Friday, December 10, 2010

"But I Worked So Hard!"

At the end of each semester, students start appearing in professors' offices clamoring for higher grades. One of their favorite arguments is "But I worked so hard! I should get a better grade!" Let's leave aside the fact that the professor has no way of knowing whether such hard work really took place and that, in my experience, students who make this statement are the ones who never show a speck of interest in the course during the semester. What I wanted to discuss today is the pernicious idea that effort should be rewarded irrespective of whether said effort produced any results.

Our goal as educators is to prepare the students for grown-up realities. We are to assist them in their passage into adulthood. The students are hoping that their education will allow them to find good jobs and be successful in the workplace. However, in a real workplace nobody cares about effort unless that effort produces what's expected. If you go to a restaurant and get served a horrible, burnt, nasty-smelling meal, how much will you care that the incompetent chefs worked their asses off to prepare it for you? More importantly, how likely will you be to pay for the fruits of this hard labor? If you buy a car whose brake system is faulty, will you care that the engineers who designed this car slaved over it day and night? If my students show up at the lab today for their final exam and discover that the CDs containing the exam do not work, how much will they care that I worked super hard to create these faulty CDs? I wrote an article that has been rejected by two different journals because, in spite of the work I invested into it, it's still not good enough. Do you think I can write on my retention review: "My article was rejected but I worked hard!"?

The problem with the "reward me for working hard" philosophy is that it presupposes a lack of controls. For many students, working hard means opening the book, staring at it for a while, scratching their heads in befuddlement, and closing the book. However, even if we all could agree on the definition of "hard work", unless this work produces actual results, we cannot expect the world to care. People keep beating the dead horses of their romantic relationships because Dr. Phil told them on television that if you "work" on it hard enough, a dead relationship can be resuscitated. They keep pursuing careers to which they are completely unsuited because they believe that if they kill themselves to achieve something, it will eventually happen. As a result, they turn into a modern day Sisyphus whose hard work never ends and never brings any rewards. Sadly, people often find it easier to beat their heads against a wall than ask themselves whether this is really the right person, the right job, the right Major for them. Maybe all this hard work leads nowhere simply because the goal that they chose was wrong from the start.

I'm all for effort, hard work and achievement. However, life is not supposed to be about pain and suffering. It is not supposed to be about endless exertion that is neither rewarded nor rewarding. Life should be about enjoyment, happiness and fun. If what you are trying to achieve - be it a relationship, a career, a degree, a certain financial status, or anything else - requires constant struggle and brings no rewards, maybe it's time to revise your goals. Hard work is great, but unless you are having a blast while doing it, there is something seriously wrong with the whole thing.


eric said...

You've got to remember, though, that here in America "hard work" is seen as an end in itself, to the exclusion of intellect, talent, moxy, or passion. It's the Puritan legacy. This is exactly why the Right is able to marshal populist resentment of "hard working" Americans against perceived liberal "elites," to the detriment of selfsame "hard working" Americans.

Clarissa said...

Thank you for saying this, eric, because as somebody from a different culture I find this concept very hard to grasp. So I need constant reminders that this is a cultural reality I need to learn to deal with.

Snarky Writer said...

I think society has hit an interesting intersection between Internal Locus of Esteem and External Locus of Control (you can't tell I'm married to a psychologist, nuh-uh). Pop psychologists and school counselors decided about 20 years ago that self-esteem was really really really important, and went about making sure everyone had it, whether they had problems with it or not. So we have students who believe that they're special merely because they're alive, so if they fail, CLEARLY it isn't their fault. So something outside their control must be stopping them. They think all they can control is how hard they work (not the quality of the product, though that makes no sense to me), and any problems with it must be YOURS, not THEIRS.

sarcozona said...

The attitude of 'all I have to do is work hard to succeed' is bad for both students and professors at a university. I learned quickly that hard work is important but not everything you need to be successful; I love playing the piano, but I'll never be great at it. But many students waste years at university trying to become engineers or artists because they truly believe (and have been taught) that all they need to do is work hard to succeed.

I think this attitude is responsible for some of the animosity towards things like unemployment insurance and food stamps - the rather large impacts of luck, intelligence, and environment are completely discounted.

Pagan Topologist said...

I am sometimes tempted to give such a student a copy of Bertrand Russell's essay "In Praise of Idleness" to point out that hard work is not the key to quite everything.

Rimi said...

As another cultural outsider I must admit I found the concept of self-esteem as befuddling as hard work in its American avatar. The first speedbreaker was a fellow grad student exclaiming about my red pen. "My god, Rimi", she said, "you're so aggressive!"

Seeing my complete befuddlement, she explained why marking essays with a red pen is aggressive: seeing too many comments or marks in a vivid colour like red will likely damage student morale. I should use neutral colours like blue, or soothing ones like green. I thought this arrant nonsense, but precisely because I was in a new culture, I kept my eyes peeled. And sure enough, red pens were markedly absent from the stationary of my fellow TAs *and* faculty.

And then I encountered grade inflation.

Seriously, how fragile have we made our children if eighteen to twenty-two year olds cannot handle looking at red ink they accumulated because of their own lack of *productive* hard work? And why are we entertaining this ridiculous idea instead of instilling sterner stuff in said young people? And how much longer till blue becomes the new red, then green, then orange, till we've exhausted all the colours of the rainbow?

It's like we're taking most of their motor functions away before pushing them into a violently competitive world. We, and I mean the educators' collective kindergarten upwards, should be ashamed of ourselves.

Clarissa said...

I agree with most of the comments here, but I'm a little puzzled at the connection that is being made between this kind of attitude and self-esteem issues. Low self-esteem is, in my opinion, the most wide-spread psychological problem. It's a very serious issue that leahs to eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. Raising people's low self-esteem is a great and noble cause, which, however, has nothing whatsoever to do with what I was trying to discuss here.

Clarissa said...

Rimi: Your food blog is out-of-this-world fantastic.

Thanks for coming by!

Anonymous said...

I think that the attitude you are talking about and the general expectation that effort should be rewarded is not going away anywhere fast. As a now active reader of parenting magazines and articles, I noticed the overwhelming trend of telling parents to congratulate their kids (as young as babies) not on something they accomplish but on their effort to do so. I do understand the idea of explaining to a child that the process is often as important as the result (especially to simply enjoy what you are doing, as you suggest). However, I think that when people grow up used to applause and congratulations with every bit of effort they exert, they find it very hard not to have the same feedback later on in life. Maybe clapping really hard and yelling 'bravo' would help? :)))


Rimi said...

Thanks, Clarissa :-) I'm afraid I terribly ignore my other blog, what with work and everything. I should get back to it sometime. I love the snippet-style of posting here, maybe I'll try that as a revival technique!

About self-esteem -- I'm from India and frankly, I'd never HEARD of self-esteem issues growing up. One reason, probably, is that we grew up without the internet and cable television, and we had no popular (and often unreal) yardstick to measure us against and find ourselves wanting. And given the extreme proximity of extended families and far more neighbourly interaction than I've observed in the US, all of us grew up with plenty of people to express love and appreciation for us. Of course, the same people clipped us in the ear if we were rude, or struggling with maths, or transgressed otherwise, but again, unlike modern times, that wasn't remotely shocking socially or soul-desroying personally. It was a different milieu that instilled different responsibilities and expectations of adults and children alike.

Therefore seeing the US situation through completely fresh eyes, I'm compelled to say that self-esteem as practised in the US goes far beyond the definition you grew up with. During our TA orientations, we were told explicitly that giving bad grades or writing "too critical" comments were damaging to a student's self-esteem. We must all strive to reward our students' 'hard work' as much as we could, and be gentle in our corrections. In fact, my adviser never corrects, she sandwiches a 'suggestion' between two (usually undeserved) compliments.

This spin on self-esteem -- treating young adults and adults as if they were made of glass -- I find utterly ridiculous. That, and the mantra that every US-reared person is apparently taught: Everybody is special. Sure, everybody is, to people who are in turn special to them. But not everyone is Einstein, and even Einstein worked hard and failed often enough. I'm sure parents can coo over the crooked sandcastle their child made or slightly burnt brownies they baked without actively convincing said child that the sandcastle or brownies were perfect, simply because *they* made it. In fact, I *know* they can because my parents and every other parent of my childhood did.

In conclusion of this rambling essay, then: I think that in the name of boosting self-esteem, the US model institutionalises coddling young people, such that they grow up to be entitled adults with very fragile egos, and therefore unable ti successfully negotiate the jungle that's outside college campuses. In other words, this 'self-esteem' business in schools and colleges doesn't build self-esteem at all, but certainly manages to damage it to a considerable extent. i wish we could revert to older understandings of self-esteem, but I'm afraid that's not going to happen anytime soon.

Clarissa said...

I'm always very happy to have people from India on the blog. I'm very interested in India and it's always great to have the perspective of such readers. I'd like to avoid the typical American insularity at all costs.