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?