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.