Wednesday, September 09, 2015


Shoring Up Weaknesses

Would you advise a student with an obvious weakness to take a course in that area, with the idea of shoring up the weak flank?

In a perfect world, there’s a good argument for doing exactly that.  If we think of education as formative -- which it’s supposed to be -- then using education to shore up weaknesses makes sense.  Steer the shy student into the acting class, the dreamer into the business class, and the accountant into the literature class.  They may never major in those areas, or even take them again, but they may well benefit from the experience.  

But as Chad Orzel pointed out in a thoughtful piece this week, the freedom to do that is increasingly a prerogative of wealth.

If you’re an otherwise-strong student with good social, economic, and academic capital, and you’re in a selective and prestigious institution, and you’re well on your way to a lucrative and fairly well defined position, and you have an “elective” slot in a given semester, then yes, you can probably afford to take a flyer on something that will stretch you.  If you pull a “C” in the acting class, well, who cares?  You’re on your way, and it adds some character to your story.  (At Williams, the institutional expression of that was “Winter Study,” or intersession classes, which were graded pass/fail.)  

But what if you’re paying by the course, you’re working your way through, you don’t have a safety net, and your school doesn’t have the prestige that comes from excluding most people?   What if graduation isn’t a given?  What if you don’t already have a strong track record?

For many students, especially at this level, risking failure in an “irrelevant” class is risking too much.  If you’re juggling complicated life circumstances, a combination of failures and withdrawals can easily jeopardize your “satisfactory academic progress,” which is a requirement for financial aid.  In this setting, better to show strengths than to document weaknesses.  Weaknesses are assumed; there’s no need to confirm them.

The “guided pathways” model is based on a pragmatic, if somewhat reluctant, recognition of the higher cost of failure.  The idea is to reduce systemic risk by reducing the chances of bad choices.  I see it as spreading out choice over several semesters: you start with the Big Choice of a general field, and then narrow down as you go.  It’s still possible to fail along the way, but it’s less likely that a student will get lost among conflicting programs.  

I’d like to see an economy robust enough that anyone who graduates college can get a good job, regardless of major; in that economy, we could restore some of those choices.  But for students lacking a glass floor, right now advice like “give it the old college try” is somewhere between tone-deaf and malicious.  I wish that weren’t true, but it is.  And I think we show students more respect by confronting the reality of the situation than by treating everyone as if they have a trust fund.  The first weakness to shore up is economic.

I absolutely agree with Dean Dad's comments.
In grad school, I had to take a journal club specifically to shore up a weakness. At the time, I had two objections 1) it was a waste of my time and 2) which weakness I was working on was not clear. While I still resent the poorly articulated purpose, in retrospect, the fact that it *was* a waste of my time wasn't the worst thing. I appreciated many of the differences between undergrad and grad school immediately, but not the degree of long-haul mindset needed for grad school. A single extra journal club in grad school has only a very minimal impact on how quickly you get through. They could have assigned me a class in Turkish, and it still would have impacted completion time mostly within the rounding error.

I think what's important is that taking certain kinds of risks (like joining an improv comedy club, or that acting class initially referred to, or grad school) can actually contribute to changing someone's mindset.
When in the K-12 environment we give disadvantaged students KIPP schools because "kids like that need more structure", we are both resigning ourselves to the relative flux in their lives outside of school AND robbing them of many opportunities to learn self-regulation that more affluent kids have by design (e.g. think the private Montessoris in the Bay Area).
When in the higher ed world we give students more structure, we are both resigning ourselves to a world in which each credit costs them dearly AND robbing them of many opportunities to deprogram the scarcity mindset that can entrench poverty.

You yourself advocate for Liberal Arts educations, knowing they are "wasteful" in the every-credit-is-dear mindset context.

In other words, you can't solve these problems with simple solutions. "More structure works" if more regimented programs graduate more students. But if those programs don't select for or provide the right mindset, they might not lead to as much long term economic and social wellbeing for former students.
I approached my whole college degree this way. "I am not that good at math and science," I thought, "But I am interested in it, and I wish I understood it better. This might be the only real chance I have in life to do that. I'm probably not going to learn *physics* on my own. But I feel like I could learn literary criticism on my own pretty well, because it comes more naturally to me. I'll major in physics (which of course offers more job prospects anyway). If I suck at it, I'll switch to an English major." 14 years and one PhD later, I still haven't failed out of physics. I'm glad I took the risk. I think my perception that "I'm not very good at this" arose largely from the fact that I was a girl, and I had bought into the stereotype that girls aren't very good at math and science.

On the other hand, you're probably quite right that I only had the freedom to do that because I had a safety net under me. If I took an extra year to graduate because I had to switch majors, my parents probably would have picked up the tab, and we probably could have afforded it.

But that doesn't mean it's bad advice. Like "contribute at least 10% of your income to your 401k" it's great advice, if you can afford to take it.
It depends on the weakness. If a student has weak writing, then almost regardless of field, the benefits of improving that skill will outweigh low grades along the way.
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