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The Lopsided Bias of Unconditional Belief

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Why to look beyond initial impressions

By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over my years of teaching is not to judge a student based on an initial impression. Early in my career, when I received a paper riddled with sentence fragments, diction errors, and faulty logic, I would write the student off. How could I teach Shakespeare or Milton, Emerson or Austen to someone who couldn’t write a correct sentence?

But I soon put aside these sorts of judgments.

Believing in students, even when the evidence suggests you shouldn’t, is an integral part of teaching that must be cultivated through the exercise of will, imagination, and faith.

Adam Cox, a psychologist who works with adolescents and young adults, addresses this subject in his book, On Purpose Before Twenty, which I discussed in an earlier column. Cox writes:

Deciding to believe in someone is not a publicity campaign employed to disguise grave doubt. It is more fundamentally a decision to suspend preconceptions about how well a person can do, and what form that person’s accomplishments might assume. Cultivating an atmosphere of seriousness is the difference between merely expressing confidence in someone, and allowing oneself to believe that exceptional achievement is actually possible. It relies upon the lopsided bias of unconditional belief—a determination to look past obstacles toward what might be possible.

The lopsided bias of unconditional belief—a terrific phrase. Often, although I believe in a student’s potential, the end result is not what I’d hoped. You would be dismayed to read the final papers of some of my students. But does this mean they gained nothing from my class? How do we measure the value of unconditional belief? I would argue that these students have become alert to their potential and open to the possibility of eventually getting to a better place. But you can’t necessarily see it in their writing—or, indeed, in any other way.

When quantitative assessments say that certain approaches (smaller classes, more one-on-one interaction) make no difference in student outcomes, I can only say that we need a different means of assessment—a more nuanced measure and a longer tracking period. I recently had a student contact me who had performed poorly in my class 10 years ago but whose potential I had believed in. He is now writing copy for a Philadelphia ad agency. His email was pithy and correct. He had realized his potential, though it had taken a decade to do so. For some students it may take longer, maybe even a lifetime. Some may never realize it, but since we cannot know who will and who won’t, even years after they’ve left the classroom, every student deserves our lopsided support.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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