Frederick Douglass and the Perfect Selfie
A recent front-page story in the New York Times reported on a disturbing rash of suicides committed by seemingly put-together university students. One slant of the article focused upon the role of social media in exacerbating the pressure to lead a perfect, high-achieving academic lifestyle.
Penn University, for example, has had three suicides in the past 13 months, which lead it to conduct an internal review that found, among other things, the negative effects of something called the Penn Face: "An apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed."
The article also noted,
While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.I confess to having a mixed reaction to this article. On the one hand, depression and suicide should not be taken lightly. And I have often wondered about the way carefully curated images in social media promote invidious comparison. Even I get the feeling after browsing friends' Facebook pages that everyone is having a much more exciting and rewarding life than me.
That said, too many of my students exhibit the opposite of Penn Face. Rather than internalizing impossible-to-achieve success scripts, they have internalized a failure script. In my First-Year Seminar, for example, I use an in-class exercise to introduce students to the ideas of fixed versus variable intelligence. I announce a short intelligence test and give students three words to re-scramble into new English words in three minutes. Half receive the following:
The other half receive these words:
There is no anagram for slapstick, of course, which means half of the class is set up to fail. What's interesting, however, is that a majority of those with the impossible task simply give up on the third term (Cinerama = American). Their failure with 'slapstick' leads them to the conclusion that they cannot get the third term. After the test, I ask everyone to write on the back of their sheet why they think they succeeded or failed, but also whether this reason might relate to other times when they succeeded, failed or underperformed in school.
The results are striking. On average 40-50 percent of the students in my First-Year Seminar will ascribe their performance to the possession of or a lack of an innate ability. Indeed, many of those who failed at the impossible task will write "I'm just not smart" or "I cannot do well on tests like these." These rationales are often echoed by my advisees when we go over their progress in math or English. I will hear things like "I don't have a math brain" or "I have always sucked at writing. I guess it's not my thing."
In other words, approximately half of my students think of their intelligence as something that's unchangeable. They believe they've either got it or they don't. The disastrous effect of such a view can be seen in countless studies showing how subtle racist or sexist priming can skew testing results. I even show my first-year students a short video clip that shows how calling something a "sports intelligence test" rather than a "athletic ability test" can cause people to underperform on purely mechanical tasks. The results of research on this are clear: believing your intelligence is fixed almost guarantees failure or underperformance. It's a self-fulfilling mindset. Failure only leads to a reinforcement of the idea and the logic that follows is ineluctable: if I am constitutionally incapable of something, why should I even try?
If, on the other hand, I can get students to see failure as something that can be overcome with effort (a variable view of intelligence), they are far more likely to succeed. These students will say "I just needed more time on this task" or "I could have approached the test differently, studied a bit more, asked for help," etc. Students that think this way have a mindset that they can learn.
Unfortunately an alarming number of students (if my informal results are any indication) are walking around with a belief that in some areas they just can't do it. And this idea is stubbornly resistant to change. I spend most of First-Year Seminar trying to get them to recognize where they have grown and improved (the 'No-Anagram-for-Slapstick' experiment is an attempt to shock them into awareness of the effect of mindset on success). Indeed, the two semesters of First-Year Seminar require a lot of student self-reflection and self-assessment, especially at the end of the second term. You might think of all this reflection as a series of meta-cognitive selfies. I want students to see where their effort has connected with change.
Every autumn, too, we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Justifications for slavery throughout history have always been premised on a fixed view of intelligence. And slave-owning elites generally believe in Aristotle's idea of "natural slavery," a view that certain races or genders are simply incapable of rationally governing themselves, so the masters will have to do it for them.
In a passage that seldom fails to move students, Douglass realizes that reading and learning are the key to his master's power over him, so young Frederick commits himself to learning to read so he can acquire power over himself. In other words, he commits to changing his view of himself, and I want my students to make a similar commitment to their own potential.
An internalized success script and the social pressure to have it all can produce terrible consequences, but it's no less a tragedy when so many students internalize a belief in the inevitability of failure.