I’ve Never Been a Good Student

If you’d have told me ten years ago that I would be pursuing a PhD, I’d have laughed in your face.  I hated school. I graduated high school a semester early to get away from it and went to college immediately as part of a bargain with my parents. I was a “B” student and graduated with an Advanced Regents diploma – meaning that I passed all of the standardized New York state exams. I was a great test-taker but I never did my homework so I was branded lazy by the faculty and my parents. My graduating class size was around 700 students and it was pretty easy to fly under the radar while maintaining good standing with the hall monitors as I’d routinely fetch soft pretzels from the cafeteria for my physics teacher during our labs. I was graduating early and always contributed during the lecture sessions so Mr, Spira didn’t care if I roamed around aimlessly in the halls or visited other teachers on their breaks.

My interests in politics, culture, and philosophy were extra-curricular activities. Wikipedia was up and running by the time I was in junior high and the events following 9/11, including the passage of the Patriot Act, spurred my interest in political theory as I tried to make sense of the world I’d inherited. I’d spend hours surfing through their pages instead of doing my homework. Why bother writing my labs for whatever science class I was taking if I aced the test every time? To me it was meaningless repetition that ultimately wasted my time. Being under the spotlight because I wasn’t turning in my homework was uncomfortable initially. However, with time I assumed my “lazy” identity at school , took the tongue lashings at home and continued my after school activities later supplementing my Wiki sessions with Travel, and Discovery Channel binges – Bourdain was my favorite.

Around the age of 15 I started taking martial arts classes. Ninjutsu and Jujutsu would become my life until I left for college at 18. I was at the dojo every day that I could be. It was a very small branch of very large school spread across Long Island. We had 2,500 students in total but the Port Jefferson branch of which I was a part had four to six adult students attending regularly. I was my sensei’s favorite practice dummy and I advanced quickly because I received so much individual attention. My love of teaching started there and I volunteered to help teach the kids classes as sempai. At 16 I was selected along with six other students to train with our grandmaster in Japan for two weeks in August. Our training sessions in Saitama were twice a day for an hour and half each session with a thirty minute bike ride along the rice paddies each way in the Japanese summer heat.

SUNY Brockport was my girlfriend’s choice. She was a year older than me and left Long Island in my senior year of high school. Neither of my parents had gone to college in the US so I didn’t get the college talk or really any guidance concerning what university would be the right fit. Following Julia to upstate New York seemed like an attractive option so I graduated from high school early and enrolled at Brockport in January of 2006. We broke up that March and she exmatriculated two weeks later. I can’t claim that I was the whole reason she left. She’d had a hard time finding her way through the college bureaucracy after being rejected by the dance program. Her brother, Simon, was brilliant but as smart as she was, Julia felt she wasn’t cut out for school and our break up was the final nail in the coffin for SUNY Brockport. I stayed but I didn’t have any close friends because I’d come a semester late and mainly hung out with Julia for the first few months.

Living for the weekend can make the weeks feel very long. Luckily, at a snowy commuter college, the weekend starts on Wednesday. I started going to any party I could find just to socialize and quickly fell into my old high school habits of never doing homework. I was still crushing tests in my introductory courses and didn’t see much point in attending classes. My grades were decent enough my first semester but I was placed on academic probation by my second semester for never attending class. Philosophy and political theory were the only classes I’d show up for. The general education classes didn’t challenge me and I was tutoring (unofficially, of course) some peers in my 3000 level communications course on rhetoric without reading the assignments or attending class. Pounding whiskey, talking politics and playing video games became more attractive options than adhering to someone else’s standards. I could write a B+ essay in under two hours and go research something that I was more interested in or focus on something physical. I had joined the rugby team by that time and rugby soon became my social outlet. It was short lived though because I was kicked out of Brockport after my third semester. I appealed the decision as I had dealt with some nightmare roommates, one of which involved a Title IX violation that the college tried to sweep under the rug and the other involved a roommate who went off her rage and bipolar medication. Funding from home was revoked after three semesters of poor grades anyway and I returned to Long Island to enroll at Suffolk Community College. My parents were not going to fund my educational fuck-ups anymore so I had to take out loans and start working.

I didn’t attend my classes at Suffolk either. My funding was revoked after my first semester as the federal government deemed me too much of a risk to loan money. Suffolk was still affordable even without federal loans and I was able to hide my failure from my parents by getting a credit card with HSBC before the financial crisis. I financed my second semester at community college by working for a local winery at $7.15 an hour which paid the credit card bill and for some books. I continued to hide my grades from my parents even though they were improving. The whole ordeal had convinced me that grades couldn’t measure anything but whether a student is living up to some norm – whether they could regurgitate some “fact” they had been told or whether they regularly maintained a pulse at a specific location at a specific time. Two professors at Suffolk slapped the taste out of my mouth.

My English composition professor graded to the student. I earned a D+ on my first essay. My pride was hurt and I stormed to his desk at my first chance. He calmly explained that he knew I wasn’t putting in any effort and showed me how I could do better. Posner knew that I was coasting and he gave me something to aim for in myself and not in the classroom. Grades suddenly transformed into a reward for self-discipline and not a punishment for not meeting expectations. Competition with myself was more exciting than competing against others. I still remember his lessons…or is it “remember his lessons still?”

One of the most daunting questions anyone can ask a college student is “What are you going to do after school?” Some student have it easier than others and seem to have a map given to them by their majors. Philosophy majors do not. I took two classes with Bill Fink who was adjuncting at Suffolk. His classes were chaos. We never had assigned readings, I never saw him read from a lesson plan but I loved the debates and the topics. Ethics, politics, society, the good life, the Socratic quest for knowledge, these were topics I could get into and I wanted to attend class. There were no “right” answers just better arguments and Bill challenged us to be better every session. I was studying to be a personal trainer my second semester but one day I woke up. The thought hit me in Bill’s class and I sat straight up in my chair. I wanted to do what he was doing. I wanted to be a philosophy professor.

My pride was still hurt. Brockport had thrown me out not because I wasn’t living up to their academic standards but because they thought I was a bad student. I was determined to prove them wrong and enrolled there again in January. Going to anywhere in the Rochester area during winter is a mistake. I quickly took advantage of Brockport’s study abroad program and left for Scotland in the Fall of 2009. No one cared if you attended class at Stirling University but if you showed up to Peter Sullivan’s seminar on Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, you had better not be dead weight. I had to develop good study habits to pass the exams and I finished second in my class. Stirling had a grading scale that consisted of 21 different gradations as opposed to the 13 at most American colleges. What would have been considered “A” work at any American institution was broken into five subdivisions: 1A-1F. The guy who was top of the class earned a 1F. I earned the grade lower – 2B. Brockport translated this mark as “B.”

I was fighting against the tide. I had been reinstated at Brockport with credits from my first year and a half there. That got me closer to graduation but none of the good grades I had earned at Suffolk would travel to Brockport stating institutional differences even though Suffolk was considered a SUNY school. I couldn’t believe that my grades from Stirling translated back from a society that holds different notions of academic achievement (students can receive 40 points out of 100 and pass a class) but a college within the same state system was suspect in their grading scheme. When I matriculated again, Brockport started me at a 2.0 GPA by cobbling together classes that fulfilled the most general education requirements rather than the best grades. I would try to dig myself out of this hole for the next three years never falling below a 3.8 each semester. I calculated the numbers and realized that I would never make cum laude and this fact became anti-motivational as I realized that the institutional chips were stacked against me. Philosophy, as a discipline, is highly competitive and loves pedigree. I was coming from a small college that no one had heard of with letters from faculty the majority of whom weren’t publishing and my grades looked terrible.

Winter in western New York can be very depressing. A lot of snow, a lot of cold, a lot of dark, no mountains and a school of under 7,000 students can produce a malarial feeling. When you have worked hard for four years after having the wind taken out of your sails more than a few times and you’re not receiving any graduate school acceptances after pouring resources into a perfect coffee shop major, it can make you maudlin. And I was. My first acceptance didn’t come until late April after the deadline for acceptances and rejections. I didn’t hear from Virginia Tech until early May due to some administrative SNAFU. Virginia Tech offered one of the best terminal MA degrees in the country and I was blown away by the news. I didn’t care if they couldn’t offer me funding because I didn’t fit their model of a “good student” I was going to get to do what I thought I loved. I came South hoping to use my two years to jump into a top twenty PhD program in philosophy.

I graduated from Virginia Tech with two MA degrees with three years worth of coursework over four years of enrollment. I had to leave school twice because of serious medical issues. It was the second time I left when it dawned on me that the reasons I had loved philosophy and pursued it were nowhere to be found in the rarefied atmosphere of serious analytic philosophy. I had fallen flat on my face again. Years in school were spent pursuing a career dead end. My love for the debates had died and the spark lit at Suffolk had been extinguished by an institution far larger than me or any one school. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent learning philosophy nor any of the time or money spent pursuing it. It equipped me with something larger than knowledge, larger than a career path or any one skill set. Philosophy helped me understand learning as process and equipped me with a universal skills applicable to any field of study. The jump from a corner stone of the humanities to the social sciences was more of a wide step as I settled into the interdisciplinary waters of the School of Public and International Affairs again with no clear plan for what to do in “the real world.” It wasn’t until my second semester in my Master’s of Public and International Affairs that I got my taste of teaching at the university level. Edward Weisband, in Political Science, placed a tremendous amount of trust in me when he took me on as a TA and left me to teach fifty of his students during weekly recitations. I was hooked.

Oddly enough, I take attendance and participation as central to student development. Poor attendance won’t earn any student an ‘F’ in my classes, but I did learn that just showing up and grinding out is central to any success that isn’t simply given. My pedagogical practices make students earn their grades but I try to place as little emphasis on the shallow exchange in the student-work-teacher classroom economy. The exchange value of work-for-grade alienates learner from material reflection on the process. I have felt alienated many times in my career and I think many of us feel that crushing weight of “what the hell am I doing here,” more times than we’re ready to admit.

A mentor of mine, Joe Pitt, told me that enlightenment starts from a place of confusion. I took this as teaching advice and regularly asked my students to help un-confuse me. This technique worked for Weisband’s recitations as we moved through text after text looking for clarity rather than just the right answers. I keep this trick in my back pocket as I now begin every one of my classes with “who’s confused by the reading?” Lucky for me I am teaching American politics this semester so I can ask simply “who’s confused,” and I know we’ll get the conversation going.

99 Replies to “I’ve Never Been a Good Student”

  1. Both of us have had a very similar path in our lives. Martial arts (Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido) were an early influence on my life. I was “smart” and “intelligent” and could easily do well on standardized tests. Neither of my parents went to college, so I never got the college talk either. After three semesters of poor grades at the University of Southern Mississippi, I left and returned home. I worked odd jobs until I began my career in law enforcement. That job was truly mindless in the sense that you were taught exactly how you should do things. No deviation. However, I became mindful in the job. I began to truly communicate and connect with people instead of barking out orders and abusing the power that came with the badge I was issued. I was eventually “run-off” by those around me because I was a “sympathizer,” a “liberal,” and a “coward.” I wanted to learn more about the world around me. I wanted a better understanding. I started back at community college to boost my GPA and eventually transferred to the University of New Orleans. I took 18 hours every fall and spring semester and 9 hours in summer semesters (including one summer semester abroad), achieved a 3.5 or higher GPA each semester, and graduated in two years. I immediately started my masters at the University of New Orleans and then transferred Virginia Tech. I thought I had squandered any chance of working towards a PhD until I came to Virginia Tech. I am glad I learned how to get past mindlessness learning and become mindful about my own learning and the learning of my students. We should further discuss our life experiences over some beers in the near future.

    1. Brett, you let me down. But it’s not your fault, it was my own wishful thinking coupled with the hangover from Alex’s great narrative. I was hoping your were gonna give us a great metaphor about Martial Arts or Rugby, (or Football in my case) and fighting tooth and fucking nail to get where most other people have cruised their entire lives to get to, and not taking it for granted.
      Alex, keep fighting the good fight.
      The chips are, and will continue to be stacked against you.
      You will always be behind, but that has always been my motivation, my source of inspiration and source of my confidence, starting behind and (hopefully) ending up close to the finish line.

  2. Hi Brain, thanks for sharing your story. I feel really touched from your experience. People love “good-graded” students and they always use them as example for so-called “bad-graded” students. However, I never believe that getting poor grades is a reasonable argument for making terrible judgement of that student. No doubt that grades are standard tools of performance evaluation for students. But there are so many other talented performance that can not be evaluated simply through tests or exams. I’m glad that you met the professor who trusts and values you a lot. I really hope that more and more students can have such “lucky” opportunity to meet the right mentor who can trust and inspire their desire of learning.

  3. I love your honesty in this piece. I can not tell you how many times I’ve had to defend some of my friends who didn’t graduate from high school or who dropped out of college because they weren’t “good students” even though their SAT scores rivaled mine. Our society places so much pressure on getting good grades that teaching tactics have become structured more towards testing and less towards learning. We seem to be looking more for answers and incorporating less critical thinking. I like that you ask your students at the beginning of class “who’s confused?” It’s a great way to get the conversation started and also a good way of encouraging your students to ask critical questions.

  4. I love your narrative! Thank you for being vulnerable enough to share. Although my parents never went to college either, I grew up expected to go to college by all means. I felt obliged to do something ‘scientific’ and studious, rather than learn what I could from the school system and allow myself to fall in love with a subject. I can therefore identify with how lost you felt in those times. I am happy that you found yourself again and you are loving what you do now. I bet your parents are awfully proud, so is SUNY, projecting you as an alumnus and all.

  5. Thanks for being so open and honest in your post, I really enjoyed reading through it. It’s crazy how grades so often define someone’s future. I knew plenty of folks got terrible grades in high school so didn’t go to college, but were really incredibly intelligent people. They just thought in a different way and didn’t feel the need to memorize information for tests or write research papers that weren’t interesting to them.
    I’m glad things worked out for you, and that you are satisfied with where you are right now. It’s funny because whenever I mention to someone that I am working towards my PhD, I’ll often hear, “So you must be really smart?” Meanwhile, similar to you, it took me a very long time to realize my path in life, and my admittance into this PhD program had little to do with my (mediocre) grades. I imagine that’s the case for many others.

  6. Great post, very compelling read. I don’t have much in the way of academic commentary on this because it’s your personal story, but the paragraph where you wrote “I was fighting against the tide” really resonated with me because it’s such a good example of just how crazy messed up our higher education system is. My brother struggled early in college and went through some similar struggles (albeit less complicated than yours, it seems) but came out in the end a college graduate.

    Glad you both made it.

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