When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.

Persistence Pays Off

This article caught my attention because I came across it on the same morning I submitted to a journal a paper that I co-authored with a colleague . Nothing particularly unique about that for an academic librarian. What might be of interest is that I first had the idea for this article in 2005 and started working on it with my colleague in 2006. You might be asking how it could possibly take over three years to complete an article about anything, and I tend to be asking myself that same question. It’s not that my colleague and I were procrastinating all these years. It’s just that other projects came up here and there (like a book), and between working and blogging and other stuff, it just ended up taking a while longer than we expected. Of course, with any scholarly article where it involves data collection and analysis, you might be talking two years as a matter of course.

The point is that authoring takes grit – especially scholarly research. Finding good ideas worth writing about is a challenge, but just getting from the idea stage to the “is this feasible and how will it get done” stage takes time. And there will no doubt be roadblocks along the way, such as finding out your IRB requires you to sit through six hours of training modules even though you’ll never conduct medical research. Sure, it would be easy to just give up, but as the article points out:

grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

So even though it took a considerable length of time to complete and submit the article, it was a matter of having that single long-term goal. We were committed to getting that manuscript submitted in 2009. Finally we did it. I’ve always been a believer that persistence pays off, especially in higher education. That comes primarily from time spent studying Cohen, March and Olsen’s Garbage Can Theory of Decision Making in my higher education program. That theory (it’s been awhile but I think I can still explain it) likens decision making in higher education to a garbage can into which all sorts of possible solutions are dumped. With many academic offices competing for allocations, the solutions stay in the can until they are attached to a specific problem. Where this connects to grit is that the experts advocated being persistent and that over time your solution would attach itself to some new problem. All one needed to do is wait things out, and keep promoting a particular solution.

Research using the Garbage Can Theory as a theoretical framework has shown that in higher education institutions it can in fact predict how the decision-making process will often play out – even in the academic library. So if you have an idea for a new program or service that your administrator or colleagues rejected – don’t give up. If you want it you’ll need grit. Be persistent. I don’t mean you should become a broken record constantly promoting your ideas. Rather, let them brew for a while slightly below the decision-making surface of the organization. Then look for opportunities when you think there might be more interest in or openness to your ideas – perhaps six months or a year later. Then the solutions in the garbage can may be a better fit with the current problems in your library. Whether its a research project or a library project, persistence usually will pay off.

See, I’ve been waiting through five years of blogging for ACRLog to find a way to mention the Garbage Can Theory of Decision Making – and I finally did it. After you’ve read one article roughly 37 times, you feel compelled to work it into a blog post. Talk about grit!