Friday, December 14, 2007

A whole different kind of cheating

There's a Simpsons episode that begins with the family celebrating an A Bart received on a test. When asked how he accomplished this, he recounts how he found himself reading over a chart of the universe repeatedly in an attempt to block out the sounds of Skinner and Krabappel's make-out session. He concludes: "So when I took the test, the answers were stuck in my brain. It was like a whole different kind of cheating!"

I have what I sometimes call a "sticky memory," which is to say that I remember a lot. Without much effort. Sure, it's not quite what it used to be, a result of continuing sleep deprivation and a mother's preoccupations, but information still has a tendency to get locked into my memory without too much effort.

As a student, this ability--to take everything in and store up lots of details I had not made a specific effort to remember--served me well. But when I started to realize that remembering facts did not come easily to everyone, to most people in fact, I began to feel a little guilty. Like I was cheating. Somehow, it was an unfair advantage (and I was very big on "fair") that learning required so little effort on my part.

Not that I was lazy. I truly loved learning for the sake of learning. Even if a teacher didn't offer me extra enrichment (and they often did, in the form of more difficult spelling lists and math challenges), I was always reading, a mix of fantasy and non-fiction. Still, I couldn't help but feel that it was cheating that I could breeze through anything placed in front of me.

Something that probably confirmed and increased this feeling was the realization that other people didn't really want to know that I could usually score 100% without any discomfort. Coupled with that was the "dirty little secret" that I enjoyed expending the effort that I did to learn. (Which, of course, is no small part of why I could learn so easily. It's not that I put forth no effort, but rather that it was not an effort I found disagreeable.) And so I began to keep quiet about how I was doing, sharing my grades with no one, feeling almost embarrassed by my successes.

This has been so ingrained in me that I find myself nearly flinching to write this next statement: I have almost never been academically challenged. Not in a "how will I ever cover so much material in so short a time?" or a "here's a new concept I need to practice with so I can understand it more fully" way, but in a truly brain-stretching, "not sure I'll ever figure this out" way. Not even now, in a doctoral program, in a field that is considered by some to be particularly difficult.

Why this now?

I took my last class-related exam today. My calculations told me that I would be fairly safe if I scored a low B- on it. And so, given everything else I'm dealing with right now, I decided that I would not knock myself out in studying. I was gambling on the likelihood that I'd be able to recall enough details from my presence in class to fill out essays to the proper length. I did do some review for the translation portion, but again decided to leave a large portion of it to chance and my ability to puzzle through even a difficult passage without any aids.

The upside is that I'm pretty sure I won that bet. In fact, I suspect that the lowest grade I'll receive is a strong B+, thus giving me a little more wiggle room in the quality of the paper I'll be turning in soon (last class-related paper). But I thought I'd feel a greater sense of accomplishment or closure, something other than the slight tug of guilt and... blah.

I know that this feeling is mostly irrational and that this isn't grade school anymore. In fact, one of my friends said to me before the exam, when I confessed to her that I had not studied appropriately, "But you'll remember what you need to." And she said it as a positive, not the dirty little secret that I've treated it as.

Maybe in a couple weeks, once the paper is finished and our stuff packed and everything else satisfactorily concluded, I'll be able to turn this around and find some small happiness that I didn't have to drive myself crazy with days on end of studying. I can already accept it intellectually, but maybe I can finally start to convince my conscience that a good memory is not a form of cheating.


Lisa b said...

Whoa. I really doubt you would consider a student like yourself a bad student so I really don't get why you feel so guilty. You are very hard on yourself.
I have also realised that a good memory makes the playing field uneven but such is life. I am grateful to have benefitted from one in my pre-baby life when my mind was sharp.
Maybe it is just a matter of perception but grad school was a great disappointment to me in that 'not sure I'll ever figure this out' way too, I thought it should have been harder, but I feel disappointed in the experience, not in myself.
Yes you get out what you put in, but you have put in a lot overall.
The banker is always telling me he thinks he has imposter syndrome. Maybe you two overachievers should talk.
The rest of us will be over here using what smarts we have to allow us to slack off as much as possible.

bubandpie said...

The hardest thing I ever did was Grade 3 Harmony, the theory component of my Grade 9 piano exam. There was much throwing of the book about the room, in fact, as I became frustrated many times over the course of the year. Now, to be fair, a good part of that had to do with the text, which contained exercises that hadn't been properly proofread and didn't always work - but still. It was hard. The only thing in my Ph.D. program to compare to it was a course called "The Persistence of Phenomenology in Contemporary Theory." That was hard too. I struggled along with it until it was time to write the essay, then decided I couldn't do it and switched to Canadian Lit.

Mouse said...

I've got impostor syndrome too, which I was assured not too long ago is common to graduate students. Still doesn't make me feel like I'm not one. And yes, I'm very hard on myself, always have been--ironically, I can be way too forgiving of others' shortcomings.

And I actually remembered that I did switch wholly to the Humanities after deserting math. I was at the theoretical/abstract level and asked the professor something like, "What in this problem should have indicated to me that I needed to switch to polar coordinates in the middle before switching back to Cartesian?" Her response was that there was nothing inherent in the problem, that I would just need to memorize that step for that particular issue. I gave up at that point since it seemed pointless to go back to memorization when I wanted it to make complete sense. Not sure if that was a failure of the professor to understand what I was getting at--maybe that's one thing that counts as just that much out of my reach.

metro mama said...

A good memory is just another one of your talents. Enjoy it.

I have a terrible memory--I have to read everything twice if I'm writing on it, or being tested. But my greatest strength is time management. So unfortunately, I can have everthing read two weeks in advance, but then I forget half of it by the time we talk about it.

I'm finding my papers are getting easier to write though. Sometimes when I finish one I feel odd, like I didn't work hard enough. And then when I get a good mark I wonder if my prof is marking easy.

I think every grad student feels like an imposter.

hannah said...

You have described the way I felt so many times perfectly. I always felt that I wasn't necessarily smarter than the average student, just that I was better than most at taking tests. Somehow that knowledge is always there when I need it.

Your post makes me wonder why it is that we feel so guilty for being smart? Instead of getting the most out of our gifts, we tend to hunch our backs and mumble about it. I wonder how much the guilt complex is holding us back?

Aliki2006 said...

Much of graduate school wasn't particularly challenging to me, either--I think more so because I was so interested in the material. But I do think that studying for my comprehensive exams was by far one of the most challenging things I've ever done academically.

I agree with what others have said--why feel guilty? And I agree-imposter syndrome and graduate school do seem to go hand-in-hand.

nomotherearth said...

If you're good at something it's not cheating, eventhough it may feel like it. I'm sure there is something elsein your life that IS hard for you to do - so it all evens out.

Mouse said...

Nomo-I think that in my case, the things that are hard for me tend to be things that I don't give high priority: a lot of stuff on the social side.

I think part of why the guilt/impostor thing persists for me is that I'm now among a bunch of people who are interested in the same sorts of things, and most of them are putting a whole lot more work into it than I am--and I'm still ranked pretty high and seem to have been picked out for special consideration.

kittenpie said...

As NoMo says, everyone has their strengths. That yours is advantageous in an academic setting makes it, to me, a good match and/or deciding factor in your decision to go into advanced degrees. Simple as that. Were you better with your hands or things technical, you might have gone another way, perhaps. The same way my curiosity and love of a puzzle makes me a pretty good searcher.