I’m taking some time from my paper to write this. I’m a little over halfway done with the first draft, but I have a lot more to do, of course. Writing papers are always a strong act of will on my part. It always seems to be that I have to convince myself that, I am, in fact, smart enough to do this damn paper, and that, yes, I actually have knowledge in this brain of mine.
People have always told me that I’m smart. I’d get decent grades in most things, but some things were a real struggle. I went to college and did fairly well, but not well enough for any awards or accolades. (Although, sometimes I wish that the effort I put in to some classes was given some credit.) Maybe it was the major I picked (biochemistry), or my procrastination, or because I had a difficult time on tests, or…well, I don’t know…And maybe there was a little jealousy, too, since a lot of the classes I was in had the super-intelligent students who never seemed to need to study all that hard.
It just never felt to me that I was quite good enough to be there, no matter what anyone told me. It’s not that people weren’t encouraging and supportive, it’s just the way I felt. No one ever told me directly that I was a crappy student, or stupid, or any of the things that go through my head. But grades aren’t forgiving, and standardized testing doesn’t really gauge where you are in the learning process. Never mind health and emotional issues (the first half of my senior year of undergrad was, to put it mildly, rough).
Then there’s being in the corporate world. In my 14.5 years (dude!) of working in the emotional cesspool that is office politics and hiring practices, I’ve learned that my intelligence is not really a factor. You learn not to cause trouble, you learn to watch your back, and you learn that being smart and reliable is not how you get promoted or how you get to do more interesting work. If you are somehow having issues outside of work, and explain these things to those in charge, they just don’t care. You are a warm body that does things, and co-workers are rarely real friends. You are reduced to a thing that makes money, not a person.
So, now that I’m back in school, I need to purge this kind of thinking from my system. I keep telling myself that they wouldn’t have admitted me if they didn’t think I could hack it. They did recognize my intelligence and my calling. They recognized that I wanted to learn. And, to be honest, there’s a part of me that knows she’s smart, otherwise, I never would have applied in the first place.
What I’m finding weird is that it’s taking a lot of work to convince the rest of my brain of that.
But there’s time, and there’s this paper, which I now need to get back to…


  1. Well, as you of course know, I’ve been a student at postgrad level (Master’s and PhD), and I’ve also taught undergrad and postgrad students. I have also been the pastoral care person responsible for a good few hundred students, so I’ve seen the sorts of reasons why people succeed and why they fail.

    The number one degree-killer, without question, is procrastination. Cambridge has a nice system — every student has a supervision session in each of their classes with an expert (either the lecturer themself, or with a postgrad or other staff member who knows the material really well), roughly every other week. Consequentially, there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, so if someone starts sliding behind it’s caught and dealt with (positively). This is, I’m certain, the reason why Cambridge has a 1-2% dropout rate despite being one of the top schools in the world in most of its subjects.

    Ultimately, the problem is procrastination. If someone procrastinates on a piece of work, and gets behind on it, they rapidly get buried in further work demands from other courses. This typically compounds pretty fast, leaving the student feeling like they are underwater, failing basically, which tends to lead to depression, lack of self confidence, further procrastination and ultimately failure. All of this is almost always entirely independent of how good the student happens to be at the material. An Einstein-level supermegastar student can get away with sliding a bit further than a more typical student, but they will still fail ultimately. I’ve seen it happen, tragically — sometimes I’ve been able to help, sometimes not.

    The flip side of this is that it’s important to understand that no university course — ever — is aimed at the supermegastars. It’s aimed at the middle of the group, and always scaled deliberately such that a student of average (for the group) ability, who is prepared to put the work in, will pass and get a decent grade. That’s how the whole system works.

    So, don’t even bother to ask whether you are a supermegastar. Don’t even bother to worry that you’re ‘only’ average, or even a bit below it. That has almost no bearing on how well you’re likely to do on a course. What *does* make all the difference is your preparedness to put in the work. If you go to *all* of the lectures, without fail, go to *all* of the tutorials, without fail, and get into a groove of sitting down each day to do a self-agreed number of hours of study, be that reading, writing or whatever, you *will* pass, because you are who the course was designed to give a passing grade to. End of story, it’s really just that simple.

  2. Oh
    I do remember school papers, like pulling teeth.I empathize. A little magick might be in order, clearing the negatives by keeping a crystal on the drafts, a pen fairy to help your hand or a writers’ trick for getting over writers’ block: just keep writing, a lot, even garbage or negative thoughts; then delete and edit instead of trying to get it right the first time.
    Good luck and BB

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