Tuesday, October 25, 2016

You Are Not Prepared for College, Part 2: Beth Barry on Humility

Here is The MoreBrainz Blog's first guest post! Beth Barry is my colleague at Texas Lutheran University. We co-directed the Freshman Experience Program for many years and have had many conversations about how to unlock student resilience and student success. I have blogged about some of these issues before, and now it is her turn. This will be a chapter in her upcoming book, The Little Yellow Book of Writing Virtues, due out next year.

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by Beth Barry


We all knew That One Senior in high school that ran the world. That Senior rolled in to classes late and told the teachers that the homework was incomplete due to an impromptu trip to Hong Kong over the weekend to save the free world. Or, That Senior who said, “I’m going to cure cancer this summer.” Or, “Harvard? I can do better.” That Senior sounded like their shiz was together and in alphabetical order, but secretly we knew it was too good to be true. At graduation, as we watched That Senior dare to high-five the principal, we hoped all the big plans would work out, but guessed there could be a Payless Manager nametag somewhere on the road to the White House. That Senior, like all graduates, woke up the next day to the yawning abyss of the future, mostly not being handed over on a silver platter.   

Starting over after high school is the ultimate reboot. You thought the cloud of witnesses was on your side. They are, but they know way more than you do and seem to be looking down upon you with anticipation. Any time we level up, we are inclined to think that we need to be bigger, better, and stronger than our former selves, which is true, but not in the ways we predict. Leveling up actually requires a shrink ray to the ego. A visit to the local planetarium will help, where we can behold the immense stretch of night sky reaching out into infinity, and see how each one of us is like a microscopic pebble trapped in the shoe of a gnat by comparison, and then to the small town library that houses just over 100,000 titles, to sit in the stacks and know that they represent a tiny fraction of the reams of fictions’ dreams and labs’ hypotheses, volumes of vectors, and mysteries of histories, theologies, and cosmologies. Indeed, we are small.  

Enter humility, the quietest of virtues to practice in our quest for success.

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Humility, with its Latin forerunner, humilis, meaning low, looks very much like the word humus, or dirt. We don’t have to eat dirt, but we should consider planting ourselves in good soil where there is nowhere to grow but up. I should add that I definitely mean humility and not humiliation. Humility is an attitude or frame of mind that strives to keep our opinions of ourselves in check. Humiliation is what we feel when that lowliness turn sour, toward embarrassment, shame, or disgrace. No bueno. 

Nothing new here. All the world’s major faith traditions teach humility. For example, Buddhists remind us to “empty our cup.” This means that we need to make room for new learning by pouring out the old – out with unfair assumptions, bad habits, and negative attitudes. Similarly, Christians know that if we want to be first, we must get to the back of the line. We may be precious in God’s eyes, but everywhere in creation is the invitation to see how weak and work-in-progressy we are.

Why is humility so important in learning? Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, explains that if we want to learn, we need a “growth mindset,” an attitude that we can learn chemistry, for example, even if it’s not our strongest subject. This attitude is much more useful than what she calls a “fixed mindset,” which thinks, “I’ll never catch on.” Ironically, Dweck figured this out by studying the role of failure in learning. It’s all the news now that failure is not the enemy. Dweck’s findings show that it helps if we have suffered a few wedgies from our friend, Failure. Choosing a growth mindset helps us to readjust the underwear and try a new path to success. We don’t need to eat mind-altering ‘shrooms to expand our perceptions. We only need to humble ourselves to admit that our perceptions can and should be expanded.

The classroom, in its ideal state, is a sun-filled work space of smiling, relaxed, appropriately humble persons who are completely devoted to their learning, but at its most grim, it can be a sweaty battlefield of egos, ulterior motives, loitering, and exhaustion. The day-to-day truth is likely somewhere between these two extremes. Sometimes That One Senior morphs into That One Jerk who disagrees with everyone and everything. A strange way to gets one’s jollies, to be sure. Enough with the combat, I say. In college, we are co-wallowers in the humus, remember? If you are itching for a fight, take it to the syllabus. Or, to the ongoing street fight between WhatYouThinkYouCanDo and WhatIsHumanlyPossible.

This is where I acknowledge that many of you already have the Let’s Be Realistic aspect of humility on lock. You have been telling us for years - humility says start early. Make a plan. Give yourself enough time. Humility may not be a sexy kitty, you admit, but she is reliable. Without her realism, we overestimate our ability to get the job done on deadline. Notes, outlines, tutorials, office visits, rough drafts, and revisions, are the real deal. Pride and procrastination make us try to eat the 10-page elephant at 3 am, but you humble realists know exactly what you can do and exactly the amount of time it will take you to do it. For you, on time means late. Good for you! But don’t be smug about this or you’ll disqualify yourself as humble, see how that works? Go have some cake while I talk with the rest of us.

If you are still with me, you are probably reading this instead of doing something that is way more important. Take heart! There are libraries full of anti-procrastination books written just for us, which I’m sure we’ll get to tomorrow. In the meantime, remember, you are loved and understood, but we can’t keep enabling each other like this. I know you want me to point out that our little monkey brains are hardwired for survival and trained to crave the shot of adrenaline that only last-minute stress can deliver. Fine. Just so we can also agree that pressure torques quality. Go ahead and google Yerkes-Dodson and their stupid ∩ graph that illustrates perfectly the relationship between stress and productivity, if you need someone to blame. Last ditch efforts cause us to lower our standards. Earlier in the week we aim for excellence. In the last hours before deadline, we settle for good enough. Sometimes it’s okay to settle, but every time? It’s a dangerous habit to low- ball it every. single. time.

This Means

Humility is the quiet hero who can rescue us from ourselves. Guilt will do no good. Procrastination is bigger than we are. It transcends all cultures, times, and seasons. Let’s make peace, go ahead and vacuum under the bed if we must, but then keep that ridiculousness to an hour or so, after which time we should gird our loins and stand like a people in flight as we start the thing that really matters, like the next rough draft. Let’s get to it early and ugly, scratch, scratch, scratching through the emptiness and dread until we find a sentence that makes a tiny bit sense. If things grind to a halt, come to office hours or bring questions to class. But what if someone thinks we’re stupid, you ask? That’s the power of humility. It’s willing to risk looking like an ass for the common good.

This is chapter four of The Little Yellow Book of Writing Virtues, which I plan to use with my students in the fall of 2017. 

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