On how friends don’t let friends study alone.

Studying in Starbucks by quatar, on Flickr

I often felt frustrated while reading William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep.”  And not, I imagine, in the way he intended.  Because, sure, the crumby stuff he was discussing —  perpetuated aristocracy masquerading as meritocracy, the conflation of a person’s income with their value, etc. — is frustrating.  But I imagine that most people who are moderately informed about the state of elite universities has thought about those issues.  And there were some passages that I found irritating but only because of my own prejudices.   Deresiewicz devoted a lot of space to the idea that your college courses teach you how to think, and so it doesn’t matter what your major was, that’s right, go ahead and major in the humanities… and yet also writes that he should’ve been an English major and that his choice of biology and psychology was a slog through dry material that shut down options.

Obviously, given my own background and interests, I’d like to think that a science background can help you be a writer just as much as a humanities background can help you be a doctor (for instance my sister, just now completing her residency, after majoring in women’s studies).

But the main reason I felt frustrated was because the book seemed to be written to advise young people, and I would guess that the young people most receptive to advice would be relative outsiders just entering the system he’s describing.  As in non-white, non-wealthy students admitted to elite universities.  And I feel that some of the advice was actively harmful.

For instance, the following passage:

But never mind the grades; it’s even hard to give your students honest feedback.  Kids who have been raised under a regimen of positive reinforcement, and whose self-esteem depends on perfection, are not well equipped to handle criticism.  Besides, they have better things to do than hit the books.  At a big, public party school–let’s call it the University of Southern Football–that probably means beer and television.  At elite colleges, it means those all-consuming extracurricular activities.  Extracurriculars certainly have value: they’re fun; they’re social, which studying is not (at least, not if you do it right); they enable students to express and develop abilities that classes ignore; and they’re good for making contacts and testing out vocational options.  They also organize the campus social scene.  But given kids’ addiction to keeping busy, their fear of ever missing out on anything, they tend to expand to fill the available space.

Really, I only wanted to quote the fragment “…social, which studying is not (at least, not if you do it right)” but I always think it’s skeezy when sentence fragments are quoted out of context, like, what are you trying to hide here?  So I slapped up the whole paragraph.

The issue I have with this is that effective studying *is* social.  There is a fair amount of data out there about how well students learn when they’re studying in a social versus isolated environment (which I would have assumed Deresiewicz should’ve seen, given his perspicacious arguments against the utility of MOOCs).  So to state so off-handedly that if you’re studying in a social environment you’re doing it wrong… to me, shows a lack of concern for the plights of many students.  There’s a good passage to put this into perspective in Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi:”

Soon a group difference came into view, one in which blacks and Asian students differed the most, with whites in the middle.  Asian students studied in groups, formal and informal, more than black or white students.  This practice produced powerful advantages for learning calculus.  It brought many heads to the homework, so that if one person couldn’t solve a problem, someone else could, and that person could explain it.  They could spend more time on the concepts involved in calculus, and less time doing the arithmetic of the homework.  (It shortened homework time.)  Misunderstandings could be quickly identified and corrected, even when they came from the teaching staff.  Asian students also made little distinction between their academic and social lives.  Saturday night studying in the library counted as social life for a group of friends bonded, in part, over studying and doing math problems together.

White students studied more independently.  But they readily sought help from other students and teaching assistants.  They talked shop about calculus outside of class, even compared notes on difficult problems, but focused their social lives less on academics than did Asian students.

Black students, Treisman found, offered a contrast to both styles.  They were intensely independent, downright private about their wok.  After class, they returned to their rooms, closed the door and pushed through long hours of study–more hours than either whites or Asians.  Many of them were the first of their family to attend college; they carried their family’s hopes.  What Treisman saw, sitting on the bunk bed, watching many of his black students work, explained a lot about what was happening to them in his class.  With no one to talk to, the only way to tell whether they understood the concept of a problem was to check their answer in the back of the book.  They spent considerable time doing this, which made them focus less on calculus concepts and more on rechecking their arithmetic against answers in the book.  This tactic weakened their grasp of the concepts.  Despite great effort, they often performed worse on classroom tests than whites and Asians, who they knew had studied no more, or even less, than they had.  In light of the racial stereotype in the air over their heads, this was a frustrating experience, which made them wonder whether they belonged here.

So, black students had internalized the idea that if you’re smart enough you study alone.  And that idea came from somewhere.  And, look, it’s not Deresiewicz’s fault: he obviously didn’t make up that myth, and his book was published long after all the studies discussed in “Whistling Vivalidi” … but I still felt upset seeing him propagate it further.