Twitter can get a bad, though admittedly deserved, rap as a haven for all kinds of unpleasantness driven by the website’s central mechanic driving people towards expressing opinions lacking nuance in extremely curt fashion. It is also home to academic twitter (or if you like, #academictwitter), and on better days it can be rather inspiring. This was the case recently when Meghan Duffy, an aquatic and disease ecologist at the University of Michigan, used her time curating the @realscientists twitter account to discuss her “worst grade” under the hashtag #myworstgrade.
For those who do not use twitter, hashtags represent a frequently overused and often rather silly mechanic that allows multiple people to contribute to a single conversation. For example, if you were watching a sporting event on national television between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots, you might use the hashtag #COWBOYS so that anyone who searched for the word “cowboys” on the site or in their app would find your comment. Your comment and thousands more, of course. Dr. Duffy, much like myself, cannot quite rely on such an audience on a regular basis, but the @realscientists account does have a larger readership and she decided to use the hashtag to encourage others to share their experiences getting a poor grade in college.
Her reasoning was sound: in her field, let’s be a little broad and call it STEM at undergraduate level, many students feel that they cannot afford anything less than an A or a similarly stellar grade in their classes if they hope to move forward toward a career. The classic example is the Biology introductory course, which at many institutions, ours included, serves as a first step for students who hope to be “pre-med”, focused on a possible medical career after graduation.
Now, there’s an awful lot I could write about expectations and college pathways versus careers but I must leave that for another day. Duffy’s point, and it is a very good and important one, is that this situation causes significant stress and increases student tension, and unnecessarily so. She got a C+ in inorganic chemistry, she confides, and she now runs a lab where believe it or not chemistry does in fact happen. The Michigan State graduate program didn’t turn her away at the door when they found about the C+.
I am going to go out on a limb here and point out that stress and tension in students’ lives is bad, and believe it or not, it is not restricted to the sciences despite fewer direct, if sometimes exaggerated or even imaginary, connections between specific undergraduate courses and clearly outlined career paths. I like the #myworstgrade idea because it allows instructors to betray the fact that we are human, and it actually does recognize the reality of failure in academic life. This is something people with advanced degrees are extraordinarily, spectacularly bad at talking about. In recent years more and more professors, particularly at teaching institutions, have become more enthusiastic about embracing the importance of failure in taking a broader look at our students’ paths through the college experience. Again, though… we seem okay talking about how other people fail.
My worst grade did not come until I was studying for my Chinese Studies Master’s Degree, but it was spectacular. I failed a class taught by two of the most important instructors in the department in the fall semester of the twelve month degree program. This was a huge deal at the time. Although I was doing well in my language classes, which formed arguably the most important component of the degree, this put me in genuine danger of not being able to receive the degree. You should always finish what you start, and failure in isolation is bad enough, but I had moved out of my parents’ house for the first time and set up shop in Sheffield in the north of England. Moving to a new country is not cheap regardless of how close it is. Given the investment and sacrifices my family had made to support me entering the degree program in the first place, the very idea of not gaining the degree was completely unacceptable.
The story has a happy ending: I pulled myself together in the spring and worked very hard on my thesis over the summer, while continuing to spend an enormous amount of time on learning the Chinese writing system. A few years later I decided to go to graduate school, and though I wondered and worried about the awful grade, the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin gave me a chance to earn a doctoral degree. I did.
The key here, I think, is to face up to what I did wrong. I had plenty of excuses at the time, and I hang on to one or two now, but the truth is that I made some significant mistakes. First of all, I completely misjudged my reaction to moving to a new place. I had been excited about leaving Ireland since I was fifteen, and had never doubted it was going to happen. I just was not in a rush; the Irish government paid for my degree, as they did for all of our degrees, and I stayed at home all through college. Many of my friends from secondary school did the same thing. I had been mixing fun and work throughout, and had done very well in classes without sacrificing the fun part. That changed in Sheffield and I did not recognize it. I met new people, I did new things, I went out a lot and had a lot of wonderful evenings. The fun at night started to impact my work during the day. Language classes went well, but I did things in the class that went south I had never done before: I put off deadlines, I was regularly underprepared for class, and I did very little to give myself a chance to self-correct in time. I did what some first year undergraduates do: I put my faith, blindly, in a mythical late-semester recovery despite doing nothing whatsoever to create conditions to make that recovery possible. I might have gotten away with it at undergraduate. Maybe. I’m not so sure.
Secondly, it took me too long to acknowledge my own failings despite the mounting evidence. I gave an oral presentation that went so catastrophically bad that thinking about it now, as I write this, makes me cringe. I still remember the feedback via email from the class instructor, his attempts to explain the failing grade with as much sensitivity as possible deepening my humiliation even further. That oral presentation summed up my mistakes in a nutshell. I knew it was coming, I had picked the time, I had picked the topic, and I simply did not prepare enough. Looking back now I am not even sure I could explain how I walked into that classroom with nowhere near enough work done, but I did. Most of my papers did not go much better.
What on earth was I doing? Why didn’t I do something? Well, for one thing, I had no idea what to do. I had not had this problem before. The idea of approaching instructors and asking for advice did not even occur to me. I felt, far too early in the semester, that I had passed the point of no return. I handed in the final paper with the assumption that I was resigned to a basic pass due in large part to the grades I had received up to that point. It never dawned on me I would fail the class. It was traumatic.
Over the Christmas break, I regrouped. Looking back, I was really very fortunate that I never even considered the possibility I simply wasn’t good enough (that came later, when working towards the PhD). I will not pretend I maturely faced my weaknesses and recognized my own culpability. I did not do that. However, beneath my rationale at the time blaming almost anyone but myself lay the realization that regardless of why the failures had happened, something had to give.
I surrendered the idea that I was “naturally” good at writing papers and recognized that I had been successful writing papers because I had put a bunch of work into it, not all of it obvious. If I had to teach myself to get back to being that writer, then I would. I acknowledged that I absolutely hated giving oral presentations. Hated it. It made me physically ill to think about it. I also acknowledged that there was no getting around them. I made major changes to how I prepared for oral presentations. I do not have to work quite as hard when preparing for public speaking today thankfully, but a lot of my prep originated from the days of speaking in front of people being my greatest fear.
Finally, and I do think this is extremely important, I did not extrapolate my spectacular, deserved and pretty shameful failure in that class to inevitable failure in the degree program as a whole. I, admittedly somewhat defensively, hung on to my successes from the first semester. I had worked very hard on my Chinese and there were reasons to be optimistic about it going forward. I had different instructors in the spring, and it was time to really get moving on my thesis, which though due in late August was by no means restricted to summer work. There was work to do, and although the failure had introduced some much needed self-doubt that self-doubt did not take control. I got my act together and I did it. It’s better to finish strong than to start strong, as a friend of mine and I used to say to each other.
Of course, it’s better still to start strong and finish strong. When I talk to students who are struggling, or who would rather write me an eighty page paper than give an oral presentation, I don’t often bring up the class I recklessly failed, but I do think about it. There is time to come back but you have to do it and you cannot wait for a survival instinct to kick in. Being afraid of something is not going to stop it from happening, but if that something is an oral presentation you can work on your preparation until your worst case scenario changes from fleeing the classroom in tears to not covering all of your points in time. Most of all I would encourage students at all levels to talk to someone and do something about it. You will still end up with a #myworstgrade though. Everybody has one. You are in good company.