Work Habits Don’t Change

Part Two of a series for the Writing Blog by Patrick, a former writing mentor

I want to use this post to talk about that time where it all collapsed for me, and why. This is for two reasons: it’s a good way to introduce the habits I’m going to be writing about, and a good way to introduce the idea that there are no clear turning points in becoming a good student, or a bad one. This instance isn’t the F that I mentioned in the first post. That I got freshman year, and I’ll deal with it in a later post. For now, what’s relevant is that for a long time I saw that F as a turning point—it was a culmination of something that had started senior year of high school, and what came after it represented my real time at Wesleyan. “I may dick around some,” I thought, “but I am essentially a good student when I’m called on to be.”

The instance I want to talk about happened last spring in my penultimate undergraduate semester, in a class that I was interested in, that was even relevant to my major. I won’t say which class, because it seems indecorous to do so, but it dealt with a theoretical text and a few books relevant to the theories therein. Good Student me really liked the class—he dug the theory, dug the other readings, and felt like the lectures exposed him to a means of reading texts that he’d never been exposed to before. And because the course was so in line with his major, and because he’s a proud creature who knows a thing or two about literature and literary theory, he took the course graded. So I got a C.

There’s always going to be a gap between the student you know you have the potential to be and the student you are. Another way of putting that is: you can’t rely on your future self to be a good student based on a belief in your inherent intelligence, because all you’ll find down the line is your own lazy-ass self. In order for your academic abilities to rise to a challenge, you have to consciously change them, and keep them changed every day despite the laziness in you continuously clawing at your insides. It’s like quitting smoking—I would kill your mother for a cigarette, and I would do so again tomorrow and every subsequent day after that until you had no more mothers, if I didn’t consciously force myself not to. The reading was denser and longer than I had expected, but I knew that if I gave myself enough time, I was capable of understanding the material. So I continued expecting myself to do this right up until the end.

That gap is key, I think—it directly led to and perpetuated the next two factors I want to discuss: The reasons why I never asked for help in a class that, in retrospect, I was clearly struggling with, and the perils and pitfalls of doing a paper at the last minute. They will both be treated in their own posts, but I’ll relate them briefly here:

Since I always knew that if I put the work in I could understand the subject matter, I never considered talking to the professor or another designated advice-giver. No matter that I could rarely follow the lectures, never felt able to join the discussions, and felt entirely baffled as to how I could apply those things I didn’t learn in a final paper—why would I seek help when I could simply take care of it myself, at some future date?  So, again, things remain the same when they’re left unchanged.

Then the final paper comes. The relevant reading has been hastily caught up on, and poorly comprehended. Help has not been sought, and no personal good will from the professor can be expected. The essay has been looming, unattractive because of all of the above, and now it’s due tomorrow. But it’s happened before, plenty of times, and you’ve got plenty of success stories—hell, why do you think you’ve got so much confidence in your fundamental intelligence? And yes, sometimes it goes well, and that could be because of a lot of reasons—you’ve got a good grasp on the material, or you’ve written a million of these kinds of essays, or you’re just in that magical place where your thoughts line up automatically and come out eloquently. Based on my experience as a Writing Mentor, however, I submit you that despite how wonderfully you pulled it off at the last minute, you were still treated kindly by your professors. First drafts are just glaringly obvious. If your professor is straight of out a PhD program and used to a different type of studentry, or if your professor is just a continually horrified misanthrope, you will not be treated so kindly even under those best of circumstances. And there come those times when the muse doesn’t come, and you don’t really know what you’re talking about, and this happens:

 

So, I got a C. It’s not the most dire thing that’s ever happened to me, but it does kind of suck. It messed up my narrative, both in my mind and on my transcript, that I was fundamentally a good student. I know everything I’ve stated above is pretty obvious, and pretty obviously led to a reckoning, and in retrospect it’s pretty obvious to me too. But I didn’t recognize it as it was happening—my system was fully operational up until the end. Some of you are heading for a reckoning too, and it won’t be that big a deal, but it will probably suck for you too. So what I’m going to do is explain how these things look in retrospect, and what I’ve done to sometimes avoid my bad habits.  It might be relevant to some readers, and you other readers can rubberneck.

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