1.05.2011

in which i purposely try to get a lower grade, or how to succeed in graduate school without really trying

When I started graduate school in September of 2009, I approached it the same way I had approached my undergraduate studies. I intended to do all the work, and do it well, and on time. I assumed this was possible. And I almost drowned.

I was absolutely miserable. There was so much reading, and much of it was impenetrable academic gobbledygook. My experience in university was completely irrelevant. In those days, I was young, I had a lot more energy, and school was my full-time job. Now school is only one of the many hats I wear, I have a lot less energy, and I quite literally have fewer working hours in each day, as my health demands I get adequate rest. For a while there, I thought I might not be able to do it. I thought I might quit.

But as the weeks of the first term went by, I learned to do more with less. As my friend AWE, who went to law school in her late 30s, said, instead of working harder, I worked smarter. And the less work I did, the better my grades were. (How far can I push this trend? If I do no work at all, will I ace everything?)

Eventually I came to realize two things. One, what matters is understanding the concepts, not reading every word of every article assigned. And two, my grades don't matter. I only have to get the degree.

From that point on, my approach has been this: attend class, be attentive and participate, and when it's time to do assignments, figure out the minimum reading I need, and get the assignment done. And that's it. Much of the assigned reading has improved, too - more relevancy, more readable writing - so that helps. But regardless, this is my method. So far I've gotten As in every class, with one A-minus.

Eventually I'll have to participate in some extra-curricular projects and get a part-time library job (more on those in a future post), so not getting bogged down in useless academic reading will be even more important.

But it's one thing to say I don't care about grades. Actually not caring is another thing entirely. Grades are the only reward system we have in school. And getting good grades was one of the few things I was praised for through my whole young life. Other non-athletic, slightly misfit people may recognize this syndrome. I did eventually find a niche, eventually I had friends, and I did come to see myself as a leader of sorts. But long before any of that happened, I was a brainy kid, and that's all I had - and that is reflected in grades, and only grades.

All through school until high school graduation, I got excellent grades without effort. In university, I had to apply myself, and I learned how to do that, because I wanted to get good grades. (Also because I recognized I was being given a great opportunity, and I wanted to take advantage of it.)

In high school, when I wasn't naturally adept in a subject - when math was no longer simple - I was not encouraged to work harder: I was advised to take easier classes! I was told, "You'll never use this stuff, so don't sweat it." And off I went into below-average math and science classes, because the only thing that mattered was Getting Good Grades.

When something is this deeply embedded, it's not easy to simply not care.

* * * *

Last term was a great example of this. For my management class, I wrote a paper on disability diversity in the workplace. It was a very strong paper, and I was fairly certain it would earn an A-minus. But I also recognized its weakness, and I saw where it could be improved. That would have involved a lot more work: first more research, then extracting what I needed from that research, cutting part of the paper to create space for the new information, and re-knitting the whole thing back together. Was I willing to do that just to bring my expected grade from an A-minus to an A?

No, I was not. Allan and I talked it over - a lot - and I forced myself to stop working on the paper. It was difficult! I like my work to sparkle. But I reminded myself: it is one paper in one class. In the long run, it means nothing. And the difference between the A and A-minus means less than nothing. I turned it in without the improvement - and I got an A.

* * * *

This term I'm taking two required classes, one highly relevant, interesting and necessary to my future librarianship practice, the other exactly the opposite, or so it seems.

Intro to Reference touches on the very heart of librarianship. Reference is the mediation between the library's resources and library users. It is everything from "Can you recommend a good book?" to "I have a term paper to write and don't know where to start," to "I need information on...". It requires fully understanding what the library has to offer, being able to help people feel comfortable asking for help,  knowing how to discover people's information needs, and helping them feel good about the library. (I get really excited about this!)

My professor is terrific - tremendously knowledgeable, brimming with enthusiasm, and meticulously organized. Rather than assigning a mountain of reading of questionable potential, she has assigned a carefully selected, manageable reading list. Readings I actually might want to do.

My other class, Research Methods, is the class I have been most dreading. It's designed mainly for students intending to (or considering) writing a thesis or getting a PhD. Neither applies to me, but it is required nonetheless - which I resent. Today, in our first class, the teacher took pains to explain why, even if we are not intending to do our own academic research, this class may be useful to us. I'm skeptical. But the good news is, she seems excellent, and the class may be more interesting - at least not nearly as dreadful - as I thought.

But. Here's the but. Research Methods could be fine, if I stick to my approach: go to class, be attentive, do as well on the assignments as I can, and resist the urge to always submit stellar work. But in this course, if I apply Laura's Method of Minimal Work, I am unlikely to do A-level work.

Can I live with that? I want to be able to live with it. I am really going to try.

8 comments:

Amy said...

Damn, this gives me the chills. Too reminiscent of my own life as a student. To this day it is so hard not to turn every screw, look under every rock before feeling I have done enough (now on academic writing). Like you, good grades were my one area of success as a child/teen---not sports, not being popular, not the arts. It's hard to give that up.


Good luck this terms---keeping the balance and getting the As!

laura k said...

Thank you, Amy! I had a feeling it would resonate with various readers. :)

keeping the balance and getting the As!

And if that's how it goes, being happy with the Bs!

johngoldfine said...

I turned it in without the improvement - and I got an A.

Ach, with results like that you'll wind up not respecting your profs--they fail to meet your standards!

Happens to me all the time: student tries handing in something so-so, and I whipsaw them: first I say, 'What the hell, blah, but good enough for the likes of an English teacher, eh?' And then when they look gloomy, I release them: 'Aww, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You've got other things to worry about. Let me check it out.'

In fact, 'The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good' headlines all my writers' checklist rubrics. Life is too short to be perfect for anyone else other than yourself and your dog.

laura k said...

Ach, with results like that you'll wind up not respecting your profs--they fail to meet your standards!

Lucky for me I don't care if I respect the TAs - never profs - who grade my papers or not!

To his credit, he noted the weakness, too. It might have been the difference between an A and an A-plus. The A was damn good enough for me!

laura k said...

Not only was the first public library established in Boston, but did you know that library reference began in Massachusetts, too?

From The Encylopedia of Library and Information Services, 3rd ed, "Reference Services" by Linda Smith.

The generally recognized starting point for the history of reference services is the 1876 paper by Samuel Swett Green of the Worcester Public Library on “Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers.” Green identified four components of reference services: 1) instruct the
reader in how to use the library and its resources; 2) answer readers’ questions; 3) aid the reader in the selection of good works; and 4) promote the library within the community.

johngoldfine said...

A chauvinist without apology for everything pertaining to the Athens of America, I did know about the first public library, but not the reference one--that wasn't the Boston Atheneum, was it? I was there once and what a trip back in time.

laura k said...

John, I understand, as I am the same way for the Greatest City in the World.

The library was the Worcestor Free Public Library, brainchild of one Samuel Swett Green.

I just read his "Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers", thought to be the first professional reflection on the need and uses for a reference service.

laura k said...

John, I just noticed this info is in the comment directly above yours. :)