Maybe the box doesn’t exist

I just had another student today who used a common trope that many, many students have used for describing themselves over the years: “I am not the academic type.”

This student had served in the navy for six or seven years before returning to the university. He said that he wanted to get a degree in electrical engineering, but he was worried that he may have lost his academic footing while he was away. A non-native speaker of English, at times it seemed as if he ascribed his anxiety to his language proficiency/identity but he said that he was not worried about his language per se when I asked him. This gentleman was, clearly, academically brilliant in my view. The problem: he somehow didn’t think he was even capable of catching up with the rest of his (regular, younger) peers.

Last semester, I had an athlete in an upper division writing course who met with me the first week of the semester in order to ask for as much mentorship and support  as I could provide him. I happily offered to do what I could. But during the rest of the semester, he continued to do so badly that I had to keep reminding him of the goals he set for himself at the beginning–plus that he was headed toward failing the course if he didn’t start investing a lot more time and attention. Towards the end of the semester, when he finally met with me in person in order to ask for a “passing grade,” I asked him why he wouldn’t work toward a better grade. His answer was, “Man, I’m not like one of your ‘academic type’ students.” It turned out that I had misunderstood his original plan as one for excellence rather than for just avoiding failure!

International students, non-traditional students, single parents, first generation college students, students with tough jobs, and students in all kinds of situations seem to put themselves within neat labels; and they seem to also seem to believe that those situations necessarily exclude them from the “academic type.” Sometimes, I wonder if the boxes that some of the students seem to see themselves in exist more in their perception than in reality.

Of course, being an international student or being an athlete who has to invest tremendous amounts of energy in sports with little of it remaining for studies IS a reality, not a perception; teachers must never overlook realities like these. In fact, I know that students’ learning can be greatly aided/enhanced when teachers listen to students, understand their challenges, and make necessary accommodations or provide additional support. But sometimes, I wonder if I should challenge a student’s perception of challenge, limitation, or deficiency.

When students use labels and seem to believe that the situations/realities that the labels supposedly describe “prevent” them from being the “academic type,” I worry that I may be insensitive if I challenge them. It is normally difficult to tell whether a student is simply investing less time than he or she could invest for the course I’m teaching. There may be many factors behind a student’s poor performance in class, and the student may be not telling me about some or all of them. 

But at other times, I feel like telling students that the box that they think they are inside only or primarily exists in their minds. In the case of a few students who didn’t seem to have an actual obstacle against working as hard as everyone else in class, I have told them that the box “doesn’t exist outside your belief and perception.” I tell them that it is the time and energy that students invest in a course, one assignment or activity at a time, that determine whether he/she will be academically successful.

Whenever I have told a student that I don’t understand why he can’t try and become the “academic type,” the response has almost always been, “Hm, I’d never thought about that.”

I think about this in my own life as well. Sometimes, getting out of situations that limit us largely, if not only, involves getting rid of them in our minds.

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