I recently had a conversation with a student who suffers from an anxiety disorder. He becomes agitated and upset, he told me, when he answers questions that aren’t as well-articulated or on-target as he would like. He over-thinks the questions and, as a result, is dissatisfied with his responses. He finds himself obsessively comparing his answers with those of other students in the class, and concluding that he has fallen short.
The conversation brought back my own experience in graduate school years ago. At the university I attended, taking a seminar was a blood sport, albeit one with a highly civilized veneer. Everyone was superficially congenial, while struggling to stand out, to gain the approval (a nod, a follow-up statement, a word of praise) from the professor. By virtue of this verbal competition, it soon became clear who the “smart” students were and who were the “duds.”
Later, I realized that these distinctions were bogus. There were students who were less articulate and less quick at seminar discourse. But they were not necessarily less smart—indeed, in some cases, their thinking was more original. One of the “duds” in my graduate seminar went on to become a successful novelist, while another, who was glib in the classroom, never finished his dissertation and dropped out of sight.
I tried to explain this lesson to my anxious, perfectionist student: being smart on demand should not concern him so much. Being highly articulate has its advantages, but these can become detriments by keeping the speaker from wrestling with ideas that are hard to express in a classroom setting. There is pleasure to be had in expressing one’s ideas in a group, but once the joy of engagement becomes a competition, it’s time to opt out of the game.
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