We are all smart enough

While I was cleaning my room recently, I came across a piece of paper from three years ago that has shaped my academic trajectory at Stanford. I’m not even sure why I kept it in my stack of random keepsakes, but I’m glad I did.

It was 11:50 a.m. and the students of Chem 31A were lined up with their respective TAs, waiting to get our first midterms back. When I reached the front of the line, I said my name. My TA reached to the bottom of the pile with a sad look in his eye and handed me a single sheet of paper. It wasn’t the midterm. It was a letter that said something along the lines of: “Dear student, you have clearly had difficulty with this midterm and you must meet with the professor before getting your test back.”

I felt a knot growing in my stomach. It was just a few weeks into my freshman year and this was the first time I’d ever received any notice of this sort. I wasn’t used to failing tests and certainly wasn’t used to getting such a low score on a test that I was required to receive it in a protected setting.

That afternoon, I waited in line to get my test back. There were about 50 students waiting in line, and we glanced around at each other nervously as we waited to see the extent of our misfortune. My turn to meet with the professor came, and I entered his office.

“Well, Emily,” he said, “It looks like you struggled a bit on this exam. What happened?” I explained that I had, in fact, studied quite a lot for that test, attended all of the lectures, done all of the reading and spent my fair share of time in office hours. Chemistry didn’t come naturally to me, I explained, but I wanted to work at it.

“If you’ve been working hard and you’re still only able to get this score, you might just not be cut out for this class.”

“Is there anything I can do to improve? To learn the material better?”

“I just don’t know if you’re smart enough if you’re already trying hard,” he said.

Looking back at the letter that preceded this retrospectively comical exchange with a professor I would never see again, I am disgusted. I am smart enough to pass any class at Stanford.

As a freshman on that gray October afternoon, I sadly let myself be swayed by the words of a professor so caught up in the specifics of his own field that he couldn’t see past an exam and consider me as a whole person – nor see that my intelligence isn’t simply defined by my ability to reason through chemistry problems under pressure. I let him shatter my confidence with a few flippant words that were probably spoken to many others who waited in line that day.

Because I ended up dropping chemistry that quarter, I took Psych 1 and fell in love with the field in which I now aspire to have a career. I am thankful that that professor helped redirect my career path.

I am not thankful, however, for his extreme lack of consideration of the weight that those words have had on my academic career. Simply getting into Stanford is proof of our academic abilities and smarts, and we should never be told that we’re not good enough, but rather what we can do to improve. I shy away from the fuzzy/techie description for this very reason – we may apply ourselves differently once coming to college and naturally branch off as we become interested in different fields and issues, but we are not branching off into a hierarchy of intelligence.

If we are trying hard, taking advantage of the resources available to us and still failing in some course, it’s simply a sign that the course isn’t being taught well. Chem 31A, which is a gateway to the premed track and many careers, should be extremely accessible to students so that students’ potential career paths aren’t shut down by professors’ extreme lack of care. Maybe I should have responded, If I’m trying as hard as I can and not doing well in this class, you may not be cut out for teaching it.

I’m taking a break from mental health topics this week and will be back with more at the beginning of next quarter! Any topics you’d like to see discussed? E-mail me at ecohodes@stanford.edu.

About Emily Cohodes

Emily Cohodes is a senior majoring in Psychology. She has been a peer counselor at the Bridge for the past three years and now serves as the course coordinator for the training courses. A lover of all animals, Emily has been a vegetarian since age 3 and is very interested in food production and sustainable food systems. In her free time, she can be found riding horses, cooking meatless delicacies, reminiscing about her time abroad in Italy, and hiking. She is always looking for ways to improve campus mental health culture and would love your feedback.
  • 2 Chainz

    get laid, get paid

  • Agreed

    “If I’m trying as hard as I can and not doing well in this class, you may not be cut out for teaching it.”

    This. Stanford professors receive the cream of the crop, and often poor student performance is indicative of the quality of teaching. One of my professors this quarter is a terrible lecturer. When he asks the class questions, few people (if anyone) know what is going on, and no one raises his hand. The professor then will deride us for not being bright enough. Okay.

    I hate to blame teachers, but Stanford professors (especially, I’ve found, in STEM fields) are often asking for it.

  • Emma

    I mostly agree with this, and think it’s both well-written and brave. I don’t think it’s true, however, that getting into Stanford means we’re smart enough to do anything we want to do or pass any class. Over four years as a physics major, I concluded that I wasn’t smart enough to make fundamental advances in theoretical physics, for example, and I’m sure there are graduate physics classes I couldn’t pass.

    I think the truer point is not that we’re smart enough to do anything, but that we’re smart enough to do something–I may not be good enough at math to do string theory, but I’m good enough at math to analyze ten thousand other things that need analyzing. The limiting factor in how much good you do for the world is unlikely, if you’re a Stanford student, to be your intelligence; if your original field just isn’t something you’re that good at, go do something else.

  • Premed

    I hope you send this article along to the Chemistry department. I too felt the same way about the many of my freshman year premed classes, and thought the brutal, uncaring nature of many chem teachers weeds out those premeds who are among the best suited to become future healthcare providers. Of the select few who are left standing after four years, many are cutthroat, self-interested premeds who seem to have little interest in actually caring for individuals. Looking back on my first two years at Stanford, I barely remember ever actually enjoying a class (with the exception of DuBois and Schwartz–who were truly terrific teachers–but were the exception and not the norm).

  • Dan T

    I am a “pre-med” student majoring in Bioengineering. I agree with your article and claim that no student should be told they cannot achieve something, especially after a simple bad test score. However you conclude that after you spent so much time studying, your bad grade must be a reflection of bad teaching/instruction by a professor This is insane and an extremely childish comment. No, it is not. It MAY simply be a sign that you did not understand the course material. Believe me…there are people who have an easier time understanding science. Maybe it’s because they have been using numbers and have been tailored in the sciences for the firs XX years of their life. We all have a our strengths and weaknesses. Chemistry may not been your cup of tea. This comment probably sounds like a rhetorical mess. English is my area of weakness, It is NOT any professors fault. Unless he/she is truly a POS- which would not be consistant with the consideration he made sure to go out of his way to discuss a grade with a single student. Please consider your statement.

  • Growth Mindset

    I think this idea of being “smart enough” is a common misconception that this professor had. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford’s psych department did research in 2007 about how intelligence doesn’t have a “limit” — in other words, there’s no such thing as someone who reaches the end of their fixed amount of “smartness.” Read more here: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/february7/dweck-020707.html

  • Adam Johnson

    First, Emily say “may” be a reflection of bad teaching, not “must.”

    Second, I think many in the education school have a core belief that all students can learn. The teacher is not solely to blame for poor outcomes, but the teacher’s design and delivery of the course content can make the difference between a failing and a passing student.

    CHEM31A receives much poorer reviews than, say, CS106A. I’m sure 106A is no walk in the park- rather, it is a great example of strong content delivery with meaningful assignments and an excellent support system. More introductory STEM classes should aspire to that.

  • Pissed

    The idea that “simply getting into Stanford is proof of our academic abilities and smarts” is absolutely ludicrous. Cohodes argues that her being admitted to Stanford is proof that she is smart enough to pass any class offered. This is both delusion of the highest order as well as a gross misunderstanding of the purpose of our department of admissions. Stanford seeks to create a class composed of compelling and passionate individuals. It does not presuppose that every single student that is accepted will be able to pass every single class offered. It would be absurd to try and create an incoming class that fit this criteria. In the process Stanford would lose out on many of its great poets and its great physicists. The fact that Ms. Cohodes attended every lecture and studied the materially extensively (including a textbook that was presumably not authored by the professors) and was still unable to pass an exam that has been passed by thousands of other students reflects far more on her than it does on the course. Stanford gives us an opportunity to pursue subjects for which we have a passion and at which we are competent, it does not guarantee that we will be able to do whatever we want. The idea that simply being a “Stanford student” entitles one to the full range of career options, despite one’s own intellectual limitations, is an incredibly entitled attitude. Being accepted at Stanford proves that you were a good student in High School, it does not prove that you would make a good doctor, or, alternatively, a good poet or filmmaker. The “nerd nation” t shirt in your top drawer proves neither qualification nor competence. We must continue to prove ourselves, not just before that Jan1 application deadline, but with each new step forward. That’s how a meritocracy works.

  • Wow

    This article should be forwarded to the Admissions Department for their performance reviews. They could learn from their mistake.

  • Dan T

    “[If]… it’s simply a sign that the course isn’t being taught well” Sounds like a if/then statement with no maybe. I totally agree that some classes are taught poorly but the strength/weakness argument should be considered.

  • Me Too!

    You’re in Chem 181?

  • Agreed

    Haha no, a thermoscience ME class. ugh :(