A couple of days ago I walked into the porter’s lodge and was accosted by a colleague.

‘Are you still doing your remedial job with the students?’ he asked.

‘I think you’ll find study skills support is the pretty term we use for it,’ I replied.

He was just asking, this colleague, out of politeness and a little curiosity, but it shows the embarrassment and distrust that surrounds the problems our students have, as if quite normal difficulties with self-expression and time management were signs of mental degeneracy, as if anyone who wasn’t managing to triumph over the curriculum must necessarily be shamefully lagging behind. It’s the very atmosphere of perfectionism that causes most of the problems, in fact, that and the lack of tolerance the university has for the unavoidable process of trial and error that constitutes learning.

For instance, I had a boy come and see me last week for problems with his essay writing. He sent me a copy of his most recent piece and I could instantly see the difficulties. His work was convoluted and confusing, weighted down by a whole slew of different theorists and approaches and analysis and perspectives, chucked in higgledy-piggledy like someone packing a suitcase in a terrific hurry. It wasn’t that the lad was lacking intelligence, no not at all. It was more that he was in the desperate and often self-defeating frame of mind that comes from having too much to prove. When I met him, things became a little clearer. The previous year had been a fraught one for him, personally; he’d suffered insomnia and been unable to work, and was clearly carrying not only the shame of this failure around with him, but a fiercely repressed terror of it happening again. This year he’d returned determined to show the world what he was made of, and this meant packing every learned thought he’d read into his essays, which naturally couldn’t stand the strain. We went through the material for his next essay together, structuring it, organizing it, and he left enthusiastic and asking if we could meet again. He needed some ‘hand-holding’ as he put it, and I agreed.

Only of course, this week, he didn’t show. Now the best scenario is that he is feeling more confident about his work, wrote a better essay and got the praise he needed and has simply forgotten that he ever wanted study support at all. That’s fine, except I find I am very, very forgettable; students who leave happy after a session rarely return in my experience, even when they have begged for another. I think it comes from the quiet horror they experience on having to accept study support at all. I often pass students in the street whom I’ve worked with for several weeks and who can barely meet my eye. Like a confessor or a counselor, I know their little secrets. I spend my time telling them that everyone has difficulties, everyone reaches a plateau and has to dig deep to make it to the next level. But it falls on stony ground. The feeling they are falling behind is so terrible for these students – who have been top of everything in their brief lives so far – that most are in uncomfortable conflict over accepting their problems at all.

It is true that I do see them at their most vulnerable and negative. One young woman I’ve been seeing regularly is worrying me a lot. She is an exquisitely beautiful girl and obviously clever and creative, but she is very fragile. It shows because she’s too thin, but that to me is just a reflection of how she is on the inside: brittle, and depleted and frail in her spirit. That’s not at all the image she wants to put across, though, and as I observe her during our time together, I see the struggle she’s going through to construct the insouciant, bold façade she’d so much rather have. After twenty minutes, she’s yawning compulsively, worn out by the sheer force of willpower it takes to hold her real distress at bay. How to separate out the psychological issues from the work ones here? When she sits down to write she feels complete blankness, she tells me, and she can’t think at all. The last time I saw her she suggested she could try writing for an hour each day, without self-judgment, in a free and undirected way. That struck me as an excellent idea and I was proud of her for having the courage to even suggest an experiment. I have everything crossed that she’s made it at least once or twice since then.

‘I don’t know how to write an essay,’ she’s been telling me. ‘Everyone else just sits down and does it. But I can’t.’ I don’t think this is objectively true, but the idea of it has made a powerful impression on her. The block of matter that is ‘everyone else’ is profoundly intimidating, and it moves like a glacier, stealthily, steadily plowing onwards on its path of success. ‘Everyone else’ is unstoppable. Really we’re talking about an abstract idea of perfection, or perfect learning, and it can appear in various guises. One young man I see couldn’t stop himself from doing practice exam questions. The exam is months away and he’s yet to study the concepts he needs to answer any of the questions, but this doesn’t seem to have any influence on him. He is so terrified about his performance at exam time, so fearful that he will not be able to get the mark he thinks he deserves, that he compulsively turns towards past papers, trying in the worst possible way to reassure himself he’ll be fine.

It’s a shame that all I get to see these days is the bad side of my university, sitting here in my first aid tent, binding the wounds of its casualties. When I taught literature, for every student still leaping out of the nest and plummeting, beak first, towards the ground, I had another who had learned to flap their wings and fly. And because I saw them regularly over the course of the year, the tears and frustrations of some supervisions were written over with the successes and laughter of others. It all evened out. But there have been some easy cases this term, some students who have calmly accepted that they want to focus on the technical aspects of what they are doing, because the normal scheme of things doesn’t allow for the luxury of time assigned to basic skills. Students who have taken help without feeling diminished by the need for it. The lack of a sense of shame is often the factor that distinguishes those who’ll benefit easily from those who won’t.

Some times I feel as if I can’t bear to listen to one more problem, one more constrained, embarrassed account of how someone isn’t meeting his or her internal standards. But then the next person comes through the door and I can’t see them just as a problem, only as a lovely young person, full of potential, momentarily thwarted or blocked or confused. And off we go again. But I know before they ever begin speaking that the greatest likelihood is that the problem will be one of trying too hard, of striving to be what they are not (yet), of fearing mistakes as if they were a branding iron of failure. We have to do something about the emphasis of education at present on testing, and on students passing those tests with flying colours. We have to find some balance, in which intellectual curiosity and the simple pleasure of learning something new is every bit as important as a grade or result.


24 thoughts on “Students

  1. Wonderful post, as always, Litlove. It is sad how modern culture tells us that needing to ask for help is something to be ashamed of. And I’m perhaps more guilty of that fear of asking than anyone I know!

    Your post puts me in mind, actually, of an article I read a while back about how students sometimes look lazy and uninterested but really are just overwhelmed with what they have to do–lacking in executive skills is how the author put it. So they don’t know how to start, and then they get overwhelmed and won’t do anything, and then they’re behind and don’t have time to do a good job, and there’s a whole vicious circle. I’ve also read quite a few articles about how educators need to impress upon students that failure is how we learn, that intelligence is something that we can grow, and that tests shouldn’t be the final answer but a way for students to learn where they need to grow and for teachers to learn in what areas students need help. It seems like that’s how it should be, but it’s certainly not how testing seems to work.

  2. I always wished I had done some paper-fixing work when I was at university, worked at the writing center or the tutoring place. I love fixing up papers and showing people how to sort them out. It’s brilliant fun taking them apart, shuffling them, and putting all the parts together to make them work. But I never thought much about what it was like for the people being helped. This post made me a bit sad.

    • Jenny, that’s pretty much exactly what I do for a living as an editor. You’re right, it’s great fun, but I know it’s not always fun for the author to see the fixed-up version of the article.

  3. I think your job is bloody wonderful! There’s something weird about unis saying ‘well I hope you were paying attention during all those lecturers on punctuation and structure at school/college, because we expect you to have it all clear in your head now’. Well yes we were concentrating, but we were also six to nineteen – perhaps we were thinking about something entirely different during that one exercise on semi-colons, or that time a teacher explained adverbs to us. And even if we were paying attention (and we must have been, at least a little bit, to have passed exams to get to university in the first place) surely we were learning things to pass college level tests? Might we not need a bit more instruction to reach the levels that more advanced, university style writing surely requires?

    Don’t answer if you’d feel disloyal to UK education, but do you ever get the feeling the US teaches all these basic writing skills more comprehensively than the UK? Whenever I see an American blogger talk about diagramming a sentence I feel a little bit jealous.

  4. Perhaps having a “communications workshop” or some such other true title with each class, led by someone like yourself, is important to everyone’s success. I do not say this fleetingly. I think there’s an incredible high value in what you’re doing that should be seen as required compliment to the actua class in some way. These students need to practice what you’re working on with them; should (nearly be) required to meet with a mentor or time manager or leader like yourself…as the second part of their class, certainly in their early university years. What’s been lost besides self-image in the face of pressure, peer or otherwise, is the ability to manage time. They are so strewn and henpecked with “instant communication” and so compelled to multi-task that they can’t focus on what they’re doing much less admit to how competent (or not) they are. And you are opening doors for those who attend your office.
    And can assist with structure and paring things down and getting them done, even if one at a time (and what better way sometimes?)

    Oh, I hope you are there for as long as possible. How important your task, how many wonderful (and invisible) things you are doing for those who attend? (how awful it might be seen or contrued as remedial in any way!) Students need to talk; they need to talk about the hows and whys of what they’re doing and they need to be lead. I believe that education forgets that people need to be education; I think many schools merely show students things and expect them to get it ALL on their own. Pooh. Might as well do everything on line. And in that case, we should all get any of various degrees.

    In short, I am saying “bravo” to you and “wake up” to the education system. Everyone needs to see how to do things, various ways and understand how others accomplish what they do. That alone is education.

    Kudos to you, LL.

    PS I hear you on the Lit class thing. I used to teach senior English Lit (secondary school) and loved it. There were so many ways to get the students to open up and find something within the literature, even the self-confessed scientists who were there only for the required credit.

    Onward. We’re cheering for you!

  5. This is a beautiful and horrible account of what is so very wrong. The US is suffering from the same problem. Kids aren’t being taught how to think, or even the validity in the process of thinking, but told they must believe whatever they’re taught and regurgitate it in an appropriate fashion. To do this incorrectly, uniquely, or in a socially viewed sub standard manner, is to fail. To fail is BAD. It’s not merely an academic term, but a complaint lodged against the person who made the error. A brilliant man I had the pleasure of having first as my therapist, then in the last years of his life, a friend, said the issue plaguing society now is the perpetuating of the feeling of “wrong”. We’re teaching this to people not as it pertains to a set of facts or commonly accepted truths, but as a way of pointing a finger at them and stating that they, as people, are wrong. The chain of reactions that stem from this are, in my opinion, horrifying and do nothing but stifle innovation and cripple people.

    Thank you for this reminder and encouragement to more readily embrace others and to find a way of supporting them as people and all the wonderful curiosities they are capable of. I know you’ve heard me blather about Heinlein before, but I’d like to share a quote by him here as it strikes as remarkably applicable: “To be matter of fact about the world is to blunder into fantasy–and dull fantasy at that–as the real world is strange and wonderful.”
    We’ve been encouraged and are in the process of encouraging the dull fantasy of truth by rote; beauty and wonder are yet more casualties born of the necessity of not being wrong.

  6. I think that they’re wonderfully lucky to have the service you provide, especially if they are clever enough to use it. When I was a student, it was sink or swim, and luckily in most subjects I could swim, but I failed Art History spectacularly because no-one taught me how to write about art. I would have appreciated a few thoughtful lessons!

  7. Wonderful post.

    Sometimes I fear that our (in natural science, but I guess this is not so different in the humanities) academic boasting, the necessity to prove excellence at any time and to never show doubt or weakness actually leads to a dubious selection mechanism. Sometimes I fear that having to play this game of show-off discourages students who would be excellent scientists or scholars since they do their work in a careful, thoughtful way, with a self-critical attitude. The atmosphere of academic elbows and permanent display of strength and achievement allows little room to explore ideas that might just as well lead to nothing and to learn through failure (if work that has taught a student something may be termed failure at all).

  8. A wonderful post as always – and I love your closing paragraph so much. The sense of shame/mortification/paralysis that comes after failing to meet what often are impossible standards is something I’ve seen a lot, but in others and in myself.

  9. You need to write a book on this subject that educators can read. The points you bring out are completely lost here in the U.S where standardized tests are ruining our education system.

  10. I also loved this post–and I can identify with your students. I think they’re lucky to have you, and it’s too bad their shame gets in the way. Sad, too. Even the ones who don’t come back, though, may remember what you said. When I was young, there wasn’t much encouragement for me writing, and I can still vividly remember a distant relative doing so on a rare visit. Even though I was too shy to stay in touch with her, I’ve never forgotten it.

  11. You’re doing such fabulous work Litlove – I can’t tell you how shattering Oxford was to my sense of self, and how unhelpful and/or incomprehending most of my tutors were. A university full of intelligent, driven, ambitious, self-critical, highly-strung, ultra-competitive people was the last thing I needed age 18 – how I wish I’d had someone like you to hold my hand through it! I’ve just about put myself back together now, nine years after I graduated, but it would have been so nice to have someone tell me that the stress and worry and sheer terror of failure I was going through was totally normal and a problem that could be solved, not a vast character flaw. I know your students appreciate your help, even if they don’t show it!

  12. It’s such a shame that there’s a persistent stigma around seeking assistance in our obsessively competitive society – and certainly in elite tertiary institutions like Cambridge – because in reality, learning to ask for help, and acknowledging the need of it, is one of life’s more valuable skills.

    Dear Litlove, good teachers, tutors and instructors change and even save lives, there’s no doubt about it, so keep up the good work, and to hell with cultural cringe.

  13. ‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

    Charles Dickens ‘Hard Times’

    Should have put this on the Two Cultures post really and the one about poetry which I can’t seem to find so it must have been a while ago.

    Best wishes!

  14. How lucky for all those students to have you to go to! We have someone at the law school where I work to help students and we currently have one young woman who is so frail and thin that we are sure she must be anorexic. The library director has spoken with her out of concern and she has spoken with the student support person but she just seems to be getting thinner. Of course her case is confidential and I hope she is getting help, but watching her enter and leave the library is a painful sight. You do valuable work even if the university doesn’t always seem to make that obvious.

  15. The content in this post is fantastic, and it’s also a superb piece of writing … a marvelous essay.

    A lot of what you say here resonates with the work I did and sometimes still do coaching people with writer’s block. One of the most effective techniques I’ve found is to link freedom and accountability in a weird little way … to have the “stuck” person commit to writing about anything at all for half an hour every day, with or without a prompt I provide, and then email me the pages, which I promise not to read. I have never broken that promise, so there’s trust on both sides … they trust that I won’t look at their unedited writing, and I trust that there’s actually something on the pages they send. It helps to get people in the habit of getting out of their own way … even if someone sits down with the directive that they must write something, even if it’s just the sentence “I hate doing this” over and over for half an hour, usually the mind will unstick and provide something else to say. That terrible imperative to be perfect, or even good, is destroying so many people, in so many ways.

  16. When I was tutoring adults in reading I often saw this with reading. At times I felt so frustrated because our program was so incredibly effective and could be life changing, but we had to do the hard work of cutting through years of feeling ashamed or embarrassed over reading and failure in order to begin to make progress. Our program celebrated failure as an essential step in learning which is contrary to what our society so often teaches. I feel so sad sometimes, over all the time wasted and the unnecessary shame carried and I don’t see that things are getting better.
    Good for you and for all that you do!

  17. Yes I fully agree with you (I am a Professor at a UK University).

    Start voting for politicians who are not so in thrall to business that all they want are highly trained automata produced on a educational production line. Enable students to fail in a graceful and acceptable manner, remove the endless box-ticking and “continuous” assessment aspect that has crept into so many degrees and because marks count towards a final degree, even if only in a minor way, lead to panic in honest students who now cannot show that they don’t know something and leads to plagiarism in those who are weak and will take the risk of cheating.

  18. Teresa – what an interesting comment! Thank you for that. I quite agree that students can look blank and disinterested for any number of reasons, one of which is maintaining a neutral facade when terrified or overwhelmed. I once ticked off a student for yawning constantly in my lecture, and he told me, guiltily, that it was just because he was concentrating so hard. Oops. So everything points to this terrible pressure exerted on students, and defensive strategies are so rarely pretty. We do need to work so hard to get the message across that mistake making is useful and normal.

    Jenny – I’m sure anyone you helped could not fail to be cheered by seeing you have fun with their paper. Students know that criticism is headed their way – it’s making it palatable to them, which means constructive or enjoyable or safe in some way. Getting them to see what’s wrong, and coming up with solutions themselves always helps.

    Jodie – even more than the US (which does seem to have a much clearer system of teaching composition), I have to say Europe puts us to shame. All the students who come with perfect grammar and very clear ideas about how to write an essay! Alas, we write essays very differently to the way it’s done in France, say, so that’s a little problem. But the point is that other countries don’t seem to be afraid of teaching a very strong method. It’s like attention to detail is the thing that gets lost in our education system, but I don’t know why. And I completely agree – university is a huge step up in learning, of course, of course students need to reassess everything they’ve done and work hard to reach that next level. None of it is obvious.

    oh – if we weren’t on different continents, and living with families and facing a gender obstacle, I might well ask you to marry me! I loved this comment – so hugely supportive. And I wish that I could give general seminars to arts and humanities students early in the year that dealt with the problems of communication and ambition and fear and all those things, rather than be the person students come to when they’re in trouble with work. That would start sending a different message, wouldn’t it?

    Kimberly – very interesting to hear what you have to say about the US. Well, it’s the same over here, that any sort of failure is a disaster. That’s come about out of the unnecessarily competitive climate we live in. But also, peculiarly, out of teachers in earlier schooling being unwilling to tell children they are wrong because of a fear of discouraging them (this may be different with you). The perverse consequence is that making a mistake becomes something unusual, and uncomfortable, and then something terrible. And this links in with the madness of government standards, which are supposed to assure the public that children do something effective in school, but has resulted in a very rigid and dull system of learning-for-testing. Lots of once-good intentions now mushed together into a very toxic and troubling mix. And I really, really will read Heinlein – I am so curious about him now!

    Charlotte – and isn’t it so often the case that all a person needs is a few pointers in the right direction? Thank you for your lovely, supportive comment.

    Chris – I quite agree. There is undoubtedly an emphasis on the performative side of learning – those who speak up readily in class, those who perform well in tests, etc, are the lauded ones. It’s easy for quiet, contemplative children, who learn more slowly but perhaps more deeply, to be completely overlooked. This is also a problem because young children learn by mimicry – and if this persists into later years, they end up at university understanding very little and wanting to be fed the right answers that they can repeat like parrots. Not good either!

    Nymeth – oh believe you me, I’m no stranger to it myself. One thing chronic fatigue really made me stop and think about was how uneasy I was with letting myself be seen in any state other than a fully professional, functioning-to-top-of-my-abilities one. I hate making mistakes and don’t always deal well with it. That was partly what led me to trying to help out the next generation!

    Kathleen – funnily enough, the book I’ve just written is about my students and the learning they do at university (and how the urge to overachieve can get in the way of proper, slow, steady study). I don’t know that it will ever be published, alas, but it is an area I’m really interested in writing more about.

    Lilian – I am so glad you had that relative, and that is a very encouraging thing for me to think about. You’re right that there’s always the hope that something may sink in later, much later in some cases.

  19. Story girl – I loved your comment, thank you for it. I just wish you HAD had a tutor who could have supported and encouraged you and made you laugh about it all. Oxbridge can be a very damaging environment, and so often the teaching fellowship don’t realise until it’s too late. I’m very glad if you are back together now. I quite agree it can take time and good decisions to get there.

    Doctordi – I think you’re quite right that it’s the competitive nature of society that puts us in a fix. If we give in to the survival of the fittest, that makes for a lot of casualties. I can’t help but feel that people and places become really ugly when they lack compassion. And thank you for the encouragement! I really appreciate it.

    Bookboxed – how great to see you back commenting again! I nearly emailed you to say I was still writing the blog, but didn’t like to intrude. And ah yes, dear Mr Gradgrind. That book was one of my O level texts….

    Stefanie – oh I am so sorry for your student! Anorexia is extremely difficult to treat and yet a desperate call for help. I’ll cross my fingers that she improves soon. I’m delighted to know you have a support system; so many places don’t. And thank you for the encouraging words. I do appreciate them so much.

    Naomi – oh poor you! I’ve had times like that, too. I always try to remember that James Joyce would have been thrilled with such a swift rate of progress. That always brings a smile to my face.

    David – really, thank you so much for your kind words. And that is a great strategy. I was impressed when my student thought of it and must remember to suggest it more often in the future. It’s that harsh voice of the internal critic that scuppers so many people, and the more we insist on perfection, the worse it’s going to get.

    Amy – how very interesting. Yes, I can see that your work must have been tough going at times because not being able to read carries such a terrible stigma with it. But what brilliant work to do – you must have changed many peoples lives. Thank you so much for your comment – I find solidarity with others trying to do the same sort of thing very uplifting!

    Dark Puss – well, hear hear! And I’m relieved in one way (although not in so many others) to think that this problem is not confined to my university. Tertiary education is heading for such a monstrous crisis at present, and I can only hope that something valuable comes out of the shake-up – that we end up with a better system, one that values integrity in learning. At least, I hope for that on the optimistic days…

  20. Juniper – I am so delighted to think you wrote about this! If only we could have more conversation, so that at grass roots level, at the level of the students, there was always the conversation that reassured and comforted over mistakes and failings of all kind. Learning ought never to be reduced to getting things right. And good luck with your course, it sounds very interesting!

  21. This is a really interesting post (and yes, perfectionism can be such a huge obstacle to getting started!). It’s great that you’re able to provide a supportive place/process for students to figure this stuff out.

    At work recently, a number of people in both our US and UK offices had to work together on a big writing project, with different people writing different sections, and I was really impressed by how well the person organizing it handled it. There was an email sent around to everyone who had to write part of the document saying, among other things, that people shouldn’t let their worries about their writing style or ability keep them from submitting their sections, and that if anyone had questions about any of it, they should ask. The email actually included the phrase, “do not suffer in silence,” which made me laugh but I also think was quite good. Obviously the fact that this *was* a team effort helped, but it was great to feel such encouragement to just do one’s best and carry on.

    In school (both in high school and at university), I had a few classes where everyone was required to write a set number of drafts and submit them with the final paper or, in one class, write a draft then meet with a writing tutor and submit the draft with the final paper. At the time, I really resented this as one more thing taking up my time when writing a cohesive and clear essay was something that came easily to me. But now I’m wondering – if the draft process had been presented to me not as a purely organizational/technical exercise, but rather as a safe place to think more creatively, to take greater risks or make greater leaps or ask more questions and make mistakes, to see where different approaches might lead, would I have appreciated it more and learned more from it? Probably.

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