparaging students fall into? Dutiful because they do your work, despite the fact that it is beneath them? Brilliant because..well...they are? Or maniacal, because they seem to have no problem asking a professor after a lecture: "Really? Is that the best you can do?"
 
I sent the link to my most manaiacal student, who will be transfering to a four-year next fall... I think he'll get the picture and mellow out a little... otherwise, he'll be back with us...
 
This post struck a chord with me. I have exactly a 3.0 right now in my classes thanks to not testing well (meaning a mix of As and Cs), and while I found summer research easily on campus within my field I got rejected at other off-campus locations due to that dammed transcript that refuses to budge.
My professors have told me not to worry, that it will work out in the end, but I still worry about grad school a lot. If I couldn't do this field that I love so much I don't know what I would do.
 
I myself was, and remain, among the briliant. I am sheer gift.

- Percy Bysshe Silly
 
Your description of the 'dutiful' student sounds like the model elementary education major. Spot on. Excelling at organization, detail, and presentation, yet utterly lacking an original thought.

Is it any coincidence that elementary education majors have some of the highest major-GPAs? Shouldn't that signify something to administrators? Or all administrators the 'dutiful' type?
 
I think your typologies is two-thirds spot-on. The brillant can neither be accounted for or competed with. The dutiful got there because they did their homework. And then there is the rest of us - good at some things, great when we work at it or are interested, but struggling to rally skill or interest in many areas.

Maybe one reason I'm not finding the maniac a useful term is because bi-polar runs in my family and occasionally in me. I am not brillant and certainly not dutiful, but having had a few rounds of genuine mania, I don't think that is what is driving the remaining third of the student population. Perhaps the are simply The Average Student? Because even those get A's sometimes.
 
I found this via Liz at I Speak of Dreams:

You may get some pushback about use of the term "maniac" to describe these students, but that aside, you've described them wonderfully.

I was one of those (and own my own company), and both of my sons are as well, though the middle one also shows some signs of going to the 'brilliant' group, too.

I also have a dutiful one. She does her homework AND turns it in, completes projects weeks ahead of the timetable and generally falls into the "I love school and learning" category. There are certainly strong benefits to both approaches, but for me -- I love the passion that the "maniac" brings.
 
It is interesting to see how much gender is part of these categorizations and the various responses. Perhaps classroom behavior is constructed in the same ways other gendered behaviors are. I know, for myself at least, I started out as brilliant/maniacal as a young girl, but then learned to be dutiful (as all well-mannered girls are required to be) because there were social reprocussions for being a clever, argumentive girl. (This argument comes up in _Reviving Ophelia_). It was in college, especially grad school, where I once again found those brilliant/maniacal aspects of myself that I had been socialized to keep in the closet. As a professor who teaches lots of elementary ed majors (mostly women) I try to value and encourage brilliant/maniacal work over dutiful work, explaining to them the importance of learning to think for themselves instead of always doing precisely what they are told. Amazingly, just making this all visible, has a significant impact and I've seen quite a few dutiful students (I call them "worker bees") develop brilliant and maniacal tendencies once they see that these are expected and rewarded at the university level.

--Professor Mom
 
Paris -- I used 'maniac' in the colloquial, rather than the clinical, sense. I hope that was clear from the post, but I apologize if it wasn't. Clinical mania is an entirely different issue, and I certainly don't mean to make light of that.

I just couldn't find another word that captured it. 'Single-minded' came close, but it sounds like an intensified version of 'dutiful,' which misses the passion. 'Hell-bent' isn't bad, but it comes close to 'hell-raiser,' which is an entirely different idea (though they can overlap).

The 'dutiful' category, in my experience, registers as mostly female, but the other two are not especially gendered. That's probably why women average better grades than men; if the second and third categories are pretty much even and the first tilts female, then females will average higher grades. That pretty much fits what I've seen, both as a student and as a professor.
 
I like Jim Delisle's term - Selective Consumer - for your maniac group. [From When Gifted Kids Don't Have All The Answers].

For those looking to mitigate inconsistent achievement, I'm excited about the tools and framework in Jim Burke's School Smarts: The Four C's of Academic Success. There is a fairly extensive excerpt at Heinemann's site, for those who are interested.
 
Another way of putting it is that there are two kinds of geniuses. With the ordinary kind, you feel, well, you could have done that if you were only smarter. The truly scary type appears to do magic.
 
I second what Professor Mom said; there's a double charge for openly being a maniacal girl (or a brilliant one, I expect; not my problem, alas). A high-school counselor suggested I needed psychological counseling for taking hard math classes. It's okay if, as with Asians, it's "just because you work hard"; but sprezzatura in a girl is deeply disturbing to a whole lot of people.

I don't think the opposite stereotype, of boyish coolth and brilliant slackerness, does its adherents much good either. I am particularly incensed by it in programmers proud of not understanding the systems they encode, so your slam on distributional requirements seems pretty stupid to me.
 
Does anybody here realize what this means? The modern education system is an injustice. Not completely, in that it sustains itself, like how communism sustains itself, but on a less devastating scale. The spectrum of human potential is being suppressed by poor character judgment.

Despite the comments on this blog, the majority attitude of the populous believes good grades mean you're really smart. But if the premise in this blog is true, then it's like the education system is cutting off the head of the nation. We're slowly evolving into submissive boring creatures.

My advice to any maniac is to quit school and use your eccentric brilliance to be an intellectual outcast. If you're really as smart as you think you are, you can will yourself to greatness, so that one day, in the irony of fate, the academy will feed off the originality of your work.
 
Does anybody here realize what this means? The modern education system is an injustice. Not completely, in that it sustains itself, like how communism sustains itself, but on a less devastating scale. The spectrum of human potential is being suppressed by poor character judgment.

Despite the comments on this blog, the majority attitude of the populous believes good grades mean you're really smart. But if the premise in this blog is true, then it's like the education system is cutting off the head of the nation. We're slowly evolving into submissive boring creatures.

My advice to any maniac is to quit school and use your eccentric brilliance to be an intellectual outcast. If you're really as smart as you think you are, you can will yourself to greatness, so that one day, in the irony of fate, the academy will feed off the originality of your work.
 
Speaking as a confirmed maniac (with egotistical brilliant leanings), one way that the field is evened is in standardized test scores. I have been admitted to at least two hyper-elite graduate programs where my GPA was probably in the 10th percentile for the programs in question because my standardized test scores (LSAT and GRE) were just shy of perfect.

So what's the difference between brilliant and maniac anyway? (This may be a self interested question.) Maniac = "brilliant, with flaws?" I know one fairly famous professor who was notorious as a student for getting top grades with zero effort in everything, like never showing up to class, showing up to the exams blown out of his brain on drugs, and getting the highest grade anyone had ever seen. He's currently up to amazing projects, but only about 20% of them actually go anywhere. Brilliant or maniac?

Or should he have taken Paraphrene's sarcastic suggestion and gone into exile?
 
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