This week, as I’m helping my students get their first major projects written, and dealing — I am long expert in this — dealing with their anxiousness to please, their dutifulness, their fears of putting a foot wrong, their very strong desire to know exactly what needs to be done to gain both informal and formal approval, I am suddenly thankful that I grew up in a family with absolutely no academic expectations, a family who treated my interest in going to college as a nearly incomprehensible eccentricity. Almost everything I’ve done in my intellectual life that I now value I did because I was unconcerned about the approval of any officially designated authorities.

Text Patterns

October 12, 2010


  1. "Almost everything I've done in my intellectual life that I now value I did because I was unconcerned about the approval of any officially designated authorities."

    One can still have these experiences in a family with high academic expectations–at least if one is homeschooled. The imposition of formal systems does seem to complicate matters.

  2. Great word here, Alan. Now that I'm on the other side of things, I'm struck at how few detailed expectations I have of my students. I expect them to get stuff done (and on time), to work hard, to grow, to be kind and sincere and humble; and I hope for them to become deeply faithful Christians. They seem to be wondering, obsessively, just what format their notes are supposed to be in, how exactly I'm wanting them to word things, whether I like them. I do, of course. I like them. Funny the plates they're spinning. Funny, too, though, the plates I find myself spinning when it turns to the work I do for others.

    By the way, Anonymous makes a good point. But it seems to me that the less officially designated authorities (including parents) can certainly mess with a student's mojo. Plenty of students are more than a little concerned to please here, too (in bad ways as well as good).

    Anyway, grateful as ever for just about everything I read that you write.

  3. That's a good point, Alan I have to say, though, that personally I think I greatly benefited from getting a rather poor grade on the first paper I ever wrote for you, and adjusting my approach to better suit your expectations. The second paper I wrote for your class is the piece I'm still most proud of out of anything I ever produced during my undergrad.

  4. Thanks for the replies, folks. Ethan, I think the difference is that your response was "How can I do better work?" while the response of many of my students is "How can I please the professor?" Radically different attitudes with radically different consequences. They ain't all like you and Matt — but they're great, really. I talked to both classes yesterday about these matters and I could tell that they were really listening, really thinking about it. By and large, Wheaton students are simply a joy to teach, and I hope I didn't come across as complaining. I was just reflecting on how different my own upbringing was.

    And Anon., what you say is exactly right for some homeschoolers —they can be very free learners — but the opposite is true for many others. They can be more inclined see the teacher in loco parentis and take a low grade as a personal rejection.

  5. Well, I *was* a homeschooler, so maybe that had something to do with it.

    I guess it helped that I knew deep down that my first paper was lousy, and the grade merely confirmed it.

    That being said, I must confess that I usually had a too-high opinion of things I wrote, and hated being taken down a notch by grading or critique. Maybe that's the exact opposite flaw from being obsessed with pleasing professors; I was obsessed with them pleasing me by recognizing how great I was. 🙂

  6. As a college lecturer, I get very tired of the endless perfection – the students who want sample examples and sample projects with sample answers, etc., who believe that there is some secret to an A other than working hard and getting a higher score on the exam than 75% of the class. But I'm not sure it has anything to do with the academic achievement of one's family. I find that women are more uptight about this than men, but I have nothing more than anecdote to show for it.

  7. The same point could be made about the compulsion to please in the beauty arena. Probably in many more. Same kinds of shackles. And btw your post is very succinct.

  8. I put this in the broader category of
    (lack of) respect for authority. I often tell my young kids things that they KNOW are false and have managed to get them to routinely call me on it. Not sure how I'm going to deal with it when they get to be teenagers

  9. Interesting. I'm coming to this late. I respect your own personal history, Alan, but I really have to disagree. I grew up very much in my own world intellectually. I was the smart kid in the family and in my neighborhood and I was allowed to do my own thing intellectually. It's astonishingly hard to pierce that sort of mental hide. Only a series of intellectual and personal reverses over the course of several years made me rethink who I am and what I really know. What helped me break out of my "dogmatic slumber" was, to put it simply, other people. Only after getting to know other people, really coming to terms with their ideas, did I really awake intellectually.

Comments are closed.