Thursday, August 30, 2007


Trying to Remember 18

In an aside last week, I mentioned that my first semester at Snooty Liberal Arts College was an academic belly-flop. A few folks commented and/or wrote to say that they experienced the same thing: after a relatively strong academic performance in high school, they hit the wall in the first semester of college. They (and I) bounced back after that first semester, but the first semester wasn't pretty.

All these years (ahem) later, it's still hard to reconstruct just exactly what happened.

I can rule out one of the usual suspects: I wasn't partying my days and nights away. I discovered early on that I'm prone to hangovers of Biblical proportions (“and God said let there be Old Milwaukee, and there was a great weeping and gnashing of teeth...”), so that quickly kept the drinking within pretty strict limits. Drugs were out of the question. I even got a relatively decent amount of sleep, by college freshman standards. I didn't join a cult or get into an obsessive relationship or generate unusual drama.

Granted, my initial course selections were, well, stupid, and that didn't help. But I even got my butt kicked in classes that I had every reason to expect to do well in. In one memorable case, a professor returned a paper with a full page of red ink, angrily attacking my exegetical skills and accusing me of sophistry. I had to look up 'exegetical' and 'sophistry.' (I shared that story with him shortly before graduation, by which point I had redeemed myself academically, at least to him. He got a good chuckle out of it.)

Part of it, I think, involved learning how to throw myself into material. In high school, I was far enough ahead of the curve in certain subjects that I could sort of skate, and skate I did. This wasn't true for every class – my calc teacher must have thought I was a moron, and my physics teacher was mystified as to why the smart kids treated me as one of their own despite abundant evidence to the contrary – but in what I considered my wheelhouse, I could top the curve without working too hard. At some level, then, 'hard work' was actually associated with 'failure.' In the courses in which I had to bust it, I didn't do well anyway, and in the ones in which I succeeded, hard work was pretty much beside the point. From a time management perspective, hard work didn't make much sense.

Hitting college, it took me a little while to realize that the rules had changed. I couldn't count on my peers' even-greater-incomprehension-than-my-own when something didn't click. Since a ridiculous percentage of them hailed from Snooty Boarding Schools and Old Money, they had perfected the art of working hard in secret while maintaining a dashing public nonchalance. The public nonchalance lulled me, at first, into thinking that nothing had fundamentally changed.

The first semester GPA was a wake-up call. I had enough pride to be insulted by it, and to want to prove that I could do better. But in other circumstances, it wouldn't be that hard to imagine the opposite reaction – a defeated sigh, and a sulking retreat. Folks who study these things usually find that the highest attrition rates happen in the first year, and it makes sense to me. That's when it's easy to feel overwhelmed in an entirely new way, since the rules changed abruptly and nobody told you in a way that got through to you.

In my more libertarian moments, I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of 'distribution requirements.' Students do best in the courses they care most about, and they're most vulnerable in their first year. So why push courses they don't want on them at their most vulnerable point? Why make them slog through difficult-and-obligatory courses before they've had time to find their respective grooves? I don't know if I ever would have aced calculus, but I might have had a better shot a couple of years in than I did in those first few confused months of college. Any teacher can tell you that students who love what they're studying are easier to teach. Why make students at their most impressionable moment take courses they don't want?

As I've grown older, I've come back to that high school lesson about hard work and success. I see it from a different angle now, but the core of it still strikes me as true. If you have to force yourself to slog through it, you probably shouldn't. If you bust your hump because you enjoy what you're doing, then the work will pay off. The trick is not to eat your disgusting vegetables; it's to find vegetables that you like, then go with those.

Anyway, those are a few thoughts on trying to reconstruct my academic belly-flop at 18. Fellow floppers – what did it for you?

While several of my friends crashed and burned (they were all on some sort of probation by Thanksgiving that first semester) I did okay. And that was the problem, I just did okay, but could (and eventually did) do better, making the Dean's list every semester after those first two until graduation.

But those very first 2 semesters (my school was on the quarter system) I think I got mostly B's and one or 2 A's. I also got 2 Incompletes, one in Freshman comp the fall quarter, and the other in Western Civ in the winter quarter. This was not necessarily for doing poorly, but for failing to hand in some of the written assignments in each of those courses. I made them up by the subsequent quarters and then things began to click spring quarter. Most of my other friends who had trouble also got it together by then or by their sophmore year.

I did well in highschool, but I wouldn't say I was a whiz kid or anything. I think for me, I just hit my stride, and learned to maximize my particular skills and talents by managing my time effectively and scheduling my classes in a way that allowed me to succeed. One strategy I used was to try and have two math-based classes and two reading/writing classes each quarter, which helped to balance my workload. I found the logic of math (it has to work, once you figure out what has to be done) and numbers crunching relaxing and a nice break from reading assignments and researching/writing term papers. Extra-curricular activities also helped me to better structure my time as well.
I did really well in high school without breaking a sweat. But I went off to college -- at an elite private university -- suffering the fdelusion that I should be a physics major. It too me 3 semesters to accept that there was meaning in the fact that I was getting C's in physics and calculus and A's in non-science, no math courses. When the light dawned, I changed my major to psychology and had a much better time of it my last two years there.

I went from a 2.7 average my first 2 years to a 3.8 for my final two years. I was really depressed the semester before I made the change because doing what felt like poorly to me was a blow to my sense of myself. I had to learn that I couldn't do everything and that concentrating in those areas I had real talent and passion for made life much better. A good lesson learned the hard way.
Supporting your theory, as part of my major as an undergrad, I was required to take one of two 100 level biology classes. My freshman year, I took one and earned, key word there is earned, a C. It was good enough to get the necessary credits. My senior year, I realized I could add a minor in biology without really adding more classes, but needed the other 100 level class. So as a senior, I took the freshman level course and earned an A. Once I had figured out what I wanted to do, in general, I was able to apply what I had learned in other classes (i.e. reading the text book does wonders for learning and retaining the material) I excelled in the course.
This is almost creepily appropriate, seeing as I'm a first year at a not-quite-snooty liberal arts college and have my first ever college class in twenty minutes.
I definitely breezed through high school, no question about that. But a few teachers in the AP program actually pushed me, and I worked my butt off for them. I guess I just need to get used to doing that for every single class...
But thank you for such an appropriate reminder on my first day of classes.
Wrong field (dear family and friends: being "good" at math and science [I think I was really just good at school] does not equate to being a good engineer. Did you know that the scientific method and a decent grip on math come in just as handy in, oh, the social sciences?), too many hard classes (Japanese I, Russian I, Calc III, first semester physics, something else [dear schools: never, ever give know it all freshmen their pin without making them see an adviser first]), too much work (40 hours a week). There's a whole lot of trouble 18 year olds can get themselves into without the traditional troubles of partying, drugs, alcohol, and bad relationships.

I took a 5 year break out of college, switched fields (I'm a sociologist now, and much happier for it), and hey, what do you know, I got a 4.0 my first semester back and kept it until I graduated. Now I'm in grad school, I'll have my masters in May (the IRB willing), and I'll go teach community college. Maybe I'll get lucky and be able to keep a few 18 year olds from getting themselves into the trouble I did. :)

I advised for my school this summer, and I'm not sure that distribution requirements are at fault. Certainly, students do better in courses they're interested in, but (at least at my school) the requirements are so broad that it's hard not to find something that fits a category that they're interested in. And, in my opinion, better to let all those folks who think they want to be pediatricians because they love children bounce off of Bio 101 the first semester and figure it out quickly. Really, I think the bigger problem is the pressure to go to college at 18. I wish I'd had someone telling me at 18 to take a year off and work, do some community college, anything, but go into a university environment that I wasn't ready to manage on my own (and I'd been away at a state boarding school for two years, already.)
this probably would have happened to me if I hadn't gone to a bottom of the fourth tier liberal arts college. :)

I did, however, get my butt kicked on the first paper I wrote in seminary. Well, if you consider a B- a butt kicking. I did. I got it together after that. I think with that experience, though, there were two problems. One, I was at a seminary affiliated with a completely unfamiliar tradition, which makes a huge difference. Two, I really didn't know *how* to work hard. It isn't just that I didn't or didn't realize I needed to work hard. it's that I didn't have the skills. I didn't know what appropriate hard work looked like.

I didn't really figure that out until about three years ago.
You put your finger on it with "at some level 'hard work' was actually associated with 'failure.'" I breezed through high school but somewhere along the way decided that it was my high school's failure to make me (the valedictorian) work hard. College, in contrast, was exhilaratingly challenging.

I'm teaching Honors first-year writing to a room full of potential valedictorians-cum-potential-floppers this fall. We're going to be talking a LOT about claiming rather than receiving an education. I'll be watching this thread for further insights!
I had a very distinct "moment of clarity" freshman year. Up to that point I was doing okay, as my high school experience was tough enough to engender at least a passing acquaintance with working hard even in areas I liked. But I was still a long way from a good or perceptive student.

Philosophy 101 broke the cycle. I was doing fair-to-middlin' in it, and having a good time with a pretentious buddy of mine. We were assigned a paper on Hume's "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion." I talked over my idea for the paper with my bud, glowing with confidence in my ability to disprove the entire damn thing, thus proving my own inty-lek-shul prowess beyond doubt.

Said bud scoffed. "Oh, sure. You're smarter than David Hume."

Lo, and with that snark, a little light went off in my head.

I rethought the paper, less concerned with proving that I was Baron Von Smartypants: Misunderstood Genius, and more concerned with figuring out what the hell Hume was talking about. I had to get over myself. Fortunately, I enjoyed the material, and actually engaging the ideas of philosophy proved to be much more fun than posturing about my alleged genius.

Grades increased accordingly.
I, too, was mostly able to coast through high school, and had a horrible first semester of college. What did me in was not only a failure to fully realize the difference between high school and college, but my schedule that first semester. I took the math placement test and placed right into Calculus I (real calculus, not fake calculus). Since I had two years of German in high school, I took a CLEP exam and placed into German 201 (getting the credits for German 101 and 102 for free!).

I registered during summer orientation, and the orientation advisor that I was assigned to somehow thought it would be a good idea to sign me up for 19 credits, including Calculus I, German 201, General Physics, General Chemistry, an intro to CAD course (at that time, I was a Mechanical Engineering major), and another 1 or 2 credit fluff course (I can't remember what it was). The only thing I was smart enough to drop was German 201. I didn't technically fail any of my courses, but I got a lot of D's (and maybe one C, but nothing above a C). My GPA after that semester was a whopping 1.61.

During that first college Christmas break, I had what some refer to as a Dark Night of the Soul. I considered dropping out, but I couldn't do it, not without giving it another shot. So, the next semester, I cut myself back to 12 or 13 credits (If I remember correctly, Calculus I, General Chemistry, and a couple of easier courses), and I started adjusting.
My half brother just barely graduated from high school because he feels "if you have to force yourself to slog through it, you probably shouldn't." The problem is that he wants to go to college. I understand what you (Dean Dad) are saying as an overall life lesson -- don't go into sales if you hate talking to people, don't go into programming if you can't stand working with details as small as semi-colons -- but I think that high school students (at least nowadays) think that they shouldn't have to slog through *anything.* Even the ultimate dream job will have some slogging; I think learning to slog through requirements -- jump through hoops -- is a good life lesson also.
Okay, first? Confession. I just looked up 'exegetical' too. And I've always considered myself a bit of a wordy girl!

And second? Thank you for this. For almost 20 years, I have been blaming my rather impressive flame-out of first year university (after sailing effortlessly through school up to that point) on some really bad life choices and misinformed course choices, and beating myself up about it. Granted, I redeemed myself several years later when I started over again part time and eventually graduated with honours... but dropping out of university was my first and perhaps greatest failure.

I really think you're right about the impact of course choices. Instead of the artsy courses I wanted to study in pursuit of a journalism degree, I was studying poli-sci and pork futures in macro economics. Of course, shacking up with a ne'er-do-well boyfriend who lived far from campus and was jealous of my academic life didn't help. Ah, the infamous "if I knew then what I know now..."
I had a completely weird experience. My high school (a private one) worked us to death. When I got to college, I was able to skip classes and screw around -- and still kept a nice GPA that first year. And when I say I skipped classes, I mean I went to my speech class 8 times the whole semester and still pulled a B. And when I say screwed off, we're talking drinking and passing out in the bathroom.

Yes, I was a real screw up, but you know, that's part of growing up. Of course, I have to remind myself of this when I look out on the young kids in my classes now. {Sigh} Remember how your parents would say things like "I hope you have children just like you?" Well, I think all my college profs cursed me with "Just wait until you have students just like you!"
I coasted through my freshman year, much as I had high school, taking Gen Ed courses. The wall I hit came in the fall of my sophmore year when I began the "real" courses in my (at the time) major. I signed up for four courses and only managed to pass one of them. That spring I cut back to two "field of study" courses and only faired slightly better. At that point I realized that maybe I was meant for a more liberal arts program so I changed my major to psychology- a dime-a-dozen degree if there ever was one.
It did, however, prepare me for my future employment (I'm one of the lucky ones.)

My undergrad GPA never fully recovered from that year but I was still able to get into a graduate program where I hit my stride- so much so that I was accepted into a doctoral program a few years ago. Never saw that coming.

I think you have to change your whole mindset to survive in the sciences. A "C" is an OK grade in some courses. I was never very good at Chemistry but when it became clear that great effort was needed for me to pass Organic Chem, I kicked it up a notch and the skills I learned helped me in all of the courses I took thereafter. It wasn't fun and I didn't like it but it was necessary for me to complete my degree and go to the graduate program I wanted.

I think this is the most important thing I learned in college - to expend great effort on something that holds little interest in order to achieve a greater goal. A second, but equally important lesson was that GPA was not a measure of my self-worth. (we women tend to internalize too much!)
I actually didn't start college when I was 18, I started when I was 16 - which didn't really help my situation. I should have taken a year off, but that was an idea my parents did not take kindly to at all. I had always been pushed academically thoughout my school career, and when I got to college I was mostly taking classes to please my parents, which I absolutely hated and did miserably in. I was also really socially awkward and didn't fit in ANYWHERE, it seemed - I couldn't even find a group of kindred spirits somehow.

I stuggled along for three years, until I finally had to pack it in and go home. I lucked into a job at a (then) Big Six firm and found started finding my way through the world on my own. Not finishing school was the biggest failure of my life, but leaving was the best thing I did at the time. I needed to figure out who I was and what was inportant to ME, not everyone else.

So 20 years after graduating high school, I'm finally back in college this semester, going for an Econ degree, much older and wiser and excited to take advantage of the whole learning environment. I still wish I had just taken a year off and worked a while when I finished high school - to gain more of a sense of self - but that's water under the bridge at this point.
hm, I never actually bounced back.. and still don't know quite what happened. Despite working like a dog, my undergraduate career was a complete disaster, socially and academically. I did slog through to graduation, but with only a math major, instead of the planned physics/math double.

After a couple of years lost to conscription in the Army, I went back to school postgrad and got straight A's again, working full-time and studying part-time. I worked far less at studying than as an undergrad.

What was that all about ? I think the miseries of being 18 (19,20) entirely overwhelmed me. Several of those miseries were created by the academic failures of the first year, though. It would probably have been better to go to the Army first, except of course that might have killed me. I'm glad I'm not young anymore, as my father-in-law says.
Public nonchalance is what I've heard about Stanford [graduate Computer Science] students. Another analogy I've heard is that of ducks: everything looks calm on the surface but there's some paddling-like-mad going on underneath the surface.

I do remember orientation events when entering university where they warned us "yes, yes, university is so much harder".
I thought I was the only one until I got to disenchanted's comment... I also didn't hit "the wall" until my second year. My high school was public and I didn't work AT ALL, hard or any other way. A scholarship to a big state U meant taking a load of classes (19 and 18 credit hours a semester if memory serves) that contained a lot of what I already learned. I coasted through freshman year sleeping in, drinking heavily, being involved in the marching band, and watching TV. I routinely skipped classes and when I did make it to them I often fell asleep or did the crossword. I even fell asleep during a test in an 8am bio course. I still managed to "earn" a 3.8 grade point that first year.

Then organic chemistry and multivariable calculus in the fall of my second year kicked my overconfident arse. They weren't much fun the second time around either...

And now I find myself with a PhD in science. Guess I learned something about hard work and slogging through it but not until well into my college career.

I'd like to add a note about advisors. Most don't have the time to really get to know a student so they approach scheduling them the same way. At least, this is true at the "big schools". The freshman fall semester of gen chem, calc. I, physics I, foreign language 201, and some generic english class worked out fine for me. I didn't think until reading all the comments here that I was the exception. Most advisors probably don't realize it either.
I actually had a professor tell me (in person!) that I had to learn to write because "someone told you could write, but you can't." I considered dropping out, but the humiliation of going back to my hometown to go to the local U was too much to imagine. I was lucky in that I was at a huge state school, but I was in the Honors College, so my classes were small, and I had a great freshman year. That said, I couldn't wait to get out of college and took many classes pass/no pass. Mainly those pesky required science classes. I definitely did much better when I went back as a post-bac. I took classes I cared about. I did fine in college, but I think I was burnt out. Ironic that I ended up going to school for roughly 10 more years.
I often share some of the papers I wrote my freshman year with my own freshman students. A ten page paper with 30 footnotes? What's wrong here?
My memories, if nothing else, make me a more sympathetic teacher.
I'm with Anastasia. It wasn't that I wasn't willing to work; I just had no idea how to do it.

I'm a compulsive reader and intellectually omnivorous, so I could manage a good grade in almost all of my high-school classes by just showing up. That was fine, because it gave me free time to learn about other stuff I was interested in: medieval textiles, for example. Until I hit college, I'd never had the experience of really needing to learn something that didn't come naturally.

This did not stand me in good stead at my college, which is sometimes jokingly referred to as "the Parris Island of higher education". I knew I wasn't able to drop and give the instructor 20, but I had no idea of what to do to get myself in condition so I could.

As it happens, I'm stubborn, and I surely hate to be beaten. So, I painfully taught myself how to buckle down and learn, instead of absorb. By the time I got to grad school, I had figured out how to pull an A under almost all conditions, even if I had to sweat blood to do it.

I'm glad I went through the experience, since it made me fearless about buckling down and learning other new things (I owe my second career to that skill). Sure do wish I'd learned it earlier, though. I don't think my high-school teachers did me any favors by patting me on the head instead of pushing me to do more.

It was also interesting, later in my career, to make the transition from "studious" to "independent thinker". I'm serving on my first thesis commitee now, and I'm seeing that process from the other side.
I failed classes in our local community college, barely got by in the snooty college where I stayed one quarter at 20, didn't do well academically in the overseas program, did ok in a technical certificate but didn't finish it.

when I finally went back after 10 years out, I did very well in a BA and MA in the kind of European college with large classes, no attendance, one final exam -- all of the things that we don't do in our community college, but were right for me when I was ready.
So, this appears to be a common story. I know I also went through the "got my ass kicked in that class" phase.

But here's my question:

A lot of my students RESENT when I give them bad grades. Many of them openly and belligerently blame me when they fail to show up (on time or at all), or fail to read instructions, or fail to read the textbook.

I don't recall ever doing this when I was 18 though. Sure, there were profs I didn't like, or who didn't teach well, or never gave a syllabus or something, but my experience is that, nowadays, lots of students [not all though] refuse to grasp their own hand in their education.

I don't recall seeing this attitude among ANY of the anecdotes told here. Is it just the wisdom we acquired with age, or did we really all know when we stumbled and took responsibility for it then?

This is the same question I keep asking myself: Is something different now with undergraduate students and their experience than it was "back in the day"?
My freshman year wasn't a complete belly-flop, but I was dog-paddling madly just to stay afloat. I went to a moderately snooty SLAC following a high school career that was never really challenging (no AP courses). I made some dumb class choices right off the bat: e.g., there was a 4-quarter language requirement, and I placed into the fourth class in the French sequence by judicious guessing on the multiple choice test. I figured okay, I can get the requirement out of the way in one quarter, so why not? Oh, my, was I in over my head – and the prof was an imperious Italian native who was the polar opposite of my soft-spoken Croatian HS teacher. Not only was the accent different, meaning I was completely bewildered by his spoken French, he wasn’t hesitant to berate bumbling students in class. I barely scraped a C and nearly died of mortification.

But it wasn’t just my lack of judgment; in my history & culture survey course, everyone else had already read Homer, and I had zero experience with Greek mythology and no context to put it in. Advising? I was assigned (alphabetically) to the tennis coach/PE instructor. No help there, whatsoever, on anything related to course selection, choosing a major, or the study skills I might need.

I came home for winter break still determined to do well, but feeling very beaten down. After I slept for two days straight, my mom hauled me off to the doctor - turned out I was quite ill with mononucleosis. I went back, and finished the year, and took the course that ultimately decided my major, but I realized I didn’t fit. Eventually I knew I could manage the academic challenges, but I never found my place socially among the prep-school kids. So I transferred to a middle-tier public U and finished my BA, started grad school there, and then migrated to a private U where I would have had the same issues had I tried it as an undergrad but felt absolutely at home there as a graduate student. I never worked so hard in my life, and I loved every minute of it.
I did not encounter any of that until one class in my junior year and one in my 3rd year of grad school, so my experiences are not relevant here. However, plenty of friends went through that, and one survived to become Provost of a major university.

My comments here are really a response to Dean Dad's remark: "since the rules changed abruptly and nobody told you in a way that got through to you."

Some time ago I blogged about what I would tell studetns at orientation about starting college. Of course, saying those things and getting a student to believe it are two different things. The only thing that I have seen work is when a student tells them something along those lines about the difference between passing a class and learning the material.

I only know this second hand, but CalTech dealt with the problem in a rather unique way back about 30 years ago. They ran down a list of accomplishments (4.0 gpa, valedictorian, perfect SAT scores) with the entire freshman class. Most hands would be up for most of these items. At the end, the prof told them: "That was high school. From now on, half of you are below average". Wake up call!
Amazing how many people recognize themselves in this story. I certainly do.
Having had no problems in high school worth mentioning, I went to college to study what I had dreamt of for almost my entire high school career. So love for the subject and motivation were certainly present.

But, to my own distress, I did just sufficient on most courses, and terribly on two essentail ones.

Luckily, my (Belgian) college allowed us to retake exams over the summer. Focusing the whole summer on those two courses, I just made it through the first year.

The second year went a bit better - just sufficient, but no exams to retake.

But when we got more freedom to choose our own courses, and I discovered what I really wanted to do instead of what I thought I wanted (in other words: when I found my "niche" in the general field I loved), it suddenly became a walk in the park. In the end, I ended up with three summa's, and an offer to start a fully-paid PhD.

What did the trick? The good grades were certainly the result of founding out where my real interests lie.

But how did I make it through that agonising summer? Having failed the exams of the study I really wanted to do for so many years already? With one last chance to get things straight?

Simple: my pride pulled me through. Immediately after the exams, I had a long chat with the professor of one of the two courses I royally flunked. He was very nice and friendly, and told me to take the summer of, reconsider my options, and start again after the summer to study something different. He said literally I would never be able to pass his class and had absolutely no talent to finish the studies I had started, although he acknowledged that I "might be intelligent enough to get a university degree".

Needless to say I was shattered at first. But very soon, this was what awoke me. Me not being able to get the degree I desire? Me not good enough to pass these two courses? I was going to show this pr$"* and all of the others what I was capable of.

I have not flunked a course since and on the day I got my MA degree in the field I was supposedly not good enough in, the satisfaction was double. And when I got my PhD in the same field, I lit a good cigar to the health of the professor who told me I lacked talent. After all, he was the one who was responsible for my success.
Count me among those who did fairly well freshman year only to come apart spectacularly sophomore year.

High school came easily enough -- I didn't care about being valedictorian, and my HS was a fair-to-middling public school. And freshman year at Snooty SLAC felt like a continuation, and I didn't have any social life to speak of.

Sophomore year brought the chemistry class that I dropped after a week because it was obvious that I wasn't going to make it w/out having had HS chemistry, and I needed the money from my expensive textbook to pay for food. The off-campus house in the sketchy neighborhood with the crazy cavalcade of non-student friends -- known later to those of us who stayed friends as The Hell House. The 8 am American Politics class that I failed because I couldn't get out of bed because of...crushing depression. Having the contents of that off-campus house stolen -- 2 days before Christmas. Getting fired from Payless Shoes, trying telemarketing for the school's fundraising arm. Living on a check from the VA, having been cut off by Mom (tho she didn't have much money anyway) because of moving in with the b-friend at the off-campus house. (Oh, and going to a school where most people were quite moneyed, and a shocking number were from Hawaii.)

That first semester was the worst because I was just trying to get used to working hard in school while still having a life. The second semester got a little better.

And then, somehow, miraculously, I found my stride as a junior, did well enough to keep my scholarship, and graduated respectably.

On rereading: holy moley it's a wonder I got through all that.

What helped? A really good counselor at the student health center. An excellent creative writing class, and writing stacks of poetry. A few of those off-campus friends who were NOT crazy, and who helped keep me grounded. Lots and lots of long walks. Time. To some degree, the pressure of having to keep up my GPA enough to keep my scholarship. The VA check, which meant I had enough money to eat/pay rent even when everything was coming apart at the seams.

Sorry for the length!
This discussion strikes more than one chord:

1. I have many colleagues who never faltered as students, at least that they remember, and who thus have little empathy for their many students who do -- no matter, as these comments reveal, however sensible and even natural the explanations. So this post and these reflections by teachers are heartening for that reason alone.

2. As CCPhysicist points out, it isn't just that the rules change; perhaps the harsher reality is that at competitive schools (and later, in competitive jobs), the spectacular individual is no longer the exception. In some, they may well find themselves below average by the metrics they're used to. That is perhaps the most jarring reality check I see among our hypercompetitive incoming freshmen these days -- from feeling generally superior to finding their niche.

3. Then there are uneven or worse students of great potential, unaware of their promise. Possibly lots. There is a great Picasso quote along the lines of "My mother said that if I became a soldier, I would one day be general, and that if I became a priest, I would eventually be Pope. Instead, I painted, and became Picasso." We should all have such mothers and self-confidence. If not, the drive and patience must come from elsewhere. Often, as in some comments here, from a perceptive instructor or two, just doing their jobs, who are alert enough to see below the grunge and lack of discipline or purpose.

4. My story is similar: An average high school student and the only person in my extended family to ever see a college up close, I nearly flunked out 1st year at the local CC. And 2nd year. While my attitude improved enough to get into grad school and, in fits and starts, develop an academic career, I still lacked confidence and for good reason. There is not much of this scholarly business I am genuinely good at, such as words and math. And my peers are so much smarter. But at 2 or 3 critical crossroads, I unexpectedly received positive feedback about things I did not see, slowly changing my expectations.

Some years later, I am being recruited for endowed senior chairs at several ivy leagues. To quote another wise man, Neil Young, don't be denied -- and neither should your students, flat-footed though they may be at 18, or 38,...
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